Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dear Lasse

It is curious phenomenon, rather simple to explain, but when men go off to war, leaving behind sweethearts pledging to be faithful, there often comes a moment when the soldier, sailor, or marine receives a letter from his sweetheart in which she announces that she wants to break up with him, can't wait for him any longer, has met someone else, or just doesn't love him any more. It is such a common experience that, regardless of the man's first name, the letters have long since come to be known as "Dear John" letters.

It is just another of the many outrages of war that it creates long separations for men and women, that places such unfair strains on relationships. I can speak from experience that knowing or at least believing that you have someone waiting for you at home makes it that much harder, not easier, to carry out your duties on a distant shore. The so-called "baby boom" was a direct result of a generation of American men being demobilized at the end of WWII, and making up for all the lost time.

Notwithstanding how common the experience is, the separation of sweethearts in times of war involves intense emotions. There have been some quite beautiful love poems written by soldiers to the women they left behind. A book of poems by the Welshman Alun Lewis called Ha Ha! Among the Trumpets presents a moving narrative of separation. One of the best poems from the anthology, "In Hospital: Poona", can be found here.

The movie Dear John (2010) is much more prosaic. As much as it tries to individualize its characters, it is about as generic as a film on the subject can be. The story goes like this: in 2007, a wounded soldier (Channing Tatum) recalls his relationship with a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) in Charleston, South Carolina (we never see Charleston, only the beaches and some houses far outside the city, and - believe me - it never looked so good) six years before. He was on leave and she was on Spring Break. In two weeks they fall in love. She goes back to college, he to the army, but they both promise to write during what they anticipate will be a year's separation. The rest of the film, given the title and the trite premise, is hopelessly predictable. Even the film's happy ending (you were expecting something different?) comes as no surprise. The style of the film is so leisurely it's almost supine. Scenes go by without the slightest dramatic emphasis. This is partly the fault of the lame material (from a novel by Nicholas Sparks) and the acting.

I only mention this otherwise unmentionable movie because it was directed by Lasse Hallström. In 1985, Hallström directed and co-wrote My Life as a Dog, the story of a boy in 1950s Sweden who compares his problems to other people's (and dog's) so they don't seem so overwhelming. It was the film that got Hallström the international notice he needed to catapult him all the way to Hollywood. Like so many before him, Hallström found financial reward but lost his way as an artist.

He started out, as so many directors do these days, as a director of music videos. He directed several Abba videos, twenty-seven in all, including Abba: The Movie (1977). After My Life as a Dog, which demonstrated a talent with child actors, he directed two children's movies in Sweden, before making his Hollywood debut with Once Around (1991). His second American movie, however, cemented his reputation as a director of off-beat subjects: What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), starring Johnny Depp and Leo DiCaprio. (Unacquainted with DiCaprio at the time I first saw him in Gilbert, I actually thought he was mentally disabled.) I thought the film was rather deliberately quirky, and his subsequent films confirmed my impression. Something To Talk About (1995), The Cider House Rules (1999), which contains the dumbest compliment ever paid to a pretty woman ("It hurts to look at you!"), and Chocolat (2000) were all oddball character studies, none of which were convincing.

Since Chocolat, which, with The Cider House Rules was nominated for "Best Picture" Oscars, Hallström has directed a string of turkeys, including The Shipping News (2001), Casanova (2005) (which shows us the most uninteresting aspect of the real Casanova - his womanizing), and Hachiko: A Dog's Story (2009), a remake of a 1987 Japanese film starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai.

Dear John was almost unanimously panned by critics, which didn't prevent it from earning more than ten times its $25 million budget. The film also got the full cooperation of the Pentagon for portraying the U.S. military in a decidedly favorable manner, unlike, say, The Valley of Elah, which does not. It didn't come as any great shock to learn that Channing Tatum got his start as a model. He certaily shows off his costumes in Dear John beautifully. A cedar armoire is less wooden than Tatum. I have written before about Amanda Seyfried (see Letters to Juliet). She is toothsome but otherwise flavorless. But Richard Jenkins, as John's coin-collecting, obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic father, is marvelous. Jenkins is being wasted in supporting roles.

Now 66, it's perhaps too late for Hallström to come to his senses and fid his way back to his art (and jis home country). My Life as a Dog was produced by Svensk Filmindustri, the same company that produced Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Troell's The Emigrants. If it was good enough for Bergman and Troell, why wasn't it good enough for Hallström? I guess some artists simply aren't worth bothering about.

[Postscript 9/12/12. Two further quibbles: Hallström knew that he was appropriating the title of the ground-breaking 1964 Swedish film, Käre John (Dear John), directed by Lars-Magnus Lindgren. Far more persuasively that I Am Curious - Yellow (1967), the "first X-rated movie released in America", Lindgren's film demonstrated the real potential for explicit sexual content in a serious film.

And men who serve in the "special forces" (known as Green Berets in the U.S. Army), don't go around informing strangers that they do. Such an admission would lead me to suspect that he mas fibbing just to impress the impressionable.]

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