Sunday, July 23, 2017

"The Beguiled" Controversy

I do wish Sofia Coppola would stop making historical films, since she omits aspects of history which are too unpleasant for her. It is a shame because she always works with the finest actors on spectacular sets. I want to love her films but instead they make me cringe. According to The Daily Iowan:
When I finally saw The Beguiled, my excitement waned after the first 15 minutes of dewy mansions and frayed petticoats. A dark fairy tale about white Southern women, with no people of color in sight? Something felt distinctly, disturbingly anachronistic about this — and it wasn’t the corsets.

It’s a trite feminist tale, beginning with the arrival of a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) at Farnsworth Seminary (run by an imposing Nicole Kidman, populated by a host of diaphanous young actresses), and ending with the assertion of the power of the matriarchy. OK, fine. I stayed, of course, through the passion, and betrayal, and (spoiler alert) emasculating amputation, and (bigger spoiler alert) manslaughter because I wanted to know why Sofia Coppola made the darn movie in the first place. Turns out Coppola’s film is a remake of a 1971 movie by Don Siegel, which in turn was an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. What?

Having never read the novel nor watched the original film, I went into the theater quite blind — like many other viewers, no doubt. I had no idea that there were two black women missing from the plot. Coppola trimmed them out like weeds to allow the white ladies to blossom. I hope my innocence and subsequent research will assist you in making the call on Coppola’s artistic choices. Some sources cry “whitewashing.” Others defend Coppola’s delicacy in tiptoeing around potentially stereotypical portrayals of black folks. Coppola, to her credit, articulated her motivations and ideas for the film in a concise essay published on IndieWire, but I’m not persuaded.

Though Coppola makes a convincing case for her gloss of slavery and erasure of black characters, she’s got a history of subtracting people of color (Bling Ring) and avoiding the messy bits of history (Marie Antoinette). Look those movies up, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s something coy, blithe, and unnervingly true to form about the way she pruned the problematic racial material from the typical plight of Southern belles pent up with their passions.

OK, back to the mysterious invisible women of The Beguiled. According to an article in Slate, Coppola combined Edwina, a biracial teenager, with Harriet Farnsworth, sister to Martha, resulting in the Edwina played by Kirsten Dunst; the slave girl Mattie (Hallie, in the Siegel film) was straight-up subtracted.

Coppola, an expert in portraying wealthy, disillusioned white women, stuck with what she knew — for better or worse. She defended herself with careful sentences about her concern with correct portrayals of slaves, her need to develop the drama between the main (white) characters, and her contempt for the stereotypes perpetuated by the original characters she excised. Coppola made one important point in this essay: Evidence does support her hazy vision of upper-class Southern white ladies isolated and altered by the ravages of war. Yes, such a phenomenon had its own intriguing struggles and maybe deserves a cinematic re-enactment. But Coppola breezes past any hint of the complicated facts of the Civil War with three damningly simple words: “The slaves left.” That’s it? Highly suspect. Slavery did not just disappear when the Union soldiers descended upon the plantations. (Read more.)
Here is a feminist review from the LA Review of Books which laments that fact that Coppola's new film about the Civil War omits showing slavery:
TRAILERS FOR The Beguiled promised something new from writer-director Sofia Coppola: edited down to two minutes, her sixth feature appeared taut, sexy, suspenseful, swift. The last half hour or so achieves those adjectives, but The Beguiled does not really try to be a thriller, and it is in at least one fundamental way standard Coppola fare. Like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and The Bling Ring before it, The Beguiled is a movie about bored white women in rigorous pursuit of fantasy, often because reality holds little interest for them, but also because they’ve been discouraged from serious engagement with it. Or perhaps they just haven’t been given sufficient incentive: Coppola’s protagonists suffer the boredom of feeling extraneous to their contexts. In The Bling Ring, that context was celebrity-obsessed Los Angeles; in Marie Antoinette, it was Revolutionary France; in The Beguiled, it just happens to be the American Civil War.

And for Coppola, it truly just happens to be: the film refuses the burden of politics, which is to say (in the case of the Civil War, if not in all cases) the burden of history. The Beguiled takes place entirely on the grounds of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia, where a small handful of unclaimed students, the teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) wait out the war’s end in relative isolation from its primary dramas and protagonists. Cannon fire booms in the distance; the smoke of battle peppers the skyline; and while Confederate soldiers occasionally stop at the school’s gates, only one man has any dialogue of note: Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a recently immigrated Irish mercenary soldier for the Union, found injured in the woods by one of the students and carried back to the school to receive Christian hospitality and medical attention. Conflicting seductions ensue.

As a number of critics have noted, every single character in The Beguiled, speaking or not, is white. The child Amy tells the Corporal in one of the opening lines of dialogue that the slaves have left — she does not say whether they’ve escaped, been emancipated, or were allowed to simply walk off the grounds — an event that never returns to consciousness for the film’s remaining 90 minutes. Coppola has said in interviews that she did not want to treat the subject of slavery lightly, presumably by sprinkling some mute black figures on the landscape. That the South’s peculiar institution might, in fact, have been central to the moral and sexual identity formation of white women does not seem to have occurred to her, or it is at least not the story Coppola wants to tell. Instead, the most vivid and unruly presences haunting the film’s periphery are non-sentient: unswept leaves cover the school’s veranda, vines creep along the upper balcony, weeds threaten the garden (now tended by the students themselves), and giant tree branches are strewn about the yard. In lingering atmospheric shots, the viewer is repeatedly reminded of nature’s slow but untamable encroachment. Likewise, and likely shocking for Coppola fans, the film features almost no soundtrack; with the exception of an occasional ambient mood piece, its main nonverbal sounds are the patter of feet and the chirping of birds. (Read more.)
 From W:
On Friday, Coppola released a statement to IndieWire defending her decision to remove the film's only black character—and to erase any trace of slavery in a Civil War-era film—starting off with the facts. "According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor," Coppola wrote, calling her decisions "historically accurate." Plus, she continued: "I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting."

Still, a slave named Hallie was undoubtedly present both in Siegel's 1971 film and its original 1966 novel version by Thomas Cullinan. But seeing as Hallie was also the only character who "doesn't speak proper English" and whose voice is "not even grammatically transcribed," the director decided not to include her in the end. "I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped," she wrote.That decision, Coppola continued, "comes from respect," as well as a desire to avoid becoming one of the "many examples" of white artists appropriating slaves and "'giving them a voice.'" Indeed, Coppola wrote she's hoping the conversation around the issue will help to avoid such situations in the future: "I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories," she added. (Read more.)


julygirl said...

If these things were objectionable to Coppola then she should have changed the setting completely away from the Civil War era, otherwise she is not being true to the milieu. She could have set it at the turn of the century and the Colin Farrell character could have wandered into the script as some other sort of intruder around which the plot revolved. How authentic can such a plot be if it eliminates some of the main protagonists of that era?

elena maria vidal said...

I know really. Just because slavery ended did not mean blacks disappeared from the South. The original novel has key characters of African descent. It is just an excuse for laziness.