Film 2018: To Kill a Mockingbird

They say that Great Books cannot be adapted into Great Films, that the latter come from average books at best. Given the difference between the two forms, and that Film necessarily involves a simplification and streamlining of a story whose greatness lies in its complexity, it’s a workable rule of thumb. But it isn’t a universal rule: To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of a film that is as great as the book it adapts. The two stand side by side.

Harper Lee’s novel, which most people believe to be autobiographical, was published in 1960 and filmed only two years later, with Gregory Peck in the leading role of Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the Alabama town of Maycomb in 1932.

Atticus is a good man, a decent man. He’s a widower bringing up two children, Jem, aged about 12, and Jean Louise (known as Scout) aged 6. Both book and film are seen through the eyes and understanding of Scout, though neither shies away from plain and often painful recounting of the adult events that are its story.

Atticus is asked to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is accused of raping and beating a white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the South, in 1932, the outcome is foregone. Justice is only for White Folks. Atticus is taking on a cause, whether he will or no, in demanding equal treatment, equal justice for a black man, especially one who has lusted after a white woman.

Peck accepted the role the moment he was asked, and many people have said afterwards that he is, in a sense, not acting in this film because he was Atticus Finch, that Atticus Finch was who Peck was in real life. If that’s so, then the highest of credit to him: Finch is not angry, aggressive or idealised. He is simply what I said above, a Good Man, honest, straightforward, realistic but committed to what he believes is right.

His is the leading role – there are no other ‘stars’ in the film though Robert Duvall makes his debut in a minor yet crucial role – but the film is seen from Scout’s viewpoint, a little girl growing up in a tired, hot Southern town, in the Great Depression, with nothing to do all day but play, and slowly learn. Scout’s straightforward in her own way, often disastrously, having yet to learn any of the filters adulthood places on us. She, Jem and Dill, the boy visitor they befriend (who, astonishingly enough, was in real life the boy Truman Capote) are fascinated with the nearby Radley property, and the reclusive Boo Radley, about whom so many wild stories revolve.

The film lets itself revolve around this three and their gallivanting for its first hour, with Tom Robinson and the case impinging only at moments. The film changes, though, on the eve of the trial, when Robinson is brought back from the jail in another town where he’s been incarcerated for his own safety. Immediately, a lynch mob gathers. Atticus has put himself on guard, in front of the jail, refusing the mob, about twenty strong, to take Tom and hang him, but he is only one man, whose principles are not enough to hold off the bigoted.

However, in the only scene that rings a little of wish-fulfillment rather than the truth of small southern towns in this are and this frame of mind, the appearance of the three children, throwing Atticus into fear for them, weakening his stance fatally, proves to be the save. Oblivious to what is around her, Scout recognises and addresses one of the leaders, the father of one of her classmates, and her insistence on his replying to her turns the tension into embarrassment, kills the momentum and has the mob turn and go home.

Now the film turns to the trial. The Courtroom is crowded, and segregated, whites downstairs, coloureds upstairs. The children insist on watching: they go in with the blacks. And Peck performs the role of his life, quietly, gentlemanly, ruthlessly drawing out the lack of any forensic evidence that Mayella was sexually assaulted, and the heavy implication that she was beaten by a left-handed man. Her father, Bob Ewell, a bitter, vicious, drunken stereotypical bigot, evil for what he is out of no conscious choice, is left-handed: Tom Robinson cannot use his left arm at all.

On the stand, the truth plays out. Bob Ewell expects his word to be taken because he’s white and Robinson’s a n****r (the word is used three times in the film, twice by Ewell, once in innocence by Scout, who is instantly and strictly forbidden its use in a manner that reminds me of the one time I used that word in childhood, little older than her, and how I was firmly put in my place). He’s sneery and snide, an ignorant poor white who’s going to put one over on a jumped-up, well-mannered, fancy dressed lawyer with his tricks and twistings.

Mayella, in contrast, soon shows herself as lording over the negro – who, naturally, she calls ‘Boy’ – but is clearly telling a story she’s been told to say. The sharp-eyed will notice that when she’s told to put her hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, she doesn’t touch the book, just holds her hand above it and nods the ‘oath’. And when Atticus has trapped her into knowing, she starts screaming at the jury in expectation, refuses to speak more and tries to run, rather than tell another lie.

