Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

The Help reviewed by Greg Wright

I know some reviewers who proudly declare that they never watch films a second time.  And I can understand why that can happen.  After all, if you’re reviewing films regularly, the theatrical release market alone can keep you busy with an average of four or five screenings a week—peaking during the holiday season with as many as a dozen in the span of a few days.  I know that back in the 1990s, John Hartl of the Seattle Times (who was also contributing to Premiere, as I recall) was averaging nearly ten films screened a week.  And that kind of load doesn’t include film festivals, screenings for pleasure… or the home video market—which is now roughly triple the size of the theatrical release market.  A reviewer can keep so busy that there simply isn’t enough time (or desire) to watch a film twice.

But there’s the actual rub.  Except for the rare, extremely astute, and attentive reviewer, one screening is simply not sufficient to form an authoritative (or even fully-informed) opinion of a film—much less offer incisive commentary on how, exactly, a filmmaker achieved a certain effect or assembled a scene or sequence.  A reviewer might have a visceral reaction to the “Odessa Steps” sequence in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, for instance.  But the technical direction there is so dense that an opening-day reviewer couldn’t offer much of an analysis beyond a quick reference to Eisenstein and The Battleship Potemkin.  So most reviewers (and this is the somewhat arbitrary line between reviewers and actual “critics”) owe it to themselves to see culturally significant films more than once.

the-help-insetBut the problem goes deeper than that: reviewers and audience members alike go into every screening with a certain set of expectations that color the cinematic experience.

For regular reviewers, I’d warrant that the two primary expectations are either a Norbit-inspired dread or an overweening pants-peeing fanboy admiration for Scorsese, Tarantino, the Coens, von Trier, or whoever the auteur du jour happens to be.  (On the flip side of that coin, I must confess to a horribly unjustified bias against the films of Steven Spielberg and Julia Roberts.) Such expectations are further complicated by how much sleep one got the night before, which loudmouthed journalist happens to be within earshot, which other film one just got done screening or reviewing, how much of the film’s publicity materials one has read, or how much fan hype has crept through one’s defenses.  Then one has to actually pay attention to the film in detail while trying to take some kind of useful and legible notes.  And when this job has to be conducted in the context of promotional screenings (such as the abysmally-facilitated showing of Spielberg’s War Horse which I once attended and which left me, and scores of average joes, in a foul mood before the film even started), the level of distraction rises exponentially.

Audience members face their own unique distractions: semi-informed nonsense, puff, and sharply accurate recommendations (or insults) the aforementioned reviewers have written, plans for after-screening dinner (or romance, or both), squirmy children, neighbors texting during the film, nacho cheese dripping on their shirts… you get the drift.

So much for actually paying attention to an incredibly complex art form.

Every once in a while, then, in light of all such difficulties, I find it worthwhile to deliberately revisit films that I was lukewarm about—to find out how much my own personal biases and professional hazards interfere with my ability to really watch a film.  I rarely sit down, in fact, for the sole purpose of enjoying a film the first time I see it.  I simply have a hard time dropping the lens of a reviewer and former aspiring filmmaker.

The Help, which was enormously successful in its theatrical release, is a perfect such case for me: I enjoyed it well enough in the theater (particularly because I didn’t have to review it), but it didn’t captivate me.

The film tells the fictional story of an aspiring white journalist who enlists the help of black maids in Civil-Rights era Jackson, Mississippi to compile an anthology of first-person accounts titled The Help, which gets successfully published by a New York firm.

Right there in that extremely abbreviated synopsis are two red flags which throw up critical roadblocks for me.  First, this is a fiction about true stories—a gimmick which is designed to help us lower our guard and more easily enter the “secondary reality” of a story.  (The effect is alternately referred to as “the willing suspension of disbelief.”)  The second red flag is also built-in: a story about the black experience compiled by a white protagonist.  And Skeeter is so doggone cute and feisty, too—sort of the white correlate to Minny’s finger-waggling renegade housekeeper.

So as I watched The Help the first time, I was paying attention to the ways in which those two conventions and artifices were being employed to manipulate my emotions.

