Sunday, November 6, 2016

American Pastoral: Monday, October 31 2016

The film, American Pastoral is based on the book of the same name, by Philip Roth, published in 1997. The book won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, and was designated one of the hundred all time greatest novels by Time. The New York Times, in 2006, adjudicated it a runner-up in the "What is the Greatest Work of American Fiction in the last 25 years?" Set in the 1960's, during a time of great social upheaval, the main part of the book takes place during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It's messages are pertinent to that time, but still resonate today. Social upheaval in a society can affect even those who are trying to ignore it. A seemly perfect life is not always what it seems on the surface. We ignore what is going on around us in the public sphere at our peril. We disconnect from our family, being too busy for them, at risk of losing them.

There had been two proposed directors for the film, but both had declined to accept the challenge of making a film from a book of such prominence and depth. Ewan McGregor had already been signed up to play the leading role, and believed deeply in the project. He had always wanted to direct, and here was his chance. He accepted, despite many misgivings. His direction is amazingly competent for a novice. If it lacks the sure touch of a master, it shows definite promise. To make this film must not have been easy as the subject matter is so profound. Everything else about the film is highly professional.

David Strathairn plays Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates the story. The book uses this framework throughout, with Zuckerman's comments breaking up the action at different points. The film would perhaps have been improved if it had followed the same pattern. Although we are held spellbound for long periods at a time, it might have been easier on the audience if there had been some lightening of the drama.

Ewan McGregor plays Seymour "Swede" Levov, a former high school star athlete and a successful Jewish American businessman. In this part, McGregor shows the quality of his acting, which is fantastic. Dakota Fanning plays Merry Levov, his daughter; Jennifer Connelly plays Dawn Dwyer Levov, his wife. They are both incredible in their roles. Fanning shows such hatred of her loving parents, her home, and her country, it's amazing. She is such a beautiful woman, yet she becomes positively ugly as she displays her immaturity. Connelly is lovely to look at, and this film shows her at her best. I was struck by her lack of vanity, as she is shown also without makeup in some scenes, and looking older and more realistic. I've become a fan of these women.

Seymour, the father, and Merry, the daughter, seem to me tragic figures. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, they are obsessed by their emotions, cannot accept reality, and the consequences are horrifying for them, and everyone around them.

Merry has been affected by the Vietnam War and the social unrest in the sixties. Influenced by the American Marxist political ideology, she has been taught to hate her businessman father and the comfortable life he has given her. In her eyes, he is a capitalist and therefore evil. She rejects him, and her society, by committing a terrorist act. She continues on this ideological path, choosing to live in poverty and squalor. This demonstrates what can happen when an individual is in rebellion against the mainstream lifestyle. Unfortunately, it is seldom that the person can work through any ideology, political or religious, and understand what it has wrought.

What I also found interesting is that Seymour is a second generation business owner. He inherited the business from his father. He may remember the struggles of his parent in setting up and maintaining the business, but he didn't experience those agonies himself. Merry is the third generation, and has no idea of what it cost her grandfather to establish the business. She hardly seems to understand what hard work it would be for her father to keep the business going. We've all heard the old adage, "From rags to riches, and back to rags, in three generations". This film illustrates that saying.

We can feel for Seymour, "Swede". How painful for a parent to lose a child to an ideology! However, he is a tragic figure because he cannot accept his daughter's choices. We see no self-searching to examine his own role in those choices. What could he possibly have done to her for her to hate him so much? What had society done to her for her to turn her back on it? Had he perhaps been too busy with his business to spare any time for her? Instead of looking into himself and facing any guilt feelings he may have been suppressing, he can't accept what she has become and let her go. His immaturity is reflected in his daughter. Instead of examining the reality that she has been given a privileged life by her parents and society, she has chosen to believe an ideology which has ruined her life. It certainly isn't making her happy.

What struck me was that this strong message is so applicable today. If we substitute a moderate, kindly Muslim American family, this tragedy could be played out, giving it a Muslim setting.

The book is a masterpiece. The film is certainly worth seeing. It will probably appear in the Oscars.

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