In complete contrast, Brock Peters invests Tom Robinson with an immense natural dignity, and a degree of pain. He knows his place, knows better than to be uppity, is not in any way uppity, but he is honest and truthful, and this is plain as can be.

But it’s not enough. It probably would never have been enough, given the where and the when, but in cross-examination (the prosecutor is played by William Windom, his debut, and a far cry from his role in My World – and Welcome to it!) he kills his case when he begins to say that he had helped Mayella Ewell because he felt sorry for her.

The verdict is as we have expected all along. Atticus is hopeful: there are good grounds for appeal, which won’t be heard here. Robinson is silent when he is led out: later that night, Sheriff Heck Tate brings Atticus the news that Tom is dead, that he broke away and ran, that the Deputy shot to wound but missed his aim.

The film never suggests there is anything doubtful at this account, but it doesn’t need to: it knows that we who are aware of this time and place will automatically suspect worse things than despair. The film was produced on the edge of the civil rights era in the States, when far worse did happen and is still in many cases unpunished: like M.A.S.H. being set in the Korean war to be a commentary on Vietnam, To Kill a Mockingbird comments on the forthcoming struggle.

But before this, we have my favourite moment of the film, at the end of the trial. Once the verdict is rendered, the white folks start streaming out, the Court clears itself, Atticus is left alone downstairs, collecting his papers. On the balcony, the blacks have not moved. They sit in silence, overlooking all, until Atticus closes his case. Then, from the edges to the centre, they all come to their feet, stand in respect. The Reverend Sykes, who has appointed himself guardian to Scout, Dill and Jem, admonishes the little girl: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

But Tom is dead. Atticus drives out to his widow’s home to break the news. Jem, who we can see visibly growing up throughout these later events, who we can see growing in admiration of his father, and determination to be like him, insists on going with him. Thus Jem is there to see Bob Ewell, drunk and sour, convinced of a superiority over the black people because of his skin when he is no better than dirt in the highway, spit in Atticus’s face, and to see Atticus’s long, slow response, which is to wipe his face and leave.

Even here, Bob Ewell’s viciousness is fueled. At Halloween, as Jem escorts Scout, still wearing her parade costume of a rigid ham, through the woods at night, the pair are followed and attacked. Both are flung down, Jem to a broken arm, Scout protected by her costume. We see what happens indirectly, not through Scout’s eyes, but as brokenly and incomplete as she sees.

A strange figure carries Jem home. Scout is embraced by her scared but relieved father. Heck Tate finds the body of Bob Ewell, with a kitchen knife under his ribs. The man who intervened, who carried Jem hope, hides behind the bedroom door. Scout looks at him a long time, our eyes on her face, as she slowly works out who the stranger is, and softly says, “Hey, Boo.” Mr Arthur Radley, her father confirms.

Now she sees him, despite his wild yet shy appearance, Scout has no fears of Boo Radley, the monster. She takes his hand, encourages him to stroke Jem’s hair, then leads him outside to rock on the porch chair-swing. Atticus is preparing for Jem’s charging, though it’s a clear case of self-defence, but for once Heck Tate is ahead of him. Jem didn’t kill Bob Ewell: he fell on his own knife.

That’s as much a lie as Tom Robinson’s guilt: we all know who saved Jem and Scout, who relieved Atticus of fear. And the shy Mr Arthur Radley cannot stand the spotlight of being the hero. So, Bob Ewell fell on his own knife: a life for a life. And Scout summons up the metaphor, that to expose Mr Arthur like that would be like shooting a Mockingbird, a bird that doesn’t raid or harm, and only sings. Scout walks Boo Radley home to his door and he goes inside. Her adult narration accompanies her run back to her house. Though it’s unsaid, we understand that she will never see him again in her life.

To Kill a Mockingbird affects me deeply. It’s a story of a great wrong, avenged but not punished, and it presents as its hero a good, decent man of a kind I would always hope to be. It’s been criticised for perpetuating the cliche of the white man helping the poor, stricken blacks, which I suppose is true but which I cannot accept as diminishing the film.

