By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
In a year filled with Oscar contenders trafficking in the consequences of unilateral American vengeanceMystic River, 21 Grams, MonsterCold Mountain's denial of race, the Civil War's raging raison d'être, cost it dearly. Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, demonstrates the ways Poe, Twain, Hemingway, and Cather deformed their art through dehumanizing the "American Africanist presence." Morrison also explains the attraction of the Gothic romance to 19th-century American writers as a genre that provided space for utopic white freedom's antithesis: the terror of darkness, slavery, and nature. She further details how white Americanness is defined by nonblackness, explicating why the American Africanist presence became the repressed necessary evil of American letters.
The fact of Cold Mountain's being both a serious, bestselling, National Book Award-winning novel and a serious, artful Hollywood film provides a rare opportunity to apply Morrison's ideas to the racial literature of today, which certainly includes Hollywood movies.
Frazier's novel has been rightly praised as good literature and a good read. Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier, is on an Odyssean great trek back to his home in North Carolina. He is drawn back by memories of Ada, a transcendental Southern belle, and of the land itself. Frazier's novel is Gothic and romantic; Inman suffers mightily in several dark, picaresque episodes on his journey, sustained as much by his arcadian sentiments as by the vision of Southern womanhood Ada embodies. Frazier once wrote a dissertation on landscape in American fiction. The pleasures of the novel include his writing about flora and fauna as much as his gallery of grotesques, sadists, fallen women, sybarite preachers, and star-crossed lovers. Cold Mountain's a pastoral and a Gothic romance and a feminist utopian novel as wellAda survives the war and the winter of Inman's journey thanks to bonding with an extremely resourceful farm woman, Ruby, played like a rabid Beverly Hillbilly by Renée Zellweger.
Word on the street is that there are no African Americans in the film. Would that this were true. There are in fact severalexcept they are all mute. In the film, a Stepin Fetchit-like gaggle of runaway slaves emerges from a field with a basket of eggs likely stolen from some decent white person's henhouse. Though Inman begs for an egg, the darkies refuse to share. In the summary justice of cinematic closure, the runaways are last seen marching into the woods with their stolen chicken embryos, where they are massacred by members of the evil Home Guardcomical comeuppance, one supposes, for not recognizing Inman as one of their own, a runaway, as desperate to avoid the Home Guard as they are. Now, in the novel, when Inman encounters a group of African American runaways, he is fed and sheltered and passed valuable information. Given that there were half a million African Americans in the state at the time, Frazier knew better than to have Inman's encounter with Us, in numbers, conform to coonish stereotype.
I actually treasure two of Minghella's previous films, The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, for their visual sophistication and for the director's own Gothic romance with dark outsiders who sacrifice themselves on the altar of blonde ambitions: Ralph Fiennes's Hungarianread Gypsycount in Patient, Matt Damon's social-climbing sociopathic ne'er-do-well Tom in Ripley. Several African American women I know despise Patient's tragic love story between those Nordic ideals Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. To them the film epitomizes the dearth of epic African American film romances. My sisters overlook the more earthly, progressive romance between Juliette Binoche's army nurse and Naveen Andrews's Indian demolition expert, but since movies intend to work on the body and nervous system like music, critical responses to them never have to be rational or evenhanded. We all respond to movies based on our subject positions, and our own dark pasts demand to be heard from.