Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Deliverance/Iraq: Commentaries

The Shadowland column about "Deliverance" and the war in Iraq continues to attract attention. Earlier this week it was cited by Andrew Sullivan on, "The Daily Dish," and now Scott Horton has weighed in with a kind and cautionary note on his Harpers blog, "No Comment":

... Dickey’s relation of Deliverance to the current American dilemma is not an entertainment. It’s an admonition. ...

Monday, October 22, 2007

War and Deliverance

My Newsweek Shadowland column this week, which is published in an abbreviated form in the print magazine, was adapted from a speech I gave last year at the University of South Alabama at the invitation of Sue Walker:

By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 12:44 PM ET Oct 17, 2007

Probably you know as much as you want to know about the most infamous scene in the 1972 movie "Deliverance," that homosexual rape by the riverside in the backwoods of Georgia—"Squeal piggy!"—it's been a source of hetero horror and sophomoric jokes ever since it first hit the screen 35 years ago. Warner Brothers has just released a deluxe anniversary DVD of "Deliverance," in HD or Blu-ray if you please, so the film's likely to have something of a revival in America's living rooms. Woe to any parents who fail to take the R rating seriously: that one nightmare sequence is so graphic, so carnal, so violent and humiliating that you cannot help but cringe, or laugh. (A lot of people laugh, nervously.) And you just cannot forget it.

Since my late father, James Dickey, wrote the novel "Deliverance" and the screenplay for the movie, I like to think there's more to the story than that, and indeed there is. But it was only last year, when I was asked by my friend Sue Walker at the University of South Alabama (yes, USA) to give a talk about the Middle East, which I normally write about, and also the making of the film “Deliverance,” which people seem to want to hear about, that I started thinking about the movie's particular relevance for the post-9/11 world. My old man and I disagreed about many things, but when I watched the re-released film again just recently, in light of current headlines, I realized just how well he'd tapped into those mind-sets that eventually helped plunge us into the Mesopotamian quagmire.

The basic plot of "Deliverance" is simple enough. Four suburbanites from Atlanta go canoeing up in the mountains. ("This is the weekend they didn't play golf," as the movie's original publicity campaign put it.) Then they find that the wild river and the people around it are much more dangerous than they'd ever bargained for. One of the men from Atlanta is raped, one is killed and the others learn to kill.

The instigator of the expedition is Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds in the movie), and while he talks about getting back to nature and testing himself against the wild, he's really more of a country-club Friedrich Nietzsche: a would-be "├╝bermensch," or "superman," riffing on the 19th-century German philosopher's conceits, constantly training his body and mind to excel, reinventing himself to lead. His destiny—to survive against all odds—will be a triumph of his will. Or so he thinks.

In the end, though, it is not the ├╝bermensch who offers deliverance from the nasty, brutish horrors of the river and the men of the forest. It is the perfectly ordinary man, the just-getting-by guy, Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), who transcends himself to survive. He is not inspired by a vision of the future, he does not aspire to be tested by man and nature. He's motivated by fear, pure and simple, and his desire to return to his normal life without that fear.
In the early parts of the story, Ed thinks Lewis is a little nuts, but he's fascinated by the idea that Lewis might be right about—something—he's not sure what. Obsessions like those of Lewis Medlock can create their own charisma, inspiring fear while pretending to resist it. Untested ersatz fortitude often looks impressive. The other businessmen from Atlanta, the soft-spoken Drew (Ronny Cox) and porcine Bobby (Ned Beatty), think Lewis is a lot nuts. In fact, they think he's dangerous. And they're right.

Me, I think Lewis is Vice President Dick Cheney's closet fantasy of himself, and as such, a sort of model for the Bush administration as a whole. And Ed, he's about the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by. And the river? That's the war in Iraq. ... (more)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Not Quite to the White Sea ....

In the current issue of Time Magazine, the Cormac McCarthy has a conversation with Joel and Ethan Coen about moves they've made, would like to make, and wish they'd made. James Dickey's "To The White Sea" falls into the latter category.

CORMAC MCCARTHY What would you guys like to do that's just too outrageous, and you don't think you'll ever get to do it?

JOEL COEN Well, I don't know about outrageous, but there was a movie we tried to make that was another adaptation. It was a novel that James Dickey wrote called To the White Sea, and it was about a tail gunner in a B-29 shot down over Tokyo.

C.M. That was the last thing he wrote.

J.C. Last thing he wrote. So this guy's in Tokyo during the firebombing, but the story isn't really about that. He walks from Honshu to Hokkaido, because he grew up in Alaska and he's trying to get to a cold climate, where he figures he can survive, and he speaks no Japanese, so after the first five or 10 minutes of the movie, there's no dialogue at all.

C.M. Yeah. That'd be tough.

J.C. It was interesting. We tried to make that, but no one was interested in financing this expensive movie about the firebombing of Tokyo in which there's no dialogue.

ETHAN COEN And it's a survival story, and the guy dies at the end.

C.M. Everybody dies. It's like Hamlet.

E.C. Brad Pitt wanted to do it, and he has this sort of remorse or regret about it. But he's too old now.

J.C. But you know, there's something about it--there were echoes of it in No Country for Old Men that were quite interesting for us, because it was the idea of the physical work that somebody does that helps reveal who they are and is part of the fiber of the story. Because you only saw this person in this movie making things and doing things in order to survive and to make this journey, and the fact that you were thrown back on that, as opposed to any dialogue, was interesting to us.

There's much left unsaid here. Some $50 million had been raised by producer Richard Roth and others to produce the film and locations already had been scouted that summer of 2001. I ran into Brad Pitt at a party in Italy and talked to him about it. He was indeed enthusiastic (although George Clooney, who was also there, kept asking him why he'd make a movie that had almost no dialogue at all). The problem, as we were told eventually by Roth, is that the Coens wanted a budget that was maybe 50 percent higher, mainly for special effects during the firebombing of Tokyo. And that money just wasn't there. - C.S.