Looking back over the past six months, and ahead over the six months to come, I don’t think I have any other Great Films, not in the sense of this. I would argue that La Dentelliere is a Great Film, but it is a private and a personal film. To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement, one that we need all the more as the gains of the last sixty years start to slide away from us. But it’s also a film about people, and in the end that’s the only way that statements can be properly seen: in the people they are about.


Deep Space Nine: s07 e01/02 – Image in the Sand/Shadows and Symbols

Enter Ezri

The cynic in me says that this was always going to be about getting Sisko back and, given that I’m feeling overtired and unwell at the moment, I’m not in the mood for being manipulated in the fashion laid down by the end of season 6. Nor am I in sympathy with the big reveal that was made over the course of this two-parter, which I knew to be coming but which seemed ultimately to be too cheap an explanation for why Sisko is the Emissary.

Fortunately for all concerned, there were three stories over the course of the introduction to the last season, an A and two B’s, both of substantial proportion, and giving a substantial part to everyone in the cast. This included newcomer Nicole de Boer, replacing Terry Farrell as Dax, Ezri Dax to be specific, in a pretty blatant move to be about as different a Dax as can be.

Three months have gone by and Sisko has gone nowhere. Kira, newly promoted to Colonel and celebrating by adopting a new and hideous hair-style, is still acting Commander of DS9, her latest headache being the Federation’s decision to grant the Romulans a military HQ on DS9, even though they’ve got no right to. Though Senator Cretak at first presents as pretty amenable for a Romulan, enlisting the Colonel to put in for a Romulan med-base on a deserted Bajoran moon, it’s just your pretty standard Romulan treachery since they immediately set-up 7,000 missile launchers about it, provoking a Cuban Missile Crisis knock-off when Kira decides to blockade the place.

Meanwhile, Worf is mourning Jardzia for rather longer than Klingons do, forcing Vic Fontaine to continually sing ‘All the Way’ (oh dear God) and smashing up the holosuite. Chief O’Brien nobly goes three bottles of bloodwine with him to learn that it’s because Jardzia didn’t die fighting, she won’t go to Sto’Vo’Kor. The only way to secure this is to win a glorious victory against overwhelming odds in her name. Bashir, O’Brien and Quark (oh dear God) go with him.

As for Sisko, he’s playing the piano and peeling potatoes (for three months?). Finally, the baseball rolls off the piano and when he stoops to pick it up he has a vision from the Prophets, of uncovering a face in the sand on Tyree, a desert planet. Mission on. By indirect means, Sisko discovers that the face is that of his mother, his real mother, Sarah, not the one he’s always thought of as his mother until now. Sarah was his Dad’s first wife, his real, true love, who ran off inexplicably as soon as Ben was born. She’s dead now.

Having fanatically hidden her existence from her son all this long, Joseph Sisko cracks and gives Ben a locket she left behind. A locket with an inscription in Old Bajoran (my, we’re just piling on the cliches here, aren’t we?). The inscription translates as Orb of the Emissary, a lost Orb, so hey ho and the three generations of Siskos head off to Tyree where it’s obviously buried, though not before a Pah-Wraith worshiping Bajoran cuts Sisko’s stomach open to no lasting effect.

And just as they’re closing the restaurant to head for the spaceport, there’s a knock on the door, and it’s a cute little, fresh-faced Starfleet Ensign, whose cute black hair-style conceals most of her Trill spots: enter Ezri Dax.

Thee new Dax is obviously going to be comic relief to begin with, though there’s a serious explanation for her goofy gabble. Ezri never wanted to be joined, but when the Dax symbiont took a turn for the worse, post-Jardzia, she was the only Trill in town so, fifteen minutes of pep-talk later and everything changes. Ezri’s confused as hell, and looking to her two-lifetimes friend Benjamin to help her get her completely new feet on the ground. Off to Tyree? Bring it on!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Worf’s mission is not going well, though ultimately it’s a winner, and whilst I’m tired and being sarcastic because of it, Worf’s dedication to his lost wife is genuinely moving, despite all of Quark’s efforts to fuck up the tone. And Colonel Kira’s trying to bluff Senator Cretak into backing down, only, Romulans being smart buggers, she knows that and doesn’t intend to.

