Them mountain people sure are quaint! A citified scholar condescends to rural folk in Maggie Greenwald's patronizing drama.

Published June 15, 2001 7:44PM (EDT)

"Songcatcher" is the type of movie that might be considered a real treat at, say, a socialist summer camp. Or perhaps after a hootenanny. Anywhere there's a lot of well-meaning talk about the trials and tribulations of the common folk. The heroine, played by Janet McTeer, is Lily Penleric, a turn-of-the-century doctor of musicology who must overcome her superior attitude toward the Appalachian mountain people from whom she's collecting the English and Scottish folk songs they've sung for years.

When she performs the old ballad "Barbara Allen" for one of her seminars she tells the class, "You must learn to appreciate not only the sociological value but also the simple purity of emotion in the song." There's a palpable sense of great-lady highhandedness in her talk. Lily is the "songcatcher" of the title; when she starts pumping the mountain folk for the songs that have been handed down over the years, she's too excited by her discoveries to have any sense of wooing the people she needs to win over if she's to proceed with her musical archaeology.

But for all of writer-director Maggie Greenwald's earnest good intentions, the picture is awash in a contemporary version of Lily's superiority. You can hear it in the caricatured accents she allows her actors to get away with, in the way she peoples the cast with genuine articles like the country singer Iris DeMent or the bluesman Taj Mahal and doesn't give them anything to do. You can sense it in the movie's fawning attitude toward the purity of folk art. "Songcatcher" is like an "All Things Considered" report on "a vibrant and lasting folk tradition" that goes on for two hours. It's so relentlessly, goddamn worthy that you long for some cheapness and dirt, some energetic pop trash to liven it up.

Greenwald can't be satisfied with telling a story. She means to enlighten and uplift; the whole conception of the movie has more than a touch of liberal noblesse oblige. Her approach never lets you forget how the movie is intended or who it's intended for: "Songcatcher" is presented as a little countrified artifact for educated urbanite audiences to coo over in the midst of their rootless modern lives. Watching is like seeing a dulcimer plunked down in an Ikea display.

After Lily is once again turned down for tenure at the college where she teaches, she decides to spend the summer visiting her sister Elna (Jane Adams) in the Appalachian community where Elna and another woman (E. Katherine Kerr) have set up a school. Her first night there she's stunned to hear Deladis (I swear that's her name; she's played by Emmy Rossum), the teenage orphan who lives with them, sing "Barbara Allen." Deladis isn't the only one who's grown up with these songs, and soon Lily is hunting them down. The most abundant source is an old woman named Viney Butler (Pat Carroll). But Lily runs into an obstacle when she meets Viney's grandson Tom (Aidan Quinn), who is sure that Lily is exploiting the community. He's certain that bringing the songs to the attention of the outside world will bring an end to the mountain ways.

It's hard not to agree with Lily that she deserves the little money she'll make from the endeavor because she's the one doing the work and bearing the expenses; among other things, she arranges for the people she interviews to be recorded singing their songs on Edison cylinders. She wants to make the public aware that people they consider ignorant hillbillies have a rich culture of their own, and she's right when she says that unless the traditions are recorded and written down they will die out.

But she's so brusque and unlikable that it's nearly impossible to work up any sympathy for her. When a woman makes her a present of songs she's written down over the years, Lily turns them down, saying they're of no use to her because they haven't been scientifically recorded. Greenwald might have used Lily's brusqueness to complicate our response to her. But the relationship between Lily and the mountain people doesn't develop; suddenly they've just accepted her. And the only thing that softens Tom's attitude toward her is that the two become lovers. One roll in the woods and his concerns about his community's being exploited are no longer spoken.

Greenwald is making a movie about cultural traditions that are as natural to her characters as the air they breathe, but she has no talent for letting the story develop organically. Both characters and plot developments are introduced with what must be among the baldest expository dialogue heard in a movie in years: "Cyrus Whittle, who, as you know, has almost singlehandedly created the revival of the English folk song," or "The mountain people brought the ballads here over 200 years ago. Don't you understand, Wallace? These might be the purest versions in existence."

It's always disconcerting when indie movies, which pride themselves on being free of commercial impulses, resort to the clichés and tumult of Hollywood melodrama. Greenwald pours it on in the movie's last hour and since, like so many indie filmmakers, she favors drab naturalism, the piling up of calamities doesn't have the juice (or the emotional impact) it might have in the hands of a reasonably proficient commercial director. I doubt that Greenwald even knows she's trading in melodrama, she's so intent on teaching lessons.

