Jonathan Demme panders to Toni Morrison's guilt mongering in his brutal adaptation of 'Beloved'.

Published October 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Nothing is as potentially destructive to a filmmaker than the praised wrong turn -- particularly when, as in the case of Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker's gifts are comic, casual, funky. Demme's comedies, "Citizen's Band," "Melvin and Howard," "Married to the Mob" and his masterpiece, "Something Wild," were populated by dreamers and eccentrics and crackpots. They took place in a world of gas stations, convenience stores, diners, Vegas wedding chapels and high-school reunions. His characters shopped at Kmart, ate at lunch counters or fast-food joints, and everywhere they went, they were accompanied by a soundtrack of pop music, a national crazy-quilt symphony to which everyone added their own distinct sound: Truckers listened to Dave Dudley on their long hauls, Jamaican waitresses grooved to reggae, hipsters dug the coolest new bands, Mafiosi snapped their fingers to piano-lounge singers. Demme's movies were a party where bohos and working-class folks, stockbrokers and hitchhikers all kicked up their heels together and discovered what they had in common. He looked at the mass culture usually dismissed as trashy and lowbrow and fell in love with the people who made their homes there. His affectionate and satirical approach said that this was the place to find our greatest national vitality and originality. It was the truest, flakiest vision of the nutty energy of American life that anyone had put on the screen since Preston Sturges.

And it all fell apart with "The Silence of the Lambs." Instead of treating Thomas Harris' preposterous and engrossing pulp as the spookhouse melodrama it was, Demme adapted the book as if it were a serious study of The Darkness That Lurks Within Us All. His sense of humor was nowhere in evidence (Anthony Hopkins seemed to have snuck in the hammiest parts of his performance when the director wasn't looking). In interviews given at the time, Demme talked about making the movie as if his purpose were to earnestly examine society's violence toward women. Reviews praising Demme's new maturity followed, as did Oscars. Demme's follow-up, "Philadelphia," didn't even have the craft that made "Silence" watchable. It was a tolerance lesson so intent on making a statement that it lost track of the lawsuit story that was its narrative engine.

Now Demme has made his biggest, most prestige-laden film yet, directing Oprah Winfrey in her longtime dream project, an adaptation of Toni Morrison's much-praised novel "Beloved." Morrison's novel is not the type of material a filmmaker turns to in an attempt to regain humor or spontaneity. And befitting his new status as an acclaimed Oscar-winning director, Demme has approached it in the manner that has become de rigueur when talking about Toni Morrison -- with bowed head and bended knee, incense burning.

The most lauded of Morrison's novels, "Beloved" is the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living free in the Ohio of the 1870s and '80s with her daughter Denver and Paul D., who was also a slave at Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation Sethe fled. Her two sons have been driven off by the ghost that haunts Sethe's house, the spirit of their other sister, whose throat was cut when she was a toddler by their mother because Sethe believed her former master had come to reclaim her and take her children into bondage. The household is visited by a mysterious young woman named Beloved, the grown manifestation of Sethe's murdered child and -- more to the point -- a manifestation of her survivor's guilt.

When Morrison's name comes up, even usually perspicacious critics start in with the hosannas. John Leonard, on the paperback edition of "Beloved," exclaims: "I can't imagine American literature without it!" Actually, I can't imagine Morrison without American literature. Her faux-Faulknerian interior prose is just the most obvious of her borrowings. In "Beloved" she also adds stilted attempts at magical realism, soggy folklorish interludes replete with soggy folklorish wisdom ("More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize"), a horror story and periodic outbursts of gruesome melodrama used as illustrations in Morrison's hectoring lecture on the bloodiest sin on America's racist soul. The self-consciously elevated language of the passage below might induce giggles if it appeared in a romance novel:

Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could. There was something blessed in his manner ... Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other: that way past the Change of Life, desire in them had suddenly become enormous, greedy, more savage than when they were fifteen, and that it embarrassed them and made them sad.

But Morrison is nothing if not canny. Brandishing the fact of slavery and playing on America's collective shame, Morrison has cowed her would-be critics. We know that horrors as bad or worse than any she describes actually happened. (Morrison's inspiration for Sethe was an escaped slave named Margaret Garner, who is the subject of Steven Weisburger's new book, "Modern Medea.") But this is history as bludgeon, perfectly captured by the novel's dedication: "Sixty Million and more," (the figure denoting the Africans who died on the middle passage). As Stanley Crouch pointed out in his withering essay on the book, 60 is 10 times six. In Morrison, we are dealing with a writer who measures suffering by numbers.

That's the approach Demme has bought into in this film. He's out to show us more of the torment of slavery, and more of the torment of the souls who survived, than anyone ever has. The film opens with a grisly whammy: the spirit haunting Sethe's house slamming her dog into the walls until the poor creature lies whimpering with a broken leg and one eye dangling from its socket. A movie can't recover from an opening like that. With almost three hours left to go, the audience, knowing that worse things are sure to come, is already cowering in its seats, distrustfully. (Unlike the audience at "Saving Private Ryan," which accepts the Omaha Beach sequence because the movie's subject is war. What does showing a helpless animal brutalized have to do with slavery?) But "Beloved" isn't about anything so simple as engaging an audience. It's about punishing us, rubbing our noses in the dirty truth until we have no choice but to validate the suffering of the characters. Of course, that sort of dehumanization cuts two ways, not just brutalizing the audience but making the characters less people than repositories of suffering. Sethe and Paul D. and Denver and Beloved are nothing more than the sum of the violence done to them, the designated martyrs meant to represent those 60 million and more. The flashbacks to the atrocities Sethe witnessed and endured at Sweet Home are presented to us in the manner of horror-movie shock cuts.
They're invasive, heated up, coming at you without warning. Here's the
young Sethe witnessing her mother being hanged. Here's what Sethe sees
(the scene is shot from her point of view) as white men rape her and
force the milk meant for her child from her breasts. Demme's
presentation wouldn't be out of place in the cheapest exploitation
picture, though there at least, the
director might be honest about their purpose. These scenes aren't tragic
climaxes included to intensify our emotions; they exist to shock us.
They don't add anything to our understanding of the characters because
they have taken the place of characterization. If they tell us anything,
it's that victimization confers saintliness on the victimized.

Melodrama isn't inherently exploitative, and perhaps there's a good
movie to be made of "Beloved" by treating it as melodrama. But that
would mean unifying it as a story, which neither Demme nor his
scenarists, Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks, all of
them in the grip of reverence, have seen fit to do. When the movie isn't
hitting us over the head, it's spooning out the material to us like
broth to an invalid, drop by flavorless drop. The excruciating pace
mirrors the sluggishness of Morrison's sonorous prose (my favorite
justification for how uninvolving the movie is comes from Time's
Richard Corliss, who claims that the slowness reflects the heaviness of
the characters' souls). But at least that prose unifies the book.
Rendered in strictly narrative terms, the catch-all nature of the
material becomes apparent. "Beloved" hopscotches from ghost story
(complete with furniture and crockery flying through the air, as if
Mulder and Scully were about to drop by and investigate) to the
lukewarm love story between Sethe and Paul D. (Danny Glover) to the
story of the young, pregnant Sethe (Lisa Gay Hamilton, of "The
Practice") making her way to Ohio to the appearance of the mysterious
Beloved (Thandie Newton), none of it with any narrative drive,
compelling emotion or often even sense. There's no way of telling who
we're seeing when Beloved first emerges from the depths of a lake and,
covered in ladybugs, swoons against a tree. No telling why Sethe, upon
seeing Beloved in her front yard (still bedecked in those damn
ladybugs), runs around to the back of her house in apparent fright and
pisses a mighty stream considering she doesn't realize Beloved's identity until
later. No telling why Beloved almost immediately becomes a permanent
member of the household, and why Glover's Paul D. is the only one
who sees how creepy she is. (Sethe is too busy being a good Samaritan,
and Denver, played by Kimberly Elise, is happy to have an adopted sister.)
Nothing is more inexplicable here than Newton's performance,
which is one of the most appalling I've ever seen from a professional
actor. It's understandable that an actor might run into difficulties
playing a literary device, a ghost who embodies her mother's guilt over
committing infanticide. What isn't understandable is why Newton has
chosen to play Beloved as a simpleton. (Morrison didn't write the
character that way.) Every time you look at Newton here, she's acting up
a storm, staring into space, drooling, smearing food around her face and
talking so that the half-chewed bits fall out, letting her tongue loll
into the side of her mouth and then speaking in a voice that sounds
uncannily like the character of Crazy Guggenheim from the old Jackie Gleason show. The performance is an ungodly collection of physical tics
and vocal mannerisms meant to astonish us with their combination of technique and rawness. To be fair, though, nobody is this bad without help. I would have sworn that as brilliant an actor's director as Demme
would have been incapable of allowing an actor to make such a spectacle
of herself. But Demme doesn't appear to be interested in directing
actors here. Taking his cues from Morrison, he instead assigns them
their designated symbolic function.