So Sisko’s party tramps unmercifully across the desert in pursuit of the buried Orb, Sisko’s only idea of where it may be being that he’ll know when he finds it. Or when Ezri throws his baseball away (another twist we couldn’t see coming). Did did dig dig dig, and there it is.

And another twist that I was very much not in sympathy with, as Sisko suddenly turns back into the half-mad Fifties SF writer, Benny Russell, the creator of ‘Deep Space Nine’. Benny’s in what the times would call the looney bin, his doctor trying to cure him by getting him to stop writing these stories. He’s writing in pencil on the walls (that actually was every single synopsis of very episode so far, written out on the walls of his cell, with Dr Wykoff – Casey (Demar) Biggs – trying to get Benny to whitewash over them.

That this had a perfectly logical explanation, that the Pah-Wraith was trying to get Sisko to rebury and smash the Orb, didn’t occur to me, which shows what a state I’m currently in: it just seemed like an unnecessarily clever-clever throwback to a story I’d been very dubious about to begin with. But Sisko holds out and opens the Orb.

A presence streaks from it, crosses space, roars past DS9 and re-opens the Wormhole, expelling the Pah-Wraith from it. We’re back in business. For Sisko, there’s a vision, a vision of the Prophet that was his mother Sarah, or rather which occupied her to ensure Sisko was born, at what cost to Sarah, Joseph, Benjamin himself. He’s the Emissary because he’s half-Prophet. Oh, really. How cheap.

And the re-opening of the Wormhole inspires Kira to carry out her bluff and win, because the Federation makes the Romulans back down.

So everyone returns to DS9, happily,including the new Dax in Town, whose day will of course come next week, when I hope to feel much more receptive to the next episode, or maybe have that be a bit less – ok, a lot less – clumsy and blatant in some of its ideas. Sorry about this. At long last, we’re on the home straight. I am starting to want the finish line to arrive.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e13 – Far Beyond The Stars

Who’s Who?

Well, I guess I must be suffering some sort of burn out on Deep Space Nine because I just couldn’t get into this episode at all, and it’s one of those episodes that’s not just a fan-favourite but a favourite of so many members of the team that made it, including many of the actors themselves. Clearly, it’s me, then.

‘Far Beyond the Stars’ is another of those get-the-cast-out-of-character episodes, as Sisko undergoes a practically episode-long hallucination in which he’s a staff writer on a 1953 SF magazine, facing racial prejudice. It involves every member of the cast and a bunch of recurring characters out of costume and, in several cases, out of make-up.

Basically,the peg is that Sisko is approaching burn out. The Dominion War is still ticking over in the background, with wins and losses, but the latest loss – the Cortez and it’s 400 strong crew, especially its Captain, Quentin Swofford, an old friend of Sisko – has him talking of stepping down.

Immediately he suggests that, he starts seeing people in 1953 clothes walking around where they aren’t. Bashir diagnoses strange synaptic potentials akin to those in the season 5 episode, ‘Rapture’ when he was having visions sent by the Prophets (not so much a hint as a crowbar to the back of the neck) and, presto changeo, he’s in 1953 New York where he’s Benny Russell, employed by Incredible Tales magazine.

Everyone’s there, so it’s spot-the-unmake-upped- actor time (I didn’t get Aron Eisenberg, Jeffrey Combs or J. G. Hertzler and I was incredibly slow about Rene Auberjonois and Michael Dorn) whilst the story hammers on its theme of racial prejudice. The hammering is relentless, but then again so was the racism. I don’t doubt there’s a social faction that would kick-off against snowflakes and SJWs, but just because the present day isn’t as relentlessly open and universal as the world depicted here doesn’t mean it no longer needs saying.

To be honest, I found the unrelieved nature of the depiction to be dramatically unbalanced: over and over and over again. In another context, where you could focus on this story without havingĀ Deep Space Nine looking over your shoulder constantly, it would have worked far better. Instead, it was never possible to escape the awareness that this set-up was doubly unreal, a fiction within a fiction.