Lily turns on Elna in disgust when she finds out that she and Harriet are lovers, and the women's relationship provides the impetus for the story's dramatic climax. But making Elna and Harriet lesbian lovers throws you out of the story's time frame. Not because there weren't lesbians in the early part of the century, and not because family members weren't disgusted when they discovered their loved ones were gay. But because Greenwald has transparently included the story line in order to make a statement about the intolerance toward gays in modern society, the same way that, in her last picture, "The Ballad of Little Jo," she was using a western for a treatise on the confining trap of traditional gender identity.

If you go to the movies to be preached at, all of this may not bother you. But in a movie celebrating songs that are strange and fatalistic, that still have the capacity to surprise us, Greenwald's approach feels tinny. And that tinniness extends to the scenes with David Patrick Kelly as a coal company representative trying to buy up the mountain people's property, and the gross caricatures of a coal executive and his wife who talk about the locals with, respectively, contempt and condescension. It's not the politics of the scene I object to (if anything so simple-minded can ever be classified as politics); it's Greenwald's resorting to caricature to make her points. At times like this, "Songcatcher" is the type of movie that can make you ashamed to be on the left.

Perhaps because of the constricted conception of Lily, McTeer gives a fusty, uptight performance. All popped eyes and set jaw and flaring nostrils, she at times suggests an elongated Joan Plowright who has been somehow purged of wit. The performances are generally bad, actorish ideas of how rural people talk and behave. Young Emmy Rossum, who plays Deladis, improves some as the movie goes on, but she's grotesquely overdone in her opening scenes, employing a sugary accent, asking "Juss fer sangin'?" when Lily pays her for her songs, or, when she sings, turning "may" into "muh-hay." The affectation of those moments can be summed up by the way she sings the name of the famous ballad as "Bar-bree Ay-linn."

But then, wherever you look people here are doing awful things with dialect. When Viney asks her grandson the name of the instrument he's strumming, Aidan Quinn answers, "It's a gee-tar, granny. How many times I have to tell yew?" It's a measure of how badly Greenwald works with actors that even Quinn, a fine, sensitive actor, isn't believable.

Still, it's not as bad as what she does with Iris DeMent and Taj Mahal. DeMent plays a woman who breaks into a ballad after her home is swindled out from under her, and instead of making the scene about the persistence and well-deep sorrow in DeMent's piercingly clear voice (a voice that, the first time he heard it, caused Merle Haggard to declare her the finest singer he ever heard) Greenwald undermines those qualities by focusing on the haggard, washed-out makeover DeMent has been given.

Taj Mahal turns up in one scene picking a guitar with Quinn, who asks Deladis, as she stares at him, ain't she ever seen a colored man before? Unfortunately, he seems just as much of a novelty to Greenwald, who gives him this one nothing scene, presumably to add a bit of -- no pun intended -- color. Mahal has only marginally more screen time in Martin Ritt's 1972 film "Sounder," but there he is such a natural part of the life on the screen, and the beautiful score he composed for the soundtrack so much a part of the flavor of the movie, that you can't imagine that film without his presence. The memory of him in "Sounder" shames his use here.

The only actor who fully escapes Greenwald's ineptitude is Jane Adams as Elna. Her big eyes seem either wide open in surprise or radiating a calm certainty, just as her line deliveries and the way she carries her body seem always pitched between the demure and the forthright. Adams has been different in every picture she's turned up in ("Happiness" and "Wonder Boys" among them), and her stint as David Hyde-Pierce's manipulative pixie of a wife on "Frasier" has shown her talent for stylized farce. Her scenes with E. Katherine Kerr (fine when it's just her and Adams) as her lover Harriet get right past Greenwald's preachiness because the affection between them is so unforced. It feels like the only thing in the movie to have evolved naturally.

There's nothing wrong with Maggie Greenwald choosing to tell an old story here: The story of how our art forms developed and were handed down is one of the best stories America has to offer. And since as a country we tend to believe, as Paul Reiser quipped in "Diner," that "people come from Europe," we need reminders not to undervalue our native culture. The trouble is that the story has been told so much better elsewhere: In Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Music," and in the explication of that music in Greil Marcus's "Invisible Republic." And in Lee Smith's largely unknown great American novel "The Devil's Dream," the story of the development of country music told through various voices that waft over the decades in language that is written music, alive with the profound simplicity and even more profound complexity of the music that is its subject.

Even the burlesque "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" had more feel for its music. But there is no sense here of the humor or fatalism of the haunted voices that made up what Marcus called "the old weird America," the voices of people who have suffered incalculably and can still strike our ears with the pitilessness of a scourge. That's because Greenwald is working less as an artist than as a tourist, caring less about entering into her subject than about edifying the people willing to treat that subject as a quaint artifact of our past. She's in a tradition of "worthy," "enlightened" filmmaking, of filmmaking as social work. And she's clumsy and simple-minded enough to be the next John Sayles.

By Charles Taylor

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

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