Friday, December 7, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Out of Africa

Out of Africa is one of those “sweeping epics” the Academy loves so much, so it’s no wonder that it – and not better films like Three Days of the Condor or Tootsie – won Pollack his Oscars for directing and producing. I put "sweeping epic" in scare quotes because Out of Africa, although decent at times, is painfully ordinary in how it tries to win the audience over as a big, 'ol fashioned epic. It wants to be big in scope and sprawling in its love story; however, Out of Africa is not even close to being Pollack’s best film (in fact, of the five films nominated that year, it’s easily the fifth best of the bunch). It’s too satisfied with its “scope” to be anything more than a pandering awards season picture. It has some nice, quiet moments between its two leads (nothing new for a Pollack film), but the episodic nature of the narrative left me feeling cold. In fact, while watching Out of Africa, my mind was drawn to 1995's The English Patient (another film that feels like a false epic): an apt comparison in that it too was just an okay movie with some decent performances that isn’t nearly as romantic or sweeping in its scope as the Academy hype wants us to believe. I certainly didn't have any Elaine Benes outbursts while watching Out of Africa, but it did fill me with a kind of apathy that I've rarely felt while working my way through Pollack's films (the only thing that really comes close is Absence of Malice or Bobby Deerfield).

The story begins in 1913 in Denmark. Here, we’re introduced to the wealthy Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep in one of her many “let me wow you with my fake accent” type of performances) who propositions her friend, a Baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer), to enter into a marriage of convenience. After the Baron agrees to Dinesen’s terms, the two of them move to Africa to begin a dairy farm. Upon moving to Africa, Karen befriends various other colonial residents of the country (mostly British residents), one of whom is Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a local big-game hunter. However, Karen comes to realize that the Baron has actually used their money to purchase a coffee plantation instead of a dairy farm. On top of that, the more time the two spend in Africa the more the Baron wants to ditch aspirations of farming anything so that he can focus on becoming a big-game hunter.  Karen – knowing that this was a marriage of convenience – still develops feelings for the Baron and becomes upset when she learns of his extramarital affairs. This first “episode” of the narrative concludes with Karen contracting syphilis from her husband and is forced to return to Denmark for treatment while the Baron agrees to look after the plantation in her absence.

The next “episode” of the narrative concerns Karen’s return to Africa as the WWI is drawing to an end. It becomes clearer to her that her marriage of convenience is anything but as the womanizing Baron continues his extramarital exploits and is eventually asked to move out of the house, leaving Karen alone. It is at this point that the film finally becomes interesting as Karen – now rid of the Baron – strikes up a friendship with Finch Hatton. Naturally, their friendship turns into more than that as the two share intimate moments out in the open spaces of Africa. However, their relationship cannot last as she quickly realizes that Finch is more in love with the African wild and customs of the natives than she could ever be.

There's a lot happening in each "episode" of the film, but most left me feeling cold with the exception of the middle, which primarily deals with the burgeoning relationship between Karen and Finch. In typical Pollack fashion, his male and female leads are most interesting when they’re interacting. The other stuff with Karen wasn’t as engaging as those moments in the middle of the film between Finch and Karen. Whether it was the way that Finch wipes the blood off of Karen’s lip or the scene where he shampoos her hair, these moments have a subtle romantic quality to them that is much more endearing than the more obvious “epic” moments littered throughout the rest of the film.

So, let’s get the good stuff out of the way. Pollack has a knack – as we’ve seen in the other films discussed in this series – for creating these dynamic moments between his two stars. Here Streep and Redford have some great moments as we begin to realize via Pollack’s favorite metaphor – the relationship between men and women as a way to see the world – that Karen can never love Finch because she can never fully understand his appreciation for things being untethered, leaving things in their natural state. When Karen leaves the Baron and after her initial experience with Finch in the African wild, she opens a school to try and teach the school children her ways. In a way, this is Karen trying to “own” the country the way she “owns” her other possessions. This does not compute with Finch, and the two – even though intimately involved for much of the film – are very far apart because of this.

This theme of freedom is cinematically captured in the landscape of Africa and mirrors the world view a Finch Hatton. Pollack juxtaposes the two characters the setting as he is done in his previous films, specifically The Way We Were. Pollack also used setting, as he often did, to showcase the difference in characterization between the two leads. Finch lives in harmony with his environment; he has an instinctive respect for the essence of life which for him is based on freedom. This trait is seen when he allows a lioness to go free rather than kill her. Karen is confused by this because it appeared that their life was in danger as the lioness was coming nearer. Finch preserves nature rather than destroys it, and explains to Karen that the lioness was doing what was only natural to her, and they shouldn’t disturb that. In a way, too, Finch and Karen are doing what’s natural to them, so it is understandable why the two have a relationship as hopeless as the Baron and Karen. Finch is a bit of an ambiguous character, though, considering he believes what he believes but also hunts for money: he walks a fine line between respect for nature and exploiting it which adds complexity to his characterization. Again, making for one of the few times Out of Africa is really interesting.

Finch is represented by the geography of Africa’s wide open spaces while Karen is represented by the more structured world of the British Imperialists stationed in East African. Finch is about natural order and freedom (his expeditions mirror this) while Karen is trying to literally stop the natural flow of things when she begins to build a dam. All of these metaphors are clear enough as we begin to see the two form a relationship and then struggle to keep it going as the freedom Finch admires so much is threatened when he throws in his lot with Karen’s. Pollack, always a fine observer of male/female dynamics, is essentially saying that once you begin a relationship with another person, you can no longer just think of yourself and your needs.

Outside of the lead performances and the focus on Finch and Karen in the middle of the film, Out of Africa is a pretty overrated film. Everything about it just screams, “meh.” Even the cinematography is kind of “blah,” and this is the kind of thing one would expect such an epic film to get right; therefore, it doesn’t really impress when it’s on screen. It really isn’t anything different than what one would expect from a National Geographic film, and it’s made all the more unimpressive when seen through 2012 eyes thanks to the countless on-location Discovery Channel and Animal Planet shows that get even closer to the action than David Watkin’s overrated cinematography does (note: he’s not helped any by Pollack’s bizarre decision to move away from anamorphic widescreen and go with the matted widescreen, 1:85:1 aspect ratio with this film; a film, if there ever was one, that certainly called for a 2:39:1 aspect ratio, which is what Pollack almost always shot in).
There’s nothing spectacular about Out of Africa: the cinematography, apart from the fact that it was on location, is shockingly average; there’s nothing remotely original about the film’s score as it sounds like the soundtrack to every other “sweeping romantic epic;” there’s nothing particularly interesting about Pollack’s directions as he just kind of goes through the motions of making a crowd pleasing romance – the kind of film that the Academy eats up; and even though the performances are interesting at times and the Karen/Finch dynamic in the middle “episode” of the film is really strong, the actors here aren’t very good at playing “tortured” souls. However, none of these things equates to Out of Africa being a wholly terrible film. It’s just so…plain.

What it all comes down to: Out of Africa is just too long, especially when you know the beats of the story. Had Pollack trimmed the film down a bit, it could have been better. But I get the sense that he wanted the extra time to have it both ways: showcase Watkins’ on location cinematography and showcase his two actors having conversations that Pollack very much values in his film; the former to ensure that his film had that epic look, and the latter to ensure that he made a film that interested him. In fact, I have a sense after watching all of these Pollack films that it was the latter he found more exhilarating than the former. The few good things in Out of Africa aren’t enough to distract from the stuff that just isn’t all that enjoyable to watch unfold for 150 minutes. This one got away from Pollack a bit, but I think what he does best (work with big time actors) is still a reason to see the film if you haven’t yet. It’s not anywhere close to being the film Pollack deserved the Best Director (or Best Producer, for that matter) Oscar for, but it’s a nice gesture by the Academy; a reward for a career of solid – if at times unspectacular – work within the Hollywood system. 


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