Out of Africa (1985)

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When you think of Africa, I’m sure your first thought is of the poor white people who struggled to eke out a living on a massive plantation during the colonial era.  If they’re really good white people, they might condescend to allow their African tribal neighbors to work on their land, even if, say, they have an infection on their leg. That’s just the kind of wonderful white people they are.

I now feel confident in my ability to categorize Oscar films into particular genres, and this one falls decidedly in the “white savior does something nice for a non-white person and now they’re a goddamn hero” camp.  It’s the only way minorities tend to feature in films, as objects of white characters’ narrative arcs.  I’ve heard this, and read criticism of it, and maybe even occasionally thought about it myself when watching films in moments of greater cultural consciousness.  But I suppose it’s a more striking lesson when you finally see it yourself.

The movie is based on the writing of Isak Denison, whom I’ve never read and didn’t know anything about prior to watching the film.  Her memoir of the same name described her experience trying to run a coffee farm in Kenya in the era of World War I.  Since reviewing accounts is pretty boring, most of the story actually focuses on her budding romance with the ruggedly handsome big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who sounds like the poshest Brit in Buckingham Palace but is actually the basic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee.  You’ll be surprised to realize that Crocodile Dundee does not make the best of boyfriends, especially when he’d rather spend his time wandering around the wilderness instead of with his ladyfriend.  At least, as long as he can store his crap in her house rent-free.

Like most three-hour films, my attention flagged somewhere in the middle, which turned out to be just the point when something interesting happened with the plot.  The last thing I remember, the lovebirds were flying around in Finch Hatton’s aeroplane, which he picked up somewhere.  Then all of a sudden Isak was moving out because her farm failed.  Oh, and somewhere in the middle she opened up a school for the local tribe’s children – not the worst idea in the world if the curriculum were not based only on what she deemed fitting for the kids to learn.  Crocodile Finch Hatton thought so, anyway.

This is one of a handful of Best Pictures that holds a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the most recent film with that honor.  It makes sense.  Though I would certainly rate quite a few highly-regarded movies on the list as rotten, Out of Africa is fairly egregious in the same traits that other movies pull off better.  The scale is epic, but its story doesn’t support the length.  It’s sort of a romance, but you don’t need three hours to tell a love story.  Though the lead actors (Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who even I recognize as among the best) are skilled, their characters don’t have much of a spark.

Bottom line:  it’s not the worst thing in the world to get out of Africa.

 

 

Theme:  Rotten

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not owners, just passing through.

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Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

 

I swear I didn’t plan to watch a movie about divorce on Father’s Day.  GG, Bridget.  Granted, if there’s a movie that celebrates fatherhood more than this, I haven’t watched it yet.  It doesn’t remind me in any way of my own dad, but then again, my dad’s not Dustin Hoffman, either.

So, I ran into a bit of difficulty with my theme when I reached the seventies.  Fully half of the movies that won Oscars in this decade reference a dude right in the title, so that rules them out.  I suppose I could have managed Annie Hall if I hadn’t already written it up – though, in fairness, that film is less about a woman than about Woody Allen occasionally pausing in his whining long enough for a woman to wander by.  What’s left, then, but Kramer vs. Kramer?  Surely, I thought, in a movie featuring two parents, the lady Kramer would factor in about 50% of the time, right?  Right?

You’d think I’d have learned something, lo these six months.  This is not a movie for the moms out there.  In the first half hour alone, I found myself wondering just how many times I’d have to listen to the sound of boys taking a piss.  Rather than a movie about how difficult it is to be a parent (mother or father), this really comes off to me more as a film about a not-great-dad realizing how hard parenting is when he actually has to do it.  Do I sound bitter?  Maybe I’m a little bitter.

The truth is, nobody would have cared about this movie if the roles were reversed:  dad walks out and leaves mom to do the hard work of bringing up a child on her own.  Because we’ve all heard that story, maybe even lived it.  Even today, thirty-some years after the movie came out, in an atmosphere where work/life balance is acknowledged as important, women face the same threat to their priorities.  Your career sees a setback because you had to stay home with a sick kid?  Ah, too bad, you just didn’t want it enough.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kramer needs a job and manages to bully his way into a new one in the middle of a Christmas party, just because he wouldn’t leave until he got what he wanted.  Would a woman come out of that the same way, or would she end up getting kicked out on her ass?  I think we all know the answer to that.  The same is true in how each parent is approached in the courtroom during a custody dispute: (the former) Mrs. Kramer is grilled about her sexual history and mental health, her fitness questioned at every turn.  Nobody asks Mr. Kramer about the last time he had sex.

Maybe, in the end, this is just the right movie to watch – both on Father’s Day and during a month of movies meant to consider what it’s like to be a woman on film.  Whether it means to or not, it is a film representative of the female experience.  No matter how hard you fight, in the end, you’ll still end up doubting your own worth and giving in.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Complete failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  No double-chocolate chip ice cream