Friday, February 12, 2016

Sleep vs. Mom, plus Nightjohn

So it's 12:42 at night and I'm awakened by my mother putting a blanket on me.

This is not a childhood reminiscence. This is about two hours ago, three by the time I post this. I was asleep on her couch - this seven foot long giant that my parents have had since I was a child, which they even had reupholstered once, because they liked the length of it; it's practically a family heirloom at this point, and will likely prove to be a point of contention with my girlfriend, when my Mom passes and we're left with the question of what to do with the thing. Erika doesn't much want it - she's had to sit on it a few times when visiting to watch a movie with Mom, and she knows it's not much of a comfort to sit on; but understand, my father used to sleep on this couch - mouth open, snoring, TV on in the living room in the middle of the afternoon, so I have some sentimental attachment to it, feel like I'm participating in family tradition when I lie on it. And though the hide-a-bed inside is practically a medieval torture device, I must concur with my father: if you just stretch out on it as a couch, it's not half-bad for sleeping. Now that I live with Erika - now that I've given up my apartment in Maple Ridge - I end up on this couch every time I overnight here. I sleep okay, usually. When I don't, it's not the fault of the couch.

Sometimes it's the fault of an 85 year old woman, deep into her second innocence, spreading a blanket on me: in part because it's cold, and she's taking care of me, but mostly because she's failed to fall asleep and is hoping I will wake up so she can ask if I want to watch a movie.

She does this occasionally, lately. Tonight, since I don't have to work tomorrow, I took her up on it. I scanned the DVDs I have stashed here to see what might be fitting: something not too long, not too violent, and not too morally complex, because Mom does not care for moral complexity, likes clear good guys and bad guys and unambiguous endings. Something with simple, stirring emotions and a story that will engage her, and hopefully, if possible, me.

I selected Charles Burnett's adaptation of Gary Paulsen's Young Adult novel Nightjohn. It's been sitting on the shelf for a year or so, but it's not an impressive package, so I've tended to pass it over. It's a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie on a cheapie DVD label, which declares its indifference to the product it is distributing through its lazy, misguided box art: a film dealing with slavery and racism, the package itself partakes in a sort of half-assed racism, pronouncing Beau Bridges the star and putting his towering, white image in a prominent place in the art, whereas the actual stars of the film are all black, and the key audience for the film will be African American. Maybe Beau Bridges is a big selling point for American blacks - he does do fine work here, in a supporting role as the plantation owner - but I kind of doubt it. Bill Cobbs was the most recognizable African-American star of the film, for me, but he's not even mentioned on the box; at least the superb Lorraine Toussaint is.

There's a reason that I bought the DVD, though - at a thrift store, for $1: that being the strength of Burnett's rep as a director (he's best known for Killer of Sheep). And once I got it home from the thrift store, I kept it around because a quick online consultation offers that Jonathan Rosenbaum has rated it a materpiece. Turns out I have to agree with him wholeheartedly; this is a superb representation of life on the plantation, dealing with a young girl, born into slavery, who becomes empowered when a rebellious, proud slave named John teaches her to read. The thrift store also had the Johnny Cash vehicle The Pride of Jesse Hallam, which also deals with literacy, so I suspect whoever donated them to the store was an adult who had learned to read late in life. The Pride of Jesse Hallam feels like a TV movie, though - condescending, oversimplified, and visually bland, worth very little as cinema, besides the pleasure of watching Johnny Cash work with Eli Wallach; Nightjohn, on the other hand, is beautifully filmed, and moving without being insulting to the intellgence.

Mom's in bed now, and sleep beckons, so that's about all I will say about it, save to recommend it, if you happen to stumble across it. Mr. Rosenbaum's review will be far more revealing than anything I might write, though you might also be amused to follow up by reading the views of a school class in Iowa who were apparently assigned to a) read the book then b) watch the movie and review it on IMDB. Quote: "I did not like the movie because the movie was extremely different than the book and it sucked."

Take that, Jonathan Rosenbaum!

No comments: