Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Great American Read: 5 and 6, 12 Angry Men

These posts are from a reading list I started in late spring of 2018 and a film list I solicited from readers in January of 2017. I work slow but I'll finish, dammit!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is a story that at its heart is about two things: poverty and books. The protagonist, Francie, lives with her mother, her younger brother, and father in Brooklyn during the early 1900s when times were extremely rough. Dad drinks, money is tight, Mom picks up the slack and gets them all through it by--guess what--READING TO THE KIDS. It's not a pleasant story, it's full of a lot of tragedy and injustice, but the empathy and heart that comes from experiencing such a story is very meaningful. We've all struggled, we've all gone through unpleasant situations, but the sort of struggle author Betty Smith has written about in this novel is something that many times, today anyway, gets written off as laziness, as ignorance, or just failing to lift one's self up "by the bootstraps," as it were. No one in this story is lazy or ignorant; people work hard, people do the best they can and people fail, people die. As with the title of the book, my favorite moments discuss the hopelessness together with the surprising way optimism persists in this young girl's life. Why does the tree keep growing? Read and find out:

When baby Francis is born, Katie frets to her German mother about the poor quality of life that lay ahead, but the new Oma sees hope:

"Excitement came into her voice. 'Already, it is starting---the getting better.' She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. 'This child was born of parents who can read and write,' she said simply. 'To me, this is a great wonder.'
'Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?'
'The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. The she must read every day, I know this is the secret.'"

Teachers had a lot to do with Francie's success,

"If all the teachers had been like Miss Bernstone and Mr. Morton, Francie would have known plain what heaven was. But it was just as well. There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory."

Yet not all of them made an effort to understand the realities so common in the lives of poor students (one such bristled at the subject of one of Francie's stories that described a character with a drinking problem):

"'Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It's a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.'
(Imagine Mama lazy!)

This is the first novel on the Great American Read list that I feel should be mandatory reading for both kids and adults. People generally agree that literacy is important; can we make the same statement about empathy for the poor? Or while we're at it, the experiences of poor little girl? Oma was right---many secrets to success lie in reading and writing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I didn't know how this was going to go, honestly. I read the story as a kid, probably some arranged or edited version, saw the film, and was full well familiar with the environment of most of Twain's works, which is the openly racist South. Even knowing this beforehand, it's still jarring and uncomfortable to read racist words in dialogues or the descriptions of people first and foremost seen (by the white people) as "others." Did I enjoy the book? Mostly I did. On the surface it's a story about a naughty little boy doing naughty little boy things but there are very serious issues going on, too (murder, framing an innocent, abduction, homelessness) and racism underscores a lot of the events. Tom Sawyer as a character, is not mean or hateful, but this book takes place during a time that was, and there's no way to justify it other than to say that it was written accurately for when it happened in history.

Apart from its historical honesty, the writing is very witty and youthful. Every now and then you get a fun kind of acknowledgement (from Twain about Tom as a little shit of a character, which he is):

"The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer . . . "

and often the importance of the natural world. A beetle in church provides entertainment until a dog randomly comes into church and carries it off. Tom knows not only bug and bird species, but how to fish, how to start a campfire, how to survive in the wilderness (but not quite yet how to smoke without throwing up). He has sympathy for an innocent man. He falls in love with Becky Thatcher and impresses her with his artwork. He sympathizes with Huck Finn when his friend realizes his clothes aren't good enough to be a pirate, and so on.

There are many sweet little human moments in this story, and among all the evil and dishonesty, mostly perpetrated by the adults in the town, the overall theme is one of youthful innocence. These moments made me nostalgic for my own childhood---picking dandelions in the ditch of our driveway, hauling barn cats around in wagons, climbing up trees, and running around at night, all with my brother right instep with me--and these moments made the book a worthwhile read.

12 Angry Men

1957: d. Sidney Lumet, starring Martin Basalm, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber.

1997: d. William Friedkin, starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen.

The story was originally written by Reginald Rose as a teleplay in 1954 but has since been adapted for theater, film, and television. Many countries (Germany, India, Russia, Lebanon, China, and Sri Lanka) have also released versions of the same story over the years. The premise of the story, twelve male jurors deciding the fate of a young man of an unidentified but different ethnicity, is nearly the same in both American films as are the personalities of the characters themselves. Unlike many other courtroom dramas, all of the time is spent inside the locked jury room with the twelve men while they deliberate, and as the title suggests, there are issues.
"He can't hear you. He never will."

I'd seen both of these years ago, and I remembered the lone juror (#8 Fonda/Lemmon) holding out among all the others who were so immediately convinced the kid was guilty. What struck me this time around were the standout differences between the eighth juror and the rest of the crew. #8 is one of two men (the other, #12) whose profession would have required a college education but this isn't the only reason he's interesting. He asks questions, is honest and self-aware, and he explains things very exactly and specifically. An architect would have to be both creative and scientific, and #8 is both of these things, almost teacher-like. He seems to have a greater understanding of the importance of the legal system, the jury's duty as citizens, and an overall worldly kind of approach to right and wrong. This kind of attitude stands in direct contrast to that of many of the other jurors', who are very rigid and defined (at least at first) in their behaviors.

"You oughta have more respect."

While these characters initially come off a little caricatured, it's still kind of exciting to see how they navigate through the whole procedure and how #8 eventually gets through to each man. I gave the 1957 cast nicknames (nerd, ranter, poor guy, old guy, full racist, dumb guy, etc.) and they mostly held true for the 1997 cast as well, but there were some updates in characters and with the writing that blurred the lines a little more. In any case, both casts were quite skilled, and seeing them interact was pretty fun. I personally enjoyed Fonda's easygoing calmness in the first film and the late great James Gandolfini as #6, a kind of early, wise-cracking working man Tony Soprano in the second.

Is any of this outdated? In some ways, yes. Race relations have changed slightly for the better, and juries are rarely made only of men anymore, but there's no denying that the core system that continues to divide everyone and push an us vs. them mentality continues to be old, white, and male. That said, the issues of truth (who's telling it?) and laziness (who's got time for all this?) will keep these films relevant, probably forever no matter who sits in the jury box.

"Assumed? Brother, I've seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y'all come in here with your hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice, you listen to some fairy tales, suddenly you start gettin' through to some of these old ladies... well, you're not getting through to me, I've had enough! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he's guilty. He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers."