Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Color Purple

I read Alice Walker's The Color Purple for the first time in the backseat of a car during Spring Break of my junior year of high school, while my parents drove me from Virginia to New Jersey to start looking at colleges.  I would say, "By the end of the book I was audibly crying," except that would imply I wasn't already crying at several earlier stages.  As soon as I finished the book, I read it again, and then I read Damage by Josephine Hart (!), and then Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and then The Color Purple again, and I cried again.  After well over a thousand miles of driving up and down and around the northeast (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I had a new favorite novel.  The cheap, tan, pulpy paper became somewhat damp from the stickiness of car travel and the saltiness of teenaged tears.  You can still make out the giveaway waviness in a few pages of my copy, which I bought for that trip in 1994 and still keep in my office.

The image above might be my favorite from the film, not remotely dulled for me by its ubiquitous reproductions (in slightly stylized form) as the poster image for the movie and the cover art for my paperback.  There is so much here: an elegantly simple device to communicate the passage of time; a distinctive but unfilled outline, heralding the imminent arrival within the frame of a new, debuting, but instantly iconic actress; a gesture to the Old Southern art of cut-paper silhouettes, evoked as gently here as it is brutally, dazzlingly reprised in the art of Kara Walker; an echo of prior images when Celie's and Nettie's candlelit shadows played pat-a-cake on two walls of a bedroom, such that we instantly grasp adult Celie's Bible and other books as her next-best-thing substitute for a vanished and deeply-missed sister; the rough, milled texture of the wallpaper, connoting the texture of those pages Celie is turning; and an indelible, two-ply image of reading itself as both a lonely activity and a life-saving rescue.  The low contrast and other qualities of the light here make the image unmistakably sad, even if you don't know the context.  At the same time, the shot is just warm enough—softer and more tender than the harsh, lapidary colors sneaking through the curtains at left—that you also sense the intimacy of the scene.  You'd imagine that, having read five books during a week of car travel, or three books a total of five times, that I must not have been much of a talker.  In fact I was, especially with my equally garrulous parents, but they knew I loved to read and had no problem leaving me to it even in the tight space of a four-door.  What they thought about hearing me cry with my nose in a novel I have no idea; I can't remember if I talked to them about what I was reading.  But I do recall, with fondness and wistfulness, that sense of feeling totally alone when I was reading, even when the people I loved most in the world were eighteen inches away.  This shot is a perfect index for that kind of feeling.  "I'd like to thank everyone in this book for coming," Alice Walker writes on her never-bettered dedication page, and for hours of reading The Color Purple, Celie and Mister and Shug and Nettie and Sofia and Squeak and the rest were the only people I recognized around me.

I'm not going to review the movie here, or get into why I like the film but idolize the novel, or reprise all the familiar controversies over Spielberg's appropriateness for the material, or the abstracting of lesbian desire between the movie's Celie and Shug, or the question of whether or not Walker and her interpreters relegate black men to bitter stereotype, even as they endow her women with dimension and vitality.  These and other topics have been well-worn, though there's still much to say and read and think about all of them—and I came thisclose to starting a book on these subjects in grad school, when queer cinema and black women's fiction and drama were still running neck-and-neck as the topics of my dissertation-to-be.  Reading The Color Purple now, even though I'm at least as fond of Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Toni Morrison's Paradise and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters and Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, remains a deep and renewable well of pleasure.  It also furnishes a might-have-been memory of a moment when my scholarship and teaching were centered elsewhere than they mostly are today, though I still get to teach a lot of these books in my literature classes.

As I said, I enjoy the movie without quite embracing it; the passages of craft, concision, and insight stand rather obviously apart from what is glossy, pudgy, or simplistic in the film.  Its earliest peak comes in this second shot, eschewing Walker's rougher beginning for some sisterly, sun-dappled play in a field.  This scene seems much softer until a very young Celie steps out from the high grass and reveals her pregnant belly.  The gesture is overt and powerful without being sensational, and without crude accenting by music or editing.  Celie's gaze into the sky, as the horizon cuts her body right at the womb, has always registered ambiguously with me: is she soaking up the pleasure of the sun shining on her face (as does Rocky Dennis, the protagonist of another of 1985's most moving films), or does she see storm-clouds rolling in, which Spielberg wisely refuses to literalize?  It's an image of pure expectation, but the temperature of that expectation, hot or cold, remains uncertain.

