Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Black Snake Moan

I saw this movie because David Edelstein, a critic I find consistently readable and frequently reliable, wrote a great review of it. That review includes this paragraph:

“At the multiplex in my progressive little fairy-tale kingdom of Park Slopia, the trailer for Black Snake Moan—in which big black Samuel L. Jackson chains little white nympho Christina Ricci in her shorty-cutoffs to his radiator—drew dark murmurs and even a few boos. What the hell—had Tarantino remade Mandingo?”

Edelstein, incidentally, loved the movie—and so did I. But it’s got something at its center that’s just damn hard to get around. I repeat (gratuitously, for effect): he chains her up.

How do we deal with this?

1. Maybe we get inside it. The weird thing is, in the context of the movie—which doesn’t at all play like Tarantino remaking Mandingo—it almost makes sense for Jackson’s character to chain up Ricci’s. Here’s how:

The film is set somewhere in the South—Wikipedia says Tennessee, but I think I saw the name Macon on a storefront, which would place it in Mississippi (too small a town to be Macon, Georgia). Either would make sense: it’s Delta blues country, and Jackson plays a blues musician-turned-farmer named Lazarus. As the movie starts, his wife leaves him, and he gets drunk and into a fight at the local juke joint. In the morning he goes outside and finds Ricci’s character, half-naked and beaten half to death, in the road by his driveway. We know she was beaten up by an acquaintance, who then dumped her by the roadside; it just happened to be on this stretch of road.

Jackson performance in this movie is the best I’ve ever seen him give. Watch him as he discovers her. He’s immediately worried for her—her face is bleeding, she’s obviously been raped or almost, and she may even be dead—and his first impulse is to help her. But this is immediately countered by fear—he looks around to see if anybody has seen her, seen him standing over her helpless body. He doesn’t need to say anything for us to realize—Jackson’s performance tells us perfectly—what Lazarus knows all too well: as soon as she was dumped at the end of his driveway, it was all up for him. There’s no way the cops are going to believe he, a poor black man, didn’t do this to her. It doesn’t even matter if he just turns around and walks away without helping her—she’ll be found, and he’ll be blamed.

So he has to help her—and he has to do it in secrecy. Can’t call an ambulance, can’t call cops. He takes her inside, and nurses her until she regains consciousness. When she does, she’s still out of her mind on the previous night’s drugs, not to mention fever and shock. She tries to run away. This won’t do, either—a delirious half-naked beaten-up white girl running away from his house? He has to keep her under control until she’s aware of her surroundings and he can convince her he means her no harm.

Ergo the chain. Like I said, it makes sense. Almost. There’s still this residual luridness to the image of him chaining her up, even though he never touches her sexually. Like, the story justifies it, but the image itself overwhelms any explanation. It’s too much. This doesn't completely enable us to deal with it. So what do we do?

2. Maybe we get beneath it. We notice just how much of a blues movie this is. And not just any kind of blues—Mississippi Delta blues, deep blues. So we make sure we’re on the same page as it is, by familiarizing ourselves with Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins (okay, he’s a Texan), and R.L. Burnside. Why?

One of the Tanuki’s touchstones in modern film is O Brother Where Art Thou? Among the many brilliant things that movie did was to perfectly capture the South of the old blues and bluegrass songs. Not the South that produced those songs, but the South produced by those songs. If all you knew of the South was what you learned from the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, the Stanley Brothers, the Mississippi Sheiks, it would be exactly the South of O Brother. If you love the music of that period, you know what I mean, and you know just what a glorious thing that movie is. It knows how to listen to music.

Black Snake Moan (title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues) does the same thing for the Delta blues. It’s populated by blues characters. R.L., Lazarus’s preacher friend, is named after R.L. Burnside. Lazarus himself you recognize, if you’ve seen O Brother, as “Po’ Lazarus,” who the chain gang was singing about at the beginning of that film.

The chain gang. The Delta blues knows about bondage, about how we’re all in chains. Not just physical bondage, although that’s a big part of it, as this is music (obviously) made by people for whom slavery was a living, or at least a not-too-distant, memory. Spiritual bondage, too. Mississippi Delta blues, the deep stuff, knows about God, and it knows about sin. Son House was a preacher, as well as a convicted killer (self-defense), and a bluesman. Robert Johnson sang about hellhounds on his trail, Satan knocking on his door in the morning.

This is a music that says people are caught between God and the Devil, and that we’re not real good at staying faithful to either one of them. We’re in bondage to ourselves, as well as to them, and we can’t be free. That’s what this music knows, and that’s what this movie knows.

So when Lazarus chains Rae up, he’s only making visible her invisible, internal bondage—her helplessness before the abuse she experienced as a child, which now drives her to self-destructive behavior. Only by admitting that this childhood horror is influencing her adult behavior—that she’s not completely in control—does she manage to begin to take control of her life.

This is where the movie seems to take a pop-psychology turn, but I think it’s still quite rooted in this blues outlook. And I think it’s conscious of it. Director Craig Brewer’s previous film was Hustle & Flow, which I admit I didn’t see. There’s a minor character in this one that echoes the protagonist of that one, a young gangsta and pimp named Tyrone. Lazarus has one brief scene with him that, though very understated, crystallizes the difference in mindset between the older man and the youth, and the two musics they express themselves through. Unlike hip-hop, blues, at least the Mississippi Delta variety, isn’t much about freedom, triumph, swagger. A lot of it’s about defeat, or at least downtroddenness, and whatever triumph there is in it comes from acknowledging and/or resisting that.

(On the other hand, other varieties of the blues have some swagger, and some gangsta elements as well. Viz. Lazarus’s take on “Stagger Lee” in the juke joint late in the film: we’re supposed to see it as echoing modern gangsta rap murder tales, but what this really tells us is that Craig Brewer read Greil Marcus’s essay “The Myth of Stagger Lee.”)

So if we appreciate the blues underpinnings of the movie, can we deal with the fact that he chains her up? Well, maybe not. After all, the reading I’ve outlined above is essentially saying that he’s chaining her up for her own good. But no, we wouldn’t say that, not in our right mind. That would be dumb. Is this movie dumb?


3. The movie poster seems to be suggesting we laugh at it. Tarantino remakes Mandingo. I don’t know. I don’t think the movie is doing what the poster says it’s doing, which is to be, well, a Southern Pulp Fiction. It’s not that heavily ironic, and it’s not that interested in genre (except for musical). And the poster makes the event look more violent and sexual than it is.

But even if it does it more tastefully than the poster would have us believe, the movie does have Lazarus chain up Rae. At the movie’s center is the explosive image of a black man chaining a nubile and half-naked white woman up in his house. Is it trying to shock us? Trying to bring atavistic racial paranoias into the open to expose them as ridiculous? Is it just trying to be melodramatic—tapping into the Southern Gothic tradition, as several reviewers put it? Does it just want us to think about the chains that were really used in the South, and about how white fears of black sexuality constitute another set of chains? All of that may be at work—and yet it still doesn’t exhaust the image. It’s doing all that and more, and the “and more” is probably stuff we just don’t want it to do, and furthermore that the movie itself doesn’t want to do, but can’t help but do once it’s chosen this image as its center. Like, maybe the movie wants us to squirm, or wink, or laugh a little, or smirk, or smile ruefully, or grin guiltily, or scowl, or whatever, but even after we’ve done that the fact still remains: he chains her up. Dude, that’s wrong.

So, maybe the movie’s a failure. It invokes this image, but can’t control it: the image constantly threatens to overpower the movie.

I like lots of flawed works of art, though. Give me ambitious and honorable failure over safe perfection any day.

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