Tales from a Swamp Sauna
It was an unusual one-two punch on Saturday Night at the Movies on TVOntario this week. First we saw “Cross Creek”, the 1983 autobiographical film about author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Next we saw the film production of one of Rawlings’ most well-known and best loved novels, “The Yearling”.
As the heat has dragged on this long hot summer, I have often felt like I am living in my own personal swamp sauna. My Mom has told me that on many days this July there hasn’t been much of a difference between the temperatures in Southern Ontario and those in Florida .
Both of these films do a good job of evoking a sense of atmosphere and place. You may not be able to feel the heat while watching the movie, but you do get a sense of the long languid days in the back country of Florida . It is a time before air conditioning and time sharing condos, before Wal-Mart and adult-living gated communities in the deep South.
“Cross Creek” is a slow-paced film. This will drive some people crazy. Nothing much seems to happen for a long time. You are left looking at the scenery and examining the people who happen to pop in on Ms. Rawlings self-induced reclusive existence. But I guess that that is what you are supposed to do if you’re a writer – and this is a story about being a writer.
I know it drives my husband crazy – all that sitting around, inspecting people and places, mulling it over in your head and just wanting to be still and alone – how can you stand it! How can he stand it! My husband has to “go places, meet people and do things” in order to be happy. All of this settin’ and thinkin’, just settling down in one place and letting it seep into your bones, well, it is incomprehensible to active, people-oriented types like my beloved hubby. Such differences in temperament and orientation can put quite a strain on a marriage.
Sadly, it appears that a compromise of mutual understanding could not be worked out in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ first marriage. In the story, Ms. Rawlings leaves her marriage behind in order to go off to Cross Creek and pursue her career and calling as a writer. Oddly enough, the hardships she encounters in having to make a living out of her orange grove in order to support her writing career as well as the assortment of colourful local characters who enter her daily life (the type of people she never would have rubbed shoulders with in New York society life) cause the would-be writer to find her own voice. The experience of living in Cross Creek provides the subject matter for Rawlings’ later novels and short stories.
Rip Torn as Marsh Turner, Alfre Woodard as Geechee, and Dana Hill as Ellie Turner all received nominations for their work as supporting actors. Each creates a memorable role that brings the Creek to life for the viewer.
Some have complained that Mary Steenburgen is too genteel to play the gutsy and sometimes hard drinking Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Since I have no firsthand knowledge of the lady herself, I have no idea if Mary Steenburgen does justice to the historical accuracy of the biography. Steenburgen’s apparent delicacy of physical presence and mannerism does make the contrast more stark and the story more interesting in my opinion. Mary Steenburgen’s particular presence continues to remind you that Ms. Rawlings is not very well adapted for such a primitive life in the back lands. I am not sure that Mary Steenburgen is totally believable in the role, but the casting selection is at least interesting.
There are a couple of things you do believe after watching the film. You know that being a writer is hard work. You are utterly convinced that making an orange grove productive is tough going. And you think that being dirt poor, while it might make for interesting characterizations in a novel, is probably not much fun - not that all of this negativity makes for a depressing movie. Although both of these films deal with some pretty harsh realities of life, neither comes off as projecting a pessimistic vision of things.
The Interviews at intermission were a collage of reflections by Hollywood personalities on “What the Movies Mean to Me”. Some referred to the intensely personal, intimate and at the same time collective experience of watching movies. Others highlighted the “magic” of the creative experience of either making movies or viewing them and being transported into realms of the imagination. For many, the reason why movies are important, meaningful and endlessly fascinating is because they are about people. Life is about people and so are the movies.
The comments I found most interesting were about movies as meaning makers. “Why do we look at any piece of art?” was the question posed by one person interviewed. Somehow, examining art helps us to arrive at deeper understandings about life. It helps one to explore issues of meaning of life experiences. A similar thought was expressed by someone else who said that movies were not just a way of escaping one’s own life, but an escape into another way of seeing the world. Through viewing other people’s lives on-screen, one can experience life in a potentially transformative way.