Anyway, Benny Russell is inspired by a drawing of a space station very much like DS9 to write a powerful, engrossing story. About DS9, and it’s captain, Benjamin Sisko. Everybody loves and admires it, but it won’t get published. Because the Captain is a negro.

To jump briskly forward, after a tour of Benny’s world and constant reminders of the restrictions inherent on black people (Marc Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs as two violently prejudiced cops,who beat the living shit out of Benny at one point), he gets his editor to accept the story (and possibly the six sequels he’s already written), in return for his altering it slightly, to make the whole thing a dream. Whatever gets it into print. But the owner orders the whole print run pulped, the magazine’s going to skip a month and Benny’s fired. We all know why.

Throughout the hallucination, Sisko Senior keeps popping up as a Minister, preaching about the way ahead and insisting Sisko keep on his path, that he writes the words. He keeps mentioning the prophets (there’s that crowbar again). Benny has become fixated on his Captain Sisko, his DS9, this future he’s imagined. This latest setback unhinges him.He cracks up, onscreen, as if this block on publication of the story is an attempt to stop this entire future, the world of DS9, in which black and white and every other shade are equals, from ever happening.

Sad to say, I found it unconvincing, even when supported by Sisko’s musings in the close, which attempts to tip the show into metafiction, by wondering if Deep Space Nine is actually nothing more than the fiction it is, created by Benny Russell?

It’s Jorge Luis Borges’ paradox writ large: who is dreaming who? Is Sisko dreaming Benny, or vice versa? For me, it completely flops. Firstly, because when Benny goes into his meltdown, talking about ‘creating’ DS9, in the sense of a Creator creating Reality, he’s doing so as a character we know to be at a lower level of existence, the centre of a story-within-a-story. The same goes for Sisko’s musings: in an isolated story, you can play this angle for all it’s worth, and leave the reader genuinely uncertain, but after 136 previous episodes of Deep Space Nine, you’re pushing credibility to suggest that might be a fiction. A Tommy Westphall ending doesn’t work unless it is the end.

When Sisko recovers from the hallucination, his synaptic potentials have cleared up, even without a take-two-of-these-and-see-me-in-the-morning (crowbar time…) and he’s decided to soldier on. Phew, I was worried there…

The whole thing was a vision from the Prophets, to show Sisko that some fights have to be fought even in the face of frustration, defeat and loss. But really the episode was about the cast dressing down and playing outside their characters, with the framing story a loose-fitting McGuffin. That the story chosen was an important issue is impressive, but paradoxically it was weakened by being played in the context of Deep Space Nine, where it could have n serious impact by virtue of our knowledge that by the end it would all be reset, nothing gained, nothing lost, all that anger, frustration and heartache meaningless.

Or is it all just me?

Deep Space Nine: s04 e11/12 – Homefront/Paradise Lost

It’s not all that long ago that I was worrying about getting stale on DS9, wondering whether I should take a break. But it’s episodes like this two-parter, that I didn’t at first realise was a two-parter, that restore my enthusiasm for this series. This was what it should have been all the time, a high-stakes, wide-ranging, game-changing story that involved the very roots of the whole series. My one regret was that when I come to the next episode, I hardly dare hope, let alone expect, that it will live up to this standard.

“Homefront” began in typical fashion, with an open full of trivia. Odo is full of wrath towards Jardzia for her mischievous habit of sneaking in and shifting his furniture whilst he’s in his gelatinous state, Bashir and the Chief are fighting the Battle of Britain from the holosuite, complete with flying gear, Quark is being Quark. Oh, there’s this puzzling matter of the Wormhole opening and closing at random, without any (visible) ships coming through from the Gamma Quadrant, but it’s all very light.

And then the programme switched up through the gears. There has been a conference on Earth with the Romulans, at which a bomb exploded, killing 27 people. It’s the first such atrocity on the paradise planet that Earth has become in over a century. And the evidence indicates that it was contrived by a Changeling.

Sisko is summoned to Earth, along with Odo, by his former Captain, now Vic-Admiral Leyton (Robert Foxworth). He takes along Jake, so that the two of them can also spend some time with his father, Joseph (Brock Peters), who is still running his restaurant in New Orleans, and refusing to co-operate with his Doctor over preserving his health.

