It's a well-known saying, that if we want to hear God laugh, we should make plans.
I am apparently a constant source of humor to the divine, because I seem to nearly always have plans for my time, although in fact, most of them seem to work out. Last week, my plans included a very promising jazz concert at Jamestown Community College, and a scheduled interview with a former Composer in Residence at Chautauqua Institution, who was in Buffalo to hear a composition of his, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Instead, there was a death in my family, which involved leaving the area altogether and returning to the scenes of my youth. And, it left me on Easter Sunday with a deadline looming dead ahead and no subject for this week's column.
Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson star in the new film ``Water for Elephants,' as a couple who meet while working with a traveling circus.
I am a person who frequently complains that since major corporations have taken over from human beings in the running of film studios, major motion pictures seem to be carbon copies of one another, drawing on popularity polls, rather than taste, to decide what to film. I'm told the studios have a list of rules, such as that films should especially appeal to young men, because the largest audience for live films is dating couples, and while young women on dates will often agree to accompany their dates to something they would rather not see themselves, young men are far less likely to do so.
This, I'm told, is why we see so many films in which overdeveloped heroes with overdeveloped weapons kill endless lines of slavering enemies in ways which can only be described as savage and inhuman.
I truly don't understand why anybody wants to watch that, but the movie business continues, so I guess people do.
Many have been the times I have read over the list of commercial films which are playing in town and thought that I would willingly pay not to have to watch any of them, if necessary. Fortunately, that wasn't true this week.
A year or so ago, I attended a book discussion at the James Prendergast Library, of the novel ''Water for Elephants'' by Sara Gruen. At the time, I had never heard of the book or the author, but the discussion leader was so gifted, I went out and bought the book.
I've written before that I have a double stack of several dozen books, most of which I have been sent by publishers, wanting reviews. The book lay on that stack until a gift-giving occasion came up for my sister and I didn't have a lot of free time to shop. Because I had bought the book, I felt entitled to give it away, so I wrapped it up and mailed it off.
She enjoyed it so much, I wished I had it back. Meanwhile, somehow Hollywood managed to make it into a movie, and on Easter, the movie of the same name was playing, here in Jamestown.
So, after all that, let's talk a bit about the film ''Water for Elephants.''
''Water for Elephants'' is unlikely to ever go down in history as one of the great classics of film literature, but I found it entertaining, fresh and enjoyable.
There were a few elements in the story which strained belief. Now, I don't know about you, but my real life strains belief on a fairly regular basis, so that didn't constitute a crisis.
I would say that 10 minutes into the film, I had a pretty good guess at how it was going to end up, but it was beautifully photographed, the settings were fairly exotic, the actors were good looking, and despite some suggested cruelty to animals, it didn't send me out into the chilly rain, believing that mankind was unworthy of redemption, as so many films do these days.
The beginning of the film was probably the least effective. We see a circus - we don't get an exact time, but based on the age of the protagonist, it must be about 10 years ago - as the lights are being turned off and things are beginning to be dismantled. As the ticket-seller is closing up his booth, an elderly man steps up. The character claims to be 90 - or 93 - and the actor is 85-year-old Hal Holbrook. One of the problems was that where I saw the film, it was sometimes difficult to make out the words, leaving me uncertain of what was taking place at that particular time.
The young ticket taker guesses correctly that the old man has wandered away from a field trip by the residents of a nursing home. While the supervisor is trying to phone the home, to return him to their care, the old man begins to tell about his own life with the circus, and soon the action shifts to 1931.
Holbrook's character is now played by Robert Pattinson, currently a teen heartthrob from playing the lead vampire in the ''Twilight'' series of films.
The character is seen entering his final exam at Cornell University, the completion of which will make him a graduate with a degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice his craft. Suddenly, a dark suited figure comes into the classroom and asks the young man to step outside. He is told that both of his parents have been killed in an auto accident. Nobody explains why they broke in and told him before he took his graduate exam, since it was too late for him to do anything but mourn, anyway.
We soon see him being told that his parents had mortgaged everything they owned in order to pay his tuition, so he now has no money and no home. If he had gone back to the university and taken a make-up exam, he would have had a degree and professional license, which surely would have led to a job, even in the depths of the Great Depression, but instead, he sets off with a suitcase, wearing his best suit, to wander aimlessly, with no place to go.
