Tag Archives: Donald Sutherland

A Dry White Season (1989)

Anybody who’s seen Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel is familiar with the cinematic technique.

A black man is being tortured by two white policemen, but we see him only from behind. We hear his screams. The police taunt him in a bored, indifferent way. We know he’s been water boarded, and, perhaps, beaten, but there’s not very much we can see by looking at the back of his head. The door opens. It’s a black messenger. The two policemen scream at him never to come in without knocking. The horrified expression on the messenger’s face tells us this isn’t the kinder, gentler torture we saw in Zero Dark Thirty. This is hard core Gestapo stuff. Later in the film we see what went on before the camera pulled away. The movie flashes back to the torture we had witnessed earlier, only, this time, we see it from the messenger’s point of view, from the front. The torture victim has had most of his face caved in. His eyeball has fallen out. It’s hanging down onto his cheek. His hands are broken. His body has been contorted so violently that even if he’s released — and we know he won’t be — he’ll spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. He’s a dead man, moments away from the end.

A Dry White Season by Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, and the only woman ever to have directed Marlon Brando, is such a vivid depiction of apartheid South Africa that I’m surprised it’s not better known. Rarely have I seen a film that so perfectly captures the viciousness of a police state. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Nelson Mandela’s funeral notwithstanding, we don’t talk much these days about the struggle against apartheid. The film itself, which is about the ways people avoid confronting reality, about the ways we manage to ignore the state violence that’s necessary for our wealth and privilege in a racist, colonial settler economy, is probably the best explanation about why it’s not better known.

The time is 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising. Donald Sutherland is Ben du Toit, a former rugby star with Suzette, a college age daughter, and Johan, a younger son. He teaches history at an exclusive, and, naturally, all white private school. Du Toit is a decent man with a good heart, but, like all white South Africans, he’s learned not to see what’s right in front of his nose. Du Toit’s world is placid, idyllic, sheltered. Soon, reality hits, and hits hard. Du Toit employs a gardener named Gordon Ngubene. Ngubene, in turn, has a son Johan’s age. The two boys are good friends. Ngubene doesn’t want his son getting involved in politics. But in the South Africa of the 1970s that’s easier said than done. Black men and boys don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. Jonathan, Ngubene’s son attends a segregated school. Du Toit is generous enough to pay his tuition, but the curriculum is Afrikaans, not English, an intentional policy that effectively isolates blacks from the larger world, and Jonathan wants none of it. He joins a protest. He’s caned. Gordon comes to du Toit for help, but du Toit doesn’t take him seriously. He doesn’t take the word of a black man seriously. He also knows, keep down inside, that once he sides with the black majority, his whole life will be turned upside down. Let it go, he advises. He doesn’t quite understand that Gordon can’t just let it go. Jonathan participates in the famous protest march that led to the Soweto massacre. The police pick him up. He’s sent to prison, where he dies under torture. Gordon comes back to Du Toit, who agrees to investigate.

The biggest strength of A Dry White Season is how well Euzhan Palcy communicates to us what a momentous event the Soweto protests were. The black majority is viciously repressed. But the white minority is terrified of the inevitable end of the apartheid regime. They close ranks. Du Toit’s white privilege has its limits. He’s warned, subtly at first, then not so subtly, that there’s a line he shouldn’t cross, that, once he does, he puts himself in danger. Du Toit knows this, but, to his credit, he presses on, helping Gordon find his son, and then, after Gordon himself is murdered, trying to get justice. He hires a famous anti-Apartheid lawyer named Ian McKenzie, Marlon Brando in a brilliant, almost forgotten performance. McKenzie, a flamboyant, William Kunstler style radical knows the “justice” system in South Africa is a sham. “Every time I win a case,” he warns Du Toit, “they just change the rules. Nevertheless, he decides to take the case, more for Du Toit’s education than out of any belief he’ll get justice for Gordon. What follows is the film’s best scene, one of the great courtroom scenes in all of cinema. Again and again, McKenzie demolishes the state’s witnesses. Again and again, the judge simply overrules him. Brando is just magnificent. Every once of his then considerable bulk expresses the absurdity of being a lawyer inside a corrupt legal system. His words and his manner have a revolutionary fire you never quite saw in Burn or in Viva Zapata, his 10 minutes on screen such a dominating presence you remember him long after he walks off stage.

But there will be no justice for Gordon. Nothing else in A Dry White Season quite matches Brando’s performance, but Donald Sutherland still manages to convey what it’s like for a man who’s taken the first step out of his gated, all white community, a first step that’s, in effect, a final step. There’s no going back. There’s no fence straddling. You can’t be a liberal in apartheid South Africa. You either stand for justice, and get crushed beneath the full weight of the police state, or you stand with the fascists. Du Toit stands for justice. His young son comes along. His wife and daughter side with the status quo. They just want things to go back to the way they were before the murder of Gordon’s son rudely intrudes on their sheltered existence. Suzette, Du Toit’s daughter, is a reprehensible human being who betrays her own father to the secret police, but, while we don’t understand the way she feels inside, we understand her motives. She wants the impossible, moral innocence in an unjust world. A Dry White Season demonstrates how, by her reluctance to get involved, she becomes one with the torturers, the murderers, and the police.

Ordinary People (1980)

While not as universally despised as The English Patient or Crash, most people consider Ordinary People one of the weakest films ever to win Best Picture. The elephant in the room was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. From the Godfather to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, politically conservative, yet culturally radical Italian American auteurs dominated the 1970s. But the counterrevolution was on. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, an attempt at a leftist, revisionist take on the old west, had failed so badly it brought down United Artists. Ronald Reagan was on track to become President. Lisa Birnbach had published the Official Preppy Handbook. The counterculture was out. The WASP was back in. Ordinary People, which is set in Lake Forest Illinois, one of the wealthiest towns in suburban Chicago, was just what the academy needed.

Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People, is anything but a Reaganite. He’s a good liberal who cares about the environment, founded the Sundance Film Festival, and acted in a film about the Cuban Revolution. His next film as a director, The Milagro Beanfield War, ventured as far away from WASP Lake Forest as you can get, all the way to the Hispanic Southwest. So why did he choose to direct a long, glorified, cinematic version of a John Cheever story?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if Redford decided to leverage his own popularity in Hollywood, and the culture of nouveau-WASP, Reaganite, neoliberal chic to make a film that’s far more radical and subversive than it’s sometimes given credit for? Indeed, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting might, in fact, be considered the conservative sequel to Ordinary People. Good Will Hunting, in spite of its superficially leftist politics, at least holds out at least the promise happiness in the meritocracy. Sure, Matt Damon’s Will has a very famous speech where bashes the NSA, years before it was cool, but, in the end, we know he has no intention of staying in South Boston with his working class friends. He’ll get into the upper-middle-class some way.

Ordinary People shows us that the last place any of should aspire to is a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois.

On the surface, Redford’s Lake Forest is beautiful. Ordinary People opens to the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon. As we drift through a series of autumnal images of high bourgeois suburbia, we are introduced to Conrad Jarrett, a young Timothy Hutton. Conrad Jarrett is half James Dean in East of Eden, half Wit Stillman preppie. He’s a popular, straight-A student with a wealthy tax attorney for a father, Calvin Jarrett played by Donald Sutherland, and the kind of mother Martha Stewart made a fortune marketing as a fantasy. The Jarrett house is perfect, too perfect. Not a blade of grass, not a piece of furniture, not a knife, a fork or a spoon is out of place.

Soon we learn something is very, very wrong. Conrad’s older brother, Buck, died in a boating accident. Conrad survived. Conrad attempted suicide, and was committed to an insane asylum, where he was given electroshock therapy. Beth Jarrett, Mary Tyler Moore, is high WASP, middle-aged perfection. To quote Frank Rich on former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, “she’s such a good example of the horsey set she almost neighs.” Beth is the kind of passive aggressive, upper-class WASP who thinks she’s making a gesture of infinite kindness simply by talking to you. She’s the kind of woman who makes you feel guilty for making her feel guilty that she can’t be nicer to you than she thinks you really deserve. She hates her younger son. Buck, not Conrad, not even her husband, was the most important man in her life. She’s an ice cold, emotional black hole who blames Conrad for not being the one on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Calvin Jarrett, while he may be an irritating wuss, is far more likeable. We never quite learn what kind of tax law he practices, but, if his gorgeous Lake Forest estate wasn’t inherited, we can be pretty sure it has something to do with helping rich people keep the IRS from taking their money. If the strongest side of Ordinary People is the way it captures the rhythms of the frigid upper-middle class, the way these people keep secrets even when they don’t, the way they deal with people instead of talking to them, their physical discomfort in one another’s presence, then its weakest side is in the way it refuses to engage class as class. Calvin Jarrett is the sensitive 1970s WASP male from central casting.  Money is etherealized into style. In real life, a Calvin Jarrett in corporate America would get eaten alive. Here, he never seems to work, and he never seems to worry about money. Beth Jarrett, the angel of the hearth become emotionally withholding devil, bears the entire burden of Redford’s dissection of the neoliberal, Reaganite meritocracy.

But if Ordinary People is a misogynistic film, it’s a great one.  TV shows like Mad Men still try to sell us on a fantasy of high WASP chic. Ordinary People rips it to pieces.

After Conrad starts psychoanalysis with Dr. Tyrone C. Berger, Judd Hirsch, we learn that what he needed all along was a dose of earthy Jewish warmth. Judd Hirsch is not only marvelous as a psychoanalyst, the film captures the dynamic of what it’s like for a young man to try heal himself in therapy only to have to go back home to the same upper-class household that made him need therapy in the first place. To watch Ordinary People back to back with Good Will Hunting is to realize what a reactionary film Good Will Hunting is. For Matt Damon’s Will, getting in touch with your feelings is a first step towards abandoning your emotionally stunted blue collar childhood. Once Will heals his soul he’ll be ready to join the Calvin Jarretts of the world in the corporate boardroom. For Timothy Hutton’s Conrad Jarrett, it’s not that easy.

The healthier Conrad gets, the more he comes into conflict with Beth. “Aren’t I supposed to feel better?” Conrad asks Berger. “Not necessarily,” Berger answers. Berger doesn’t want Conrad to fit in. He wants him to get mad. Whether or not Berger intends it, Conrad is the revolutionary agent of change who will bring down the film’s microcosm of the corrupt, bourgeois order. Indeed, we begin to realize that Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt, as tragic as they were, also made it inevitable that the Jarrett family would finally crack up, and that, in the end, it’s a good thing. Had Buck not been killed, Beth Jarrett would have been able to maintain her emotional tyranny over her husband and her younger son for decades. But once the crisis presents itself, Conrad has to rebel or die, and Calvin either has to support him, or lose the only child he has left. Ordinary People ends on a sad note. We don’t know what will happen to Conrad, but we have seen him grow from an angry teenage boy into a man. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment in a two hour movie. Conrad, the least favored son, the Cain marked out for destruction by a withholding bourgeois female God who dotes on his older brother, survives. After Beth gets into a taxi and drives off into the night, we feel like a cloud has lifted, and it has.