Another was more direct in saying that for him, movies took on a function that religion once occupied. Movies supply coherence, offer lessons and insights, provide examples to emulate or avoid, and explore answers to the big questions of life as to why things happen as they do in our universe. For this person, participating in the making of movies was a way of influencing society that took on the proportions of a religious crusade; since religions have failed to provide the answers that people are looking for, the movies step in and fill the vacuum of meaning makers.
“Cross Creek” was certainly the kind of film that lends itself to this type of self definition. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings goes through a kind of conversion experience in finding herself as a writer. Ms. Rawlings escapes from her old way of life in order to find her real mission in life. By associating with her experience of secular religion, the movie viewer can find their own vision of life transformed at some level through the transformation and discovery of meaning taking place in Rawlings’ life.
I liked this movie. I think that “what it had to say” was worth examining. It also seemed to me that the film was sufficiently entertaining in its manner of presentation. I really do get into this thing of exploring other realities through film. However, I also think that there is something to be said for having my own transforming experiences unmediated by the experiences and perspectives of others.
“The Yearling ”, a MGM production of the adaptation of Rawlings’ novel by the same name, could be considered a classic family film. My family could not have watched the movie together because the ending would have been too upsetting for the kids. It just wouldn’t make sense for them that Jody had to shoot his deer because he ate some corn out of a field.
Gregory Peck gives a fine performance in this film as Ezra Baxter. Peck’s performance captures the dilemma of a man caught between his conflicting impulses to be tough and tender with his one remaining child. Ezra Baxter is entirely committed to doing what is best for his family. Sometimes he vacillates between trying to extend the innocence and freedom from responsibility of his son’s childhood to trying to shove him toward grown-up behaviour. It is hard to know what to do as a parent. The best course of action is not always that simple and straightforward.
The challenges that Ezra faces as a parent may be quite different those of most of us in the modern day; he faces marauding bears, the threat of starvation, cruel infectious disease and physical infirmity with no social safety net apart from his one young son.
Jane Wyman as Orry Baxer is less impressive in my opinion as the bereft mother of the pioneering family. Claude Jarman Jr. as Jody plays the dreamy boy who longs to be a man. Supposedly, the original choice for the character of Jody was a boy with a thick local accent. I guess someone thought it was better to have an actor with a more understandable accent. Too bad. In retrospect, a more authentic accent might have been fun, even if it was little hard on the ears. Even without the accent, “The Yearling” is likely to continue in its status as an enduring American classic.
Another classic was recognizable in the film. In a kind of an extended reverie sequence where Jody is running through the woods with his fawn, one suddenly notices a familiar piece of Delius running through the scene. I thought it was an interesting innovation for 1946. The music combined with overlaying shots of a herd of deer succeeds in communicating non-verbally something about the half-wild state of Jody and his fawn. It is more of a sensation evoked by the audio-visual experience rather than an idea constructed out of dialogue or narrative. Since I am ignorant of Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s original novel, I cannot say whether this sequence imitates something that the author wrote into her novel. Should this be the case, and I think that it probably is, it would be an interesting example of a transposition from one medium to another.
Some people who comment on this film criticize it for being too “saccharine”. Perhaps some people too stuck in a brain space much immersed in turn of the 21st century post-modernism would find this film too maudlin for their personal taste. What could be called the “traditional American family values” depicted in this film are often hyper-allergenic for such individuals. I don’t agree with such criticisms. I think that the film stops short of turning to the saccharine sweet. Bittersweet I think is a more accurate description of the flavour of this movie. I consider bittersweet a more interesting taste experience worthy of a second look.
Suggested Reading :
- An earlier version of “The Yearling” and filmed on location in “ Cross Creek , Florida ” – See IMDb trivia
- Borocay Island in the South Pacific: a writer finds transforming purpose
- Stuck in Between : Growing Up is Hard to Do
- Growing up Free: Parenting is Hard to Do
Next time on Saturday Night at the Movies by TVO at 8pm EST catch a couple of "whodunnits", "Deathtrap" (1982) with Michael Cain and Christopher Reeve and "The Last of Sheila" (1973) directed by Herbert Ross.