Seeing a passing train, he climbs aboard an open box car. Soon he learns that he is aboard a circus train. He's offered a job, driving away those who try to sneak into the show without paying, and shoveling up the vast quantity of droppings, from the many animals in the circus.
He learns that the circus operates like a society. There are classes of people, based on how much they earn and what they do to earn it.
The owner maintains a gang of muscular hoodlums who torture and dispose of anyone who doesn't obey orders. Their favorite trick is to throw employees whose pay he wishes to save, off the moving train.
The author of the novel, Sara Gruen, has given interviews in which she says she tried to create parallels between the young man, whose name is Jacob, and the Jacob of the Bible, who became the ancestor of the people of Israel. Perhaps the book does a better job of making the parallels - the film doesn't do it.
I've read six different reviews of the film, all of which said that the most impressive acting in the film is done by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who plays the owner of the circus. In some ways, the character is an admirable person, with excellent taste and intelligent conversation, but the man is possessed of a terrible temper. When that temper is triggered, he is completely out of control, capable of killing or torturing animals and humans, even the people he loves. Waltz' portrayal of a basically intelligent and decent man who at times is seized by emotions which he would eagerly choose to avoid, is certainly a fine piece of acting.
The owner recognizes the Ivy League education of this young man, and when he learns that he is virtually a qualified veterinarian, lacking only one exam, he puts him in charge of the animals in his circus. The owner seems to get some kind of odd pleasure out of tempting his young employee, offering him champagne suppers and opportunities for advancement in the circus, providing him with his own tuxedo for wearing to socialize, and especially, bringing him into constant contact with the circus's star attraction, his own beautiful, blonde wife, who performs as a bareback rider.
All but one of the critics I read commented on the long period of time in the film, during which there was no spark between Pattinson and Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, who plays the wife. But when they meet, she is a married woman, who has escaped a miserable childhood and come to a life of significant comfort with a husband who is usually loving and generous, albeit with that savage temper.
Witherspoon is 10 years older than Pattinson in real life and her character is 15 years older than his in the film. A married woman in 1931 would have faced almost no possibilities, if she ran off with another man, unless she trusted him enough to rely entirely on his ability to support her. A man who lived with his parents through college graduation from what was then an all-male institution, might be terribly attracted by a woman almost old enough to be his mother, who was married to someone else, upon whom he was financially dependent, but contrary to the typical Hollywood story line, it is not at all unbelievable that it would take some time before they felt attracted to one another enough to actually act on that feeling.
I never lived through the Great Depression, but both of my parents graduated from high school in the darkest years of it. I grew up endlessly hearing about how desperately people clung to anything dependable in those days. Probably younger folks just don't appreciate that.
Witherspoon looks wonderful in the film and whoever designed those beautiful dresses which make her so alluring should become her friend for life. The actress's willingness to do her own stunts, first on moving horses, and eventually atop a nearly nine-ton elephant, make her a woman worthy of note.
Pattinson doesn't have a mad scene, doesn't appear with filthy hair and drooling lips, so some people call that a lack of acting skill, although it seemed to me that he grew from an open faced naif to a self-governing man in gradual and believable stages, and that deserves a hand, in my book.
There is beautiful scenery, the glitter and the tackiness of the circus life, and an interesting and believable story. I enjoyed watching it, and recommend that you give it a try, when the opportunity presents itself to you.
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Three cheers for the United Arts Appeal, which has recently announced the winners of grants for 2011. Raising money is one of the most important and least appreciated elements of creating art.
Individual winners of this year's grants are Brittany Bush, Casey R. Gray, James Hoggard, Joyce Ronan Rose, and Jennifer Schlick.
Organizations winning this year's grants are the Chautauqua Regional Youth Symphony, the Eastside Family YMCA, the Fenton History Center, the James Prendergast Library, the Jamestown Audubon Society, the Jamestown Juneteenth Planning Committee, the North Shore Arts Alliance, Patterson Library, the Resource Center, and Villenova Grange #604.
The appeal is supported by local foundations, corporations, businesses, and individuals from throughout Chautauqua County.