19 March 2006

grapes of wrath

facets cinechat, sunday march 19th.

ever heard of facets? if you're not from chicago, if you're not a complete and total film geek, then probably not. i heard about it first from a film professor back at miami. he mentioned, off-hand, a spot in chicago that had tens of thousands of movies for sale and for rent (by mail!) -- rare stuff, foreign stuff, stuff you literally couldn't get anywhere else because facets has their own home video label.

when i moved to chicago in late summer of 2004, i quit netflix and joined facets. they have a similar program: $24 a month gets you unlimited rentals (3 at a time), discounts when buying, and, most importantly, free admission to screenings of whatever they are showing at one of their two theatres. since joining, i've seen stuff like primer, tarnation, and now, the grapes of wrath.

this one was special. certainly i wanted to see the picture. for one thing, lately i've been on a john steinbeck kick. how could you not be after reading "travels with charley"? the man was an amazing writer, and he also seemed like a good man, a kind man, a curious man. secondly, its john ford. also, henry fonda. there is absolutely no way you could go wrong here.

but the main reason i wanted to go was this: studs terkel was scheduled to speak. because of illness, i had just missed studs the previous week at columbia college's writer's week. studs is 93 years old and still kicking, but who knows for how long? and i wanted a piece of him before he was gone forever. that is the real reason i bought my tickets and took that ride.

so. arrived in the theatre to find a packed house. studs shuffled in, slumped over a cane with a fish on the top, balanced by a handler making sure he didn't fall. he was pleased by the turnout, in particular, the amount of "young people here. and by young, i mean 80 and under."

he and the raspy-voiced tribune writer, michael wilmington, talked about the film for a bit, by way of introducing it. they mentioned greg toland's work, which is indeed sweet -- a documentary approach to shooting, which i imagine was groundbreaking at the time. and to be able to make it work with all the painted backgrounds in the studio is fantastic.

the movie is good. so good, in fact, and in varied ways, that it approaches the quality of the book. considering the book was written by my current obsession john steinbeck -- and, also, you know, won the nobel prize -- that is high praise indeed. besides the aforementioned photography and writing, the acting is stand-out. henry fonda as tom joad. he's not as rough around the edges as he was in the book, but his delivery is spectacular. check out near the beginning when he gets off the truck after hitchhiking -- the way he says "homicide"! and of course his goodbye speech to ma joad at the camp is classic shit -- well-written, well played by fonda. he is the idealistic force of this work, the flawed young man who grows up to go off and be a hero for the cause. and ma joad plays that earth mother character the best way possible -- accepting, trusting, silent and strong. she's what a western woman was.

the topic of the film is timely. its about migration from an undesirable place to that of suspected affluence, and the resulting hardships and prejudice. we are seeing, right now, the hot political potato on immigration. just today, tens of thousands marched in los angeles to protest. two weeks ago chicago was chock-full of hispanic folks filling downtown, letting the powers that be know they wouldn't stand for the policies being contemplated, and the closet prejudice implied within. this movie is about that, only some 75 years ago.

a final point about the writing. this movie is full of religious symbolism, most notably jim casy as a christ figure, martyred for the cause, and inspiring other folks in his do-gooding (most notably tom joad). steinbeck also included a shocking end to his book, one that the internal censorship code wouldn't allow; one that modern-day audiences would even have a difficult time swallowing if they saw it in a movie. it involves the loss of a child and some breast-feeding, and it is brilliant. steinbeck's religious symbolism runs deep, as it did for raymond carver, as it does for george saunders. this kind of symbolism, with christ figures, with martyrs, with strong virgin mary type women, strikes a powerful chord with us. i believe that these are the myths that are so persasive in ours lives that we can't help respond to them -- i definitely do. this is something i want to emulate in my own writing, to do and to do well.


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