Readers of the novel already know how little Celie has to look forward to, in the near future or the distant one, but I've always admired Spielberg for making the childhood bond between Celie and Nettie so poignant, so muscular, and so jealously private, even in a film that sometimes declaims its themes and broadcasts its character beats too brazenly.  This John Ford-ish shot from the opening half-hour, presaging the duller silhouette at the top of this post, makes clear that bruising forces already hold Celie and Nettie in their vise-like grip, yet the intimacy of the central field asserts itself over the dark, portentous brackets.  Spielberg and d.p. Allen Daviau aren't the only people who deserve credit for the powerful impression made in shots like this one.  Recently deceased production designer J. Michael Riva strews the space with just enough textile and color to enrich the frame beyond the overall amber/indigo contrast, and to seduce our eye toward the middle of the shot.  It's also crucial that, by the time we see this image, we are already so bonded to young Celie and her slimmer, peppier, more confident sister Nettie.  Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey scored the movie's two Supporting Actress nominations for playing Shug and Sofia in the main body of the film, but I've always felt that the two real standouts in Spielberg's ensemble were Desreta Jackson and Akosua Busia, who fit a film's worth of devotion, enervation, and despondency into the film's opening movements.  It's astounding how much force The Color Purple generates in its nearly-wordless finale, which testifies as much as anything to how solidly Jackson and Busia establish the sisterly relation in the opening sequences, and how delicately the filmmakers fossilize that connection before it gets split apart.  (Busia, who plays Nettie so convincingly at two widely disparate ages, would later co-author the script for Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey's adaptation of Morrison's Beloved.)

All of that said, part of why it's so hard to pick a Best Shot from The Color Purple is that it seems insane to anoint one that doesn't feature the face of Whoopi Goldberg, the most beautiful face in a decade or more of American movies.  Her almond-shaped eyes ride atop uncannily bright cheeks and a huge, expressive mouth.  Her teeth are as broad and resplendent as Julia Roberts's, but they are widely spaced and just crooked enough to protect her from seeming unreal.  Goldberg's face has utterly distinctive slopes and muscles, to include her double-set of eyebrows: the hairless inverted commas high on her forehead, and the darker, broader brows she proves able to furrow even though they appear drawn-in by a makeup brush.  Features like these often help Goldberg to render two emotions at once.  She seems to incandesce her moods and feelings through her tight, bright skin and impish eyes, exactly the way Barbra Streisand did, though she thinks more visibly than Streisand does.  She can also go as childlike as Giulietta Masina, as fretful as Lillian Gish, or as earnest and downcast as Cicely Tyson at a moment's notice.

In the shot above, taken from Shug Avery's famous and public ode to "Miss Celie's Blues," Goldberg's tearing eyes get all the help they can from Allen Daviau to guide our attention, but it's the expression itself that secures such attention, merging the starstruck embarrassment of the singled-out fan with the unblinking arousal of the hopelessly smitten.  Sometimes Goldberg's close-ups look too strategized, or too close to pantomime, in this role and in others.  Her own eagerness to prove herself, combined with the fickleness of an industry that should have proved itself more fully to her, have often put Goldberg in the unfair position of re-certifying herself as an actress; people often find it easier or more habitual to think of her as a comedienne, a host, or a celebrity "personality."  Her acting is never less convincing than when she's trying to prove she can act, but when she's freed from audition mode and exists fully in character, her conveying of emotion, simple or complex, is hard to match.  The Color Purple's script would have to be much more closeted than it is to efface the signs of adulation and, yes, desire that Goldberg transmits in moments like this.

Later, graced by some impeccable aging makeup but relying mostly on her own features, Goldberg offers a bare-bones distillation of grief and blessed relief, utterly intermingled in her discovery that the long-lost Nettie is not, in fact, lost forever.  Her leafing through these pages and her recitation of the text feel simultaneously like an act of bereavement and a liberation from bereavement.  She looks like a woman whose nose is running and whose tear ducts are flowing, even though neither is true.  There are few close-ups in American cinema I find as transfixing as this one, and I admire Spielberg for feeding shades of purple into the shot without belaboring them, and while continuing to refrigerate the image with greys, whites, and freezing blues.  Purple isn't just a vivacious life-essence in Walker's novel or Spielberg's film.  Besides, I personally think it pisses God off when movie characters receive exactly what they most desire, only for directors to disguise how shaken they must be by such otherwise-euphoric discovery, how saddened by years of separation and postponement, or how angered by the sheer needlessness of their cruel, long-term denial.  Reading Nettie's letter constitutes both a door opening into Celie's future happiness and a floor dropping out beneath everything she has known about the world as an adult.