But Leyton hasn’t summoned Sisko home because he might have left a detail or two out of his report. Sisko is Starfleet’s best officer at fighting Changelings: Leyton makes him Acting-Chief of Security for the planet.

The main problem Sisko faces, initially, seems to be cultural. Earth is a Paradise planet, peaceful, happy, undisturbed. If it is under threat of a Dominion attack, if the Wormhole’s aberrant activity was actually cloaked Dominion starships entering the Alpha Quadrant, that peace will have to be radically rearranged by the security provisions required to identify and keep out Changelings.

The Federation President, Jaresh-Inyo, little more than a quiet bureaucrat who only wants to keep things peaceful and as they are, is reluctant to sanction such steps, and even after a demonstration of how easy it is to sneak a Changeling – Odo – into his personal office, completely undetected, will only allow certain limited measures devised by Sisko, with Leyton’s encouragement, to be put in place.

What’s clear even from the first part, before things start getting spelled out in “Paradise Lost”, is just how much this will change things on Earth. I was ahead of the wavefront at that point, already recalling the infamous Vietnam line, ‘to save the village, we had to destroy the village’, which was paraphrased openly by Sisko in the second part. There was too much emphasis on Earth being a Paradise, but peaceful Paradises are entirely too vulnerable to suspicion, and violence.

Joseph Sisko demonstrated this aptly. Sure, behind that gloriously jovial, outgoing restaurateur exterior, he was a cantankerously stubborn bugger, refusing to let prolonging his life interfere with how he wanted to lead it, but his utter refusal to allow a blood test to ‘prove’ he hadn’t been replaced by a shapeshifter, his indignance at being asked to prove he was innocent, and by his own son who feared he was guilty, encapsulated all that was at risk.

Then the power went out, all over Earth, simultaneously. And Leyton got his way, with a Starfleet officer on every corner. Every corner, with a phaser-rifle.

I was confident there was no attack being planned. Some of it was that this was not quite halfway through the season, some that I was sure that, even with all my efforts to avoid spoilers, I would have heard of it. But most of it was that what did the Dominion need in attacking? Look what they stood to gain by simply creating the fear of one? They were on the way to destroying the Earth through its own paranoia. If this had been written after 9/11, instead of seven years before it, it couldn’t have been a better response to the actions of the Bush Administration.

But I was off the mark, and “Paradise Lost” had begin setting this up before a Changeling in Chief O’Brien’s shape sat down beside Sisko to cheerfully boast of their superiority to solids, and how much havoc they’d caused with only four Changelings on the whole of Earth.

No, this wasn’t a Changeling operation. It was entirely more sinister. It was the Big Lie in operation, and what made it so insidious was that it came from a palpably good man, doing what he genuinely thought was best, not for himself, not for his own power, but for the safety of his own. It was all a carefully calculated plot on the part of Leyton, which would end up with Starfleet taking military control of Earth, under him, for the Duration. Foxworth was superb in portraying a man who was betraying every principle he’d ever held, every duty he’d accepted, for the sake of what he saw was the higher good.

You could still see that, if he had succeeded, power would inevitably corrupt him, as it inevitably does, but at this point, Foxworth’s thoughts were forearth, and its preservation against the threat of the Dominion. To save the planet, we had to destroy the planet. It’s a dictum easy to mock, and despise for its illogic, its intolerance, its cruelty, its indifference to others’ thoughts, but you could see the roots in loyalty and duty from which the weed sprung.

In the end, it was both loyalty and disloyalty that brought Leyton down. His Executive Officer, Erika Benteen (played by TNG alumnus Susan Gibney is a cool, dispassionate manner) had been promoted to Captain, as had many of Leyton’s former officers. When she was ordered to fire on the Defiant, bringing evidence to Earth of Leyton’s treason, and carrying all the senior staff of DS9 on board, she was prepared to stop a fellow Starfleet craft, but not to destroy it.

It was the defining moment, but until that moment, all things were possible. The story could have gone anywhere from here, taken Deep Space Nine into any waters it chose. That it settled for what was the closest possible reset of the status quo was of no matter: it was an ending we were emotionally hoping for, and the episode covered such territory that there could be no real status quo. Things changed. The worms got out of the can.