March 29, 2005

LOW MAN (via Robert Schwartz):

A 60's Holdout and His Daughter, Searching for an Epic (MANOHLA DARGIS, 3/25/05, NY Times)

The Jack of all trades in the new film "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," played by the brilliant actor Daniel Day-Lewis, is no ordinary man. A proud survivor of the 1960's and its utopian promise, Jack lives alone on an island with his only daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), a doe-eyed beauty with the milky skin and ruby lips of a fairy-tale heroine. Shrunk to near-skeletal size, his bones poking right angles through his clothes, Jack suffers from two heart conditions. One will soon put him six feet under. But before that, the other may send the terminal outsider and his daughter down the path of disaster, though one shaped more by the tao of Oprah and Dr. Phil than the tragedy of Lear and Cordelia.

The film opens in 1986 with the image of richly hued red flowers seemingly bopping to the music flooding the soundtrack, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's singularly creepy song, "I Put a Spell on You." This first version is by Creedence Clearwater Revival and is all growls and lugubriously plodding beats. Sometime later, after Jack and Rose are on the emotional outs and neck-deep in melodrama, we hear the song again, only this time the voice prowling the soundtrack belongs to Nina Simone, a singer whose unhurried phrasing and heat bring the song to a slow boil. By this point in the story, Jack has invited a woman, his sometimes lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), to move in with him, an invitation that sends his daughter reeling.

A story about the limits of love, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is also about the limits of idealism. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the wife of Mr. Day-Lewis and a daughter of Arthur Miller, the film summons up both a time and a worldview as distant as the Port Huron Statement, a founding document of the New Left. Once upon a time, Jack and some like-minded souls, including Rose's long-gone mother, hoped to live in communion with one another and with the natural world. The second goal turned out to be easier than the first and, over time, the other commune members drifted back into the outside world. These days, Jack alone lights the house with windmill power while Rose collects seaweed to use as fertilizer in the garden. [...]

Love is strange, and some love, like that between Jack and Rose, is stranger still. But in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," it's also unbelievable because Ms. Miller is too smitten with the idea of this impossible love to make her characters ring true. The full measure of Jack's wrongs, what his convictions have done to his daughter and how they have shaped their life together, doesn't emerge until late in the film. But even then it remains unclear whether Ms. Miller fully appreciates just how loathsome a creature Jack is, the damage he's wrought.

As Mr. Schwartz points out, Arthur Miller is too much an icon around places like the Times for them to accept that Ms Miller knows precisly how loathsome the father is and how much damage he did.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 29, 2005 1:31 PM

The article does skirt the question of whether or not Ms. Miller used any real-life experiences to construct her main character, though you suspect even if she did and told the Times that in a sit-down interview, it would be brushed off as an example of her misguided story construction (or the Times reporter would start running around the room with his hands to his ears and making loud answer-drowning-out noises).

Posted by: John at March 29, 2005 3:54 PM