This sense of paradoxical emotion persists in Goldberg's final close-ups, where a whole range of purples (lavender, mulberry, so-purple-it's-blue) warm up the background but the knotting of Goldberg's multiple brows, the stretching of her lip, and the locking of her chin weigh it down.  Nothing could make Celie happier than reuniting in the flesh with Nettie and with her own children, but even in a movie that risks vulgar overstatement in granting some other characters their happiness (viz. Shug's florid and hyperbolic reunion with her father), Goldberg preserves the sense of bottomless grief that is so integral to this long-deferred "happy ending."  She barely knows whether to lift off or to bust apart, and that's an important way for the viewer to perceive Celie upon saying our own goodbyes.  We see and celebrate what she now holds in her hands, after decades of hoping to.  At the same time, we feel the blowback of all the loss and senseless punishment that precede and contextualize this reunion, and thereby pervade it.

(Click here for more Color Purple posts from Nathaniel's contributors and admirers, or here for more of his "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.)

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Anonymous Paul Outlaw said...

Lovely, Nick.

4:37 AM, August 15, 2013  
Anonymous 3rtful said...

You're easily the best associate writer Nathaniel collaborates with.

10:54 AM, August 15, 2013  
Anonymous Jay said...

I love how earnestly and unironically you call Goldberg's face the most beautiful in a decade or more of American cinema when her looks have been an easy target for the media for as long as she's been a household name. (Let's not forget Shug's most quoted line from the movie either.) Then you preempt any scoffs by backing up your claim with such glorious examples as the faces of Gish, Masina, Streisand and Tyson. You're absolutely incredible, Nick, in the best possible way.

12:23 PM, August 15, 2013  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks so much for each of these three compliments.

@Jay: I'm glad you understood the sentiment was earnest and not rhetorical! I remember an episode of Whoopi's short-lived late-night talk show in the 90s where she interviewed Glenn Close and said she liked the same thing about Close's face that she liked about her own: "That there's not a whole lot of these running around." I couldn't agree more; I might even agree more than Goldberg intended!

1:27 PM, August 15, 2013  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

so thought provoking as usual. i love when you join in and your admiration of whoopi's face is stunning -- and i love what you say about the first shot in particular.

aren't movies beautiful?

6:29 PM, August 15, 2013  
Blogger Ssplash said...

This is just so beautiful ...

10:29 AM, August 16, 2013  
Blogger The Pretentious Know it All said...

Beautiful write-up. I remember reading "The Color Purple" for the first time on a road trip to Savannah to visit my sister (though I may be mistaken). I do know that I read Walker's novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and listened to "Mama's Gun" all for the first time that summer.

Glad you made mention of Desreta Jackson and Akosua Busia. I think I'd agree much more that Jackson gives a rich performance much more than Busia. It's interesting to consider them both seeing as they are generally not the actresses whose names are invoked when the film is discussed. I didn't always love the writing of Nettie, so maybe my read of Busia's performance is colored by that, but I do definitely get a real sibling rapport between them.

And I never even considered how Spielberg (or maybe more accurately Daviau) infuses shades of purple into certain scenes. Amazing!

1:02 PM, August 16, 2013  
Anonymous Steve said...

@Pretentious: No doubt "There Eyes Were Watching God" is an excellent book, but it's not Walker's. ;-)

@Nick: Great post.

11:45 AM, August 17, 2013  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Steve: I always like hearing from you. Thanks for the compliment.

@Steve and @Pretentious: I tripped on that sentence for a second, too, as I'm sure people trip on mine all the time, but I think Pretentious is actually pointing to three different objects there - he read Walker's novel and Hurston's novel, and listened to Badu's (amazing, unbeatable, Top 10 for life) album. No comma after God, so it's not technically subordinated to "Walker's novel," which I think is just here as a stand-in for typing "The Color Purple" yet again.

And there's the English prof slipping into the occupational hazard of pedantry.

Anyway, the big takeaway here is: those are two brilliant books and one stunning album. And a fantastic city to boot. Time well spent, Pretentious!

11:56 AM, August 17, 2013  

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