June 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Belle (2013) directed by Amma Assante, was a satisfying historical drama in the genre Merchant-Ivory once did so well. Based on a true story, the film portrays a family of particularly strait-laced British nobility faced with the dilemma of raising the biracial daughter of a deceased naval son. A conflict between racism and love is solved in a realistic, shameful way: she is cherished but can’t join the family at the dinner table. What makes the movie different and interesting is that it sets up a situation in which Belle is the most intelligent and talented person in the environment--and then, inheriting from her father, also the wealthiest. She is forcedly liminal, half in and half out of society, an attractive marriage target to any man who can place money over the inconvenience of her skin. Watching her work out the best means to have a life--and to own her own life, in a way almost no young woman of her class was able--was rewarding.

J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (1962) is an enjoyable, accessible book about language, concentrating on the “performative” phrases which have an effect in real life (“I pronounce you husband and wife”). Always with humor, Austin plays some intriguing games with, and rings some changes on, words, noting how some, though correctly formulated, cannot be performative (“I persuade you”, “I insult you”) while others are not “happy” when uttered in the wrong way or by the wrong person (if I declare the couple sitting opposite me on the subway married, my words have no effect).

Battle Circus (1953) directed by Richard Brooks is a lesser known Humphrey Bogart film directed by a lesser known American auteur. Brooks manages to make an unusually mature 1950’s movie, in which the utility of sex as an escape and reaffirmation when bullets are flying is frankly intimated before its nexus to love is described. Bogart is a surgeon in a MASH unit and June Allyson is a nurse. She is self confident, disarms a berserk young Korean soldier with realistic fear, and participates in bloody surgery with gravitas. Another unique element is that, just a few years after Hollywood churned out propaganda films, the threatening Korean is not a killer robot yelling “Banzai!” but a human, a terrified young man expecting to be killed. Bogart speaks of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the war, in a film made while it was still being fought.

I found Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson’s Them That Believe (2008) in the dollar stacks at the Strand. It is an analysis by two psychologists of the rattlesnake-handling churches of Appalachia, which makes it the perfect Strand book you never knew you had to read. These Churches believe that Christians are compelled to interpret the gospel of Mark chapter 16, “They shall take up serpents”, literally. Almost every handler has been bitten, some more than a hundred times, and every-one knows someone who died from a bite (about eighty documented cases in a century). The extreme strains of belief, community, cohesiveness, and an otherwise well-behaved rebelliousness against both Pentecostal and societal norms are evocative of other types of less noticeable organizations; snake handlers simply illustrate some universal features of human nature in an unusual context.