How much of Aibileen’s and Minny’s “reality” was being informed by my experience and memory of cinematic conventions about black women?  The script even mentions the legacy of Gone With the Wind; “the help” figures in favorite films like It’s a Wonderful Life; Cicely Tyson of Sounder fame is cast as Skeeter’s nanny Constantine; and in this genre, you can’t help but invoke the hokum of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple.

Skeeter’s cuteness and spunk aside, how realistic is it for a white woman to have associated with and helped black women in 1963 Jackson—and lived to tell about it?  How is it that Aibileen has never had white visitors in her home, but Constantine has Skeeter’s growth chart in hers? Minny’s pie for Hilly is also a tremendously entertaining storyline; but how does that jive with what we know about lynchings, assassinations, and general race-baiting?  Does all this illuminate the problems of racism, or soft-peddle them?

You can see what kind of a pain in the backside I can be when it comes to watching movies.

But I hope you can also see, perhaps, how uncritical your own thinking may be about what you read in reviews—and about your own response to films.  The only stark difference between you and me, I suspect, is a wide gap in our levels of consciousness when it comes to these influences.  I think about them too much… and you likely think about them too little.

So what did I find when I revisited The Help?

What I really noticed was the high-class craft exhibited by virtual first-time director Tate Taylor.  Yes, all the requisite script beats are there—and while not every script writer masters them, most big-budget films follow the formula pretty straightforwardly.  But Taylor adds some very subtle touches that can’t exactly be scripted.

Like most contemporary filmmakers schooled in the Steven Spielberg Formula for Succcess, Tate knows that “show them, don’t tell them” can be distilled down into efficient single shots that convey as much as a page or two of dialogue.  So, for instance, when we are first introduced to Aibileen at the Leefolt’s place, Tate sneaks in a shot of the “L-shaped scratch on the dining room table.”  But it’s not just a plot point for later reference; it’s also, as Aibileen slides a serving dish over the scar, symbolic of the hurts that are covered up and glossed over in the Leefolt household… and in Jackson, and the South, and America.  But unlike Spielberg, Tate doesn’t telegraph the shot with a dolly zoom, as Spielberg the Master might.  Tate is content to let such things work on the subconscious, and be found out with more attentive later viewings.

Another example is Aibileen’s dash home after she’s kicked off the bus in the wake of the Evers shooting. With no fanfare, Tate has the award-winning Viola Davis literally cross to the “wrong side of the tracks” during her fearful flight. It’s a simple thing, but meaningful: if Aibilieen must run home, where should we see her running? Tate has plenty of choices, and the ones he makes are usually excellent ones.

Similarly, I’ve often thought about Tate’s shot of Aibileen that closes the film.  It’s wonderful how Aibileen’s tears change from heartbroken to hopeful as she leaves the Leefolt’s house for the last time; but I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that some sleight of hand was at work in a single shot that takes us from a closeup of Aibileen’s tears and concludes with a near “God shot” as she continues through the Leefolt’s white suburb.

This time, I was able to see what Tate did—and it’s really quite remarkable.  As Aibileen’s narration modulates into her post-retirement plans and dreams, and as Tate’s camera pulls back from its subject, Aibileen does not walk past the camera, turning her back to it; no—she turns to her left at a crossroads.  Tate doesn’t have to swing the camera around as Aibileen passes it: he simply has to pull back… as Aibileen symbolically turns a corner and redeems that opening L-shaped scratch in the table.  Nice.  Very nice, indeed. And again, without showy flourishes.  Just well-thought-out images and compositions rife with meaning and import.

So I enjoyed The Help much more the second time around, and was once again pleased to find that I’m still able to watch movies as movies when given half a chance… and find deeper and richer enjoyment in the process.

If you’ve never gotten around to seeing The Help, or have even wondered whether you want to see it again, wait no further.  Viola Davis just won some more awards, so the timing is right. Just remember, to paraphrase Ingmar Bergman: when you sit down to watch a film, you’ve signed an implicit contract to turn your will and intellect over into the hands of a master craftsman.  Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!

The Help is available to stream at Amazon Instant Video.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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