Reviews — April 25
The 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle don’t seem so long ago; for me, they still fall into the category of current events. But I was recently reminded that younger people regard them as the stuff of history.
So there’s probably a large audience that has yet to discover this piece of … um, history, by way of Stuart Townsend’s remarkable debut film “Battle in Seattle.”
When I saw it on the shelf, I committed the common video store sin of judging a movie by its box cover. A cheap throwaway, I figured. I was wrong. It isn’t exactly big budget, but it’s a tightly made, well-acted thriller in which we already know the end.
Townsend maintains a tight focus on a handful of characters, but he casts his narrative net wide. We see the protesters, the media, the international power brokers inside attending the WTO, and in one of the best parts, the cops — represented here by Woody Harrelson in a wonderful, nuanced performance.
A few silly moments are more than eclipsed by some powerful sequences, mostly on the streets, but sometimes in the conference itself. Townsend incorporated some news footage from the real event with his art, pretty seamlessly. It’s a terrific debut film, shot on location. Yeah, I guess it is history by now, but here’s a reminder for younger folk that history is exciting.
“Battle in Seattle” (2007) Directed by Stuart Townsend. Starring Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Jennifer Carpenter, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron. 98 minutes. Rated R for some language and violence.
“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks ...” Joshilyn Jackson’s narrator, Arlene, says as she opens this fictional memoir from a survivor of the South.
Those “Gods in Alabama” were enough to drive her far away — to Chicago, where she’s in graduate school — and keep her there. Although she’s obsessively on the phone to relatives back in Possett, Ala., Arlene hasn’t been home for a decade.
Consequently, most of those phone calls include a healthy dose of guilt administered by her Aunt Florence and other relatives, who claim this person or that is about to die, so she’d better visit while she can.
Florence also is doing her Southern Baptist best to save Arlene’s soul — Arlene’s switched to the American Baptist Church, meaning “in Florence’s eyes, I was on the high road to apostasy.”
From the first pages of “Gods in Alabama,” Jackson proves to have a deft hand with description. “Mama was so malleable she was practically an invertebrate,” Arlene says.
In another passage, the narrator recalls the aftermath of a school fight, when the crowd disbursed by a few students remained “blatantly staring at me like I was TV.” Later, she compares herself to a classmate as they both get themselves dolled up for an event: “I ended up looking like a disco raccoon,” she says. “She looked like Ken’s Dream Date Barbie.”
Arlene, haunted by the ghosts she left in Possett, is adept at riding out the guilt and is on her way to becoming an immovable object. But her boyfriend, Burr, encourages her to make a pilgrimage -- and offers, then demands, to go along.
“What do you see when you look at us?” Arlene asks the lawyer she loves.
“I always saw the best couple going,” he says. “What do you see?”
“Same thing,” Arlene says. “But that is not what they are going to see down in Possett.”
She can’t introduce him to her relatives, she says, because they are racists — they’ll see only his black skin. And, when they make the trip, Burr realizes she’s certainly right.
But Arlene’s relatives’ racism is just the tip of the iceberg. There are gods in Alabama, but for Arlene, there are demons, too.
“Gods in Alabama,” by Joshilyn Jackson, Warner Books, 2005.