Friday, March 19, 2010

When the Cat's Away, the Mice Read Poetry: The Case of The Long Hot Summer

In the 2006 Bruce Beresford flick The Contract, Ray Keene (played by John Cusack) is an unsuc-cessful father who, out on a camping trip with his son, encounters escaped hit man Frank Carden (played by Morgan Freeman) and tries to win his son's admiration by bringing Carden back to civilization and justice. Carden tries to warn Keene against playing the hero, and during the hike back, Keene and son are pursued by Carden's paramilitary team, shot at, attacked via helicopter, and subjected to Carden's psychological assaults. They run, they talk, they scale cliffs, they sweat. There are attempted escapes and explosions and moments of unanticipated bonding, and Carden does everything he can to slow the group's progress—including quoting poetry. P&PC can't remember the exact poem he tries to recite before Keene shuts him up, but we think it was part of "The Road Not Taken." Not entirely sure. For our purposes here, though, the specific poem doesn't matter as much as the fact that the movie seems to identify poetry in general as a force that impedes forward progress and threatens efficiency—something that slows our hikers and runs counter to the endgame Keene has in mind. Aligned with the African-American killer Carden and set up as contrary to the forces of fatherhood, whiteness, law, and justice, poetry is thus—in the world of The Contract at least—a criminal undertaking.

This isn't exactly the case in The Long Hot Summer—Martin Ritt's extremely entertaining 1958 film which is based on a couple of Faulkner stories—but it's not that far off. The film features Orson Welles as rich, Mississippi plantation owner Daddy Varner, Joanne Woodward as Varner's unmarried schoolteacher daughter, Clara, and Paul Newman as the Machiavellian, bootstrapping, six-packed stranger whom Varner picks out as a perfect mate for Clara. Daddy sorely wants grandchildren. He wants a virile family. Especially now that his health is growing suspect, he doesn't want Clara to dilly dally with her mama's-boy of a suitor; he wants a quick, efficient, direct way to manufacture descendants. Most of the movie, as such, has to do with how Clara learns to appreciate and accept the crass Ben Quick (played by Newman). But The Long Hot Summer is also a love story between Daddy Varner and Quick, as Varner manages his attraction to the younger man via his daughter's bedroom instead of his own.

As with The Contract, The Long Hot Summer identifies poetry as a force impeding the efficient execution of patriarchal and legal powers. In The Long Hot Summer, however, that force is wielded not by an African-American male criminal postponing his submission to the criminal justice system, but by a white woman postponing her submission to the patriarchal sex-gender system of marriage and pregnancy. Check out the following passage from early in the movie when Daddy Varner returns from an out-of-town operation and ruthlessly belittles everyone—especially his only son Jody—for not doing enough in his absence. After he thoroughly lays into Jody, this is the exchange between Daddy Varner and Clara that follows:

Daddy Varner: I'm my old self again. Them doctors down in Jefferson, they gutted me, and they took away just about every organ they thought I could spare, but they didn't pare my spirit down none. Thank you, Jody, for your kindly inquiry as to my health. [Jody didn't ask.]

Clara: Next!

Daddy: All right, sister. You're on.

Clara: What do you want to know, Papa?

Daddy: You still fixin' to get yourself known as the best-looking, richest old maid in the county, or have you seen any young people lately? Any young people seen you? At any parties, any picnics, any barbeques, any church bazaars? Have you mingled? Have you mixed? Or you kept yourself up in that room all this time reading them poetry books? Huh?

Clara: I hope this doesn't come as a shock to your nervous system, Papa, but when you're away, I do what I please.

Daddy: Well, I'm back!

Clara: Welcome home.

This passage is brilliantly done, in part for how it reverses the expec- tations of conven- tional story lines; when the cat's away in The Long Hot Summer, the mice don't play—they read poetry. And that's exactly what infuriates Daddy Varner, as he associates poetry with, and thus conflates, a combination of things including female independence, sterility, solitude, onanism, and (most likely) rhyme. Unlike the stereotypical over-protective father, he wants his daughter to go mix and mingle, but she does what she pleases while she's alone in her bedroom; for her (and for her father), poetry is a form of birth control. That Clara's aware of the threat her poetry reading poses to the dominant sex-gender system Daddy Varner represents is clear, as her reference to his personal "nervous system" no doubt implicates the larger systemic forces she feels bearing down on her as well.

Of course, The Long Hot Summer falls on the side of order, justice, law, fatherhood, patriarchy, etc., as Clara eventually partners up with Quick. For some reason, we don't remember the end of The Contract, but we suspect the same is true there as well—that Carden is caught or killed, that poetry is equally domesticated or disciplined, and that Hollywood perpetuates its strange, low-level, but ongoing smear campaign against poetry. Nevertheless, these two films remain intriguing to P&PC because they don't suggest that some poetry is oppositional and some is not (as many people claim), but that, in the American cultural imagination, at least, all poetry—in the woods, or between the sheets—is somehow associated with forces that challenge dominant orders. Carden and Clara are both criminals for reading it. Who knows if maybe you are too?