So Winfrey, whom I was looking forward to seeing in a leading role after her terrific supporting performances in "The Color Purple" and the atrocious film of "Native Son," is stuck playing Noble Black Pride. You don't get to see any of the kidding quality that occasionally breaks through the therapeutic tone of her show, none of what Camille
once called the vamping back and forth between two voices. The
effects she goes for here -- pronouncing "wasn't" as "wadn't" in a moment of anger -- are self-conscious.

Some of the cast manage to create real characters out of the moth-eaten cloth they have to work with, like Carol Jean Lewis as Janey, the housekeeper who gets Denver work, and, as Denver, Elise, who settles down in the film's final hour and offers the relief of seeing one person whose motives and behavior are comprehensible. The best performance is Beah Richards' as Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs.
Though stuck with the movie's lumpy homilies ("yonder, they do not love our flesh"), Richards is the only actor on screen who seems entirely believable in the setting, as if she'd sunk her limbs and spirit down
into her ramshackle house while everyone around her is playing a prestigious game of dress-up.
Everywhere you look in "Beloved" are signs of Demme's decay as a director -- the inattention to performances, the grindingly slow pacing, the sloppy, at times incoherent, story line and the straining grandiloquence of the tone. Nearly all of the directorial choices are showy, distracting, like the floating effect of Tak Fujimoto's hand-held
camera and the style in which he and Demme shoot the flashbacks, using a grainy film stock and then overexposing it so it looks overbright,
bleached out. Nothing is more alarming, though, than the way Demme assents to every one of Morrison's bad ideas. Demme translates the novel's post-feminist idealization of female bonding into scenes of grown women acting like children, squealing over games of tag or festooning their house and themselves in ribbon.

As in the book, we are being called on to be witnesses here to the effects of America's holocaust. That's why Demme shoots many of the conversations so that each character is looking directly into the camera and addressing us. But it's crucial to the way "Beloved" (both novel and movie) works that we are witnesses who are not allowed to make
judgments. The linchpin is the scene where Sethe reveals to Paul D. how she attempted to kill her children when she thought they were about to be taken into slavery. In flashback, we see the younger Sethe standing
amid the bloodied bodies of her children. The scene is garish (the movie might be called "Sethe's Choice"), but it also strikes me as psychologically unassailable. Sethe's action plays like one of the horrible things people can be driven to in outrageous straits. What's offensive about the scene is the moral certainty -- the utter absence of doubt or self-reproach -- in the way Sethe justifies the murder of her daughter. You can't judge me, she tells Paul D., because you weren't in my shoes, and your condemnation means nothing because I've been through
worse. The movie doesn't dispute that arrogantly myopic reasoning.
If "Beloved" didn't have its origin in a novel written by a black woman, Demme's movie might seem a disjointed and over-the-top white fantasy about the suffering of black folks and their strange, healing folk ways. Odd things happen in black households, the movie seems to say, powerful forces the rest of us can't understand. But thank goodness the black community knows how to take care of its own. There is a
separatism to "Beloved" that's depressing coming from a director whose previous films showed an embracing, integrationist spirit (and I don't
just mean racially). Nothing in "Beloved" moved me as much as the black faces Demme quietly but deliberately included throughout "Something Wild." The presence of those people was an unmistakable rebuke to the ethos of the Reagan era, with its narrow ideas about who constituted America. In his essay on "Beloved," Stanley Crouch quotes Morrison at
the 1986 PEN Congress saying she has never considered herself an American. That's far too limited a sensibility for a director whose films have shown such an expansive, mischievous and joyous notion of who could be considered American.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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