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9.22.2009

Welfare Brat and Doubt

Doubt (2008) is the finest film I've seen in a long while. Nominated for five Academy Awards (unfortunately, it took the goose egg), including best leading actress and best supporting actor, this film was a delightful combination of steady direction, uniformly strong turns and excellent mise-en-scene.

John Patrick Shanley, who wrote and directed Doubt, has the sum total of one other director's credit under his belt. That fine film? Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). Shanley must have spent those eighteen years percolating on the creative process. If that's the case, the man struck gold with this film.

Shanley moves the film forward with quick jump-cuts, interspersed with beautiful still shots of staid churches and conservative rectories. One of the editing techniques he plays to great effect is the juxtaposition between the boozy, bawdy priests and the quiet, milk-quaffing nuns. The shots are stark and visceral--the priests' shot opens on a blood-soaked rare steak. The nuns' turn is focused on a pitcher of milk.

The whole thing seems to reek of double standard. They're all working toward the same goal, right? Well, actually they're not. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn is an altruistic dreamer. He envisions a church that welcomes its parishioners. He wants to broadcast a progressive message of tolerance.

His antagonist here, the superb Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is a living symbol of the old ways. She thinks ball-point pens are the end of penmanship; she is convinced that barrettes are the calling cards of future street walkers.

A classic morality narrative, this film is bolstered by the great performances turned in by Streep and Hoffman, and a surprisingly effective turn by Amy Adams. She snatches a couple of scenes here, but the focus is on Hoffman and Streep. That final showdown between the snarling Hoffman and the sneering Streep is worth the price of admission alone.

I'm also reading Welfare Brat, a complex, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir by Mary Childers on her family and its dependence on the welfare system. Childers, a PhD who now works in discrimination mediation for colleges and universities, was the first in her family to attend college. Her portrayal of a fatherless childhood is crushing; her depiction of her alcoholic mother is depressing.

Still, there's a plucky undercurrent of survival in this book. Childers and her sisters and brother (she hatefully refers to them at one point as an infestation) stumble through ups and downs (but mostly downs), all the while fiercely protecting one another.

Childers is an excellent writer--perceptive and humorous and blunt.

...the neighbor charges. "You wanna know why folks are pouring buckets of water on the street?" Then she blurts out the answer. My youngest sister Alice is in the hospital, maybe dying and definitely brain damaged. En route to a box of Cracker Jacks, she was hit by a car speeding though a stop sign. Her head bounced twice on a manhole cover. The neighbor proudly tells me a specialist has been summoned from another state. I visualize Alice's blood collecting int he decorative cast iron and dripping into the sewer.

Yeah. Very hard to read in places. Still, we'll be doing a series of assignments on poverty, women and children in poverty and issues of food insecurity in the fall and spring here at the college, and this will be an excellent resource.

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