Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Honeydripper"

This is a John Sayles directed film. Like other films he has made it, it has loads of characters and a certain political edge. This one is set down in America's deep south in the early 1950s, in a land untouched by troubling modern notions of racial equality or the importance of inter-ethnic association. For all that, it is part of the same world of ain't-the-South-swell films as Cookie's Fortune or Black Snake Moan. The action focuses on a rural bar-restaurant called The Honeydripper, owned by this African American guy (played by Danny Glover) and frequented by essentially no one, as everyone is busily going to the locality's other bar because it has a jukebox. But then a young fellow with a home-made electric guitar drifts into town – could it be that the blocks will slot into place such that he will be revealed as the solution to The Honeydripper's problems? (answer: yes).

One thing I have noticed with the John Sayles films I have seen is a certain affection for human beings and their foibles. This seems especially pronounced in this one, where even the corrupt racist sheriff does not seem quite as awful by the end of the film as he first appears. I was also struck by the way the guitar playing fellow seemed like a nice young lad, and I kind of suspected that he wouldn't be leaving behind three pregnant teenagers when he eventually skipped town. That said, this is not simply a feel-good chirpy film, as there is an edge to what happens in it. The sheriff is ultimately not quite as bad as initially implied, but he is still running a regime not that dissimilar to slavery, while some of the black men working in the fields are so ground down by whitey that they start turning on each other in a rather distasteful manner. The Honeydripper's proprietor is haunted (literally, as it turns out) by his own past, but the most straightforwardly sinister character is perhaps the preacher who is trying to save the proprietor's wife by taking him from her. Some of the scenes where the preacher does his stuff call to mind nothing so much as 'The Jezebel Spirit' from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

Sayles films are great for the characters, including the more minor ones. Aside from the ones already mentioned, particular favourites included the Danny Glover character's adoptive daughter, the two feuding field hands, and the jazz singer's husband. The best, though, is the sporty lady who seemed to have wondered in from Carry On Brer Rabbit, with dialogue consisting of an endless sequence of double (and single) entendres.

There is a lot of music in the film, a definite part of its appeal. It is set in a time when proto rock 'n' roll is supplanting jazz and the blues as the music of Black America, but a time when whitey had not taken over this music. It is also a time of technological change, with electric guitars and juke boxes being exciting new devices guaranteed to pull in the punters. One big difference with now, though, is how undeveloped the mediation of this musical scene is, with it being as easy as piss for any chancer with a guitar to pass himself of as the Guitar Sam that people have been hearing on the radio. The film nevertheless shuns musical clich├ęs… when the mysterious blind guitarist launches into 'Stagger Lee', the Danny Glover character stops him with a curt "I always hated that tune".

I'm not sure if I am expressing myself that well here, so let me finish by encouraging all readers to see this film without delay.

No comments: