August: Osage County (2013)

osage

More Like December

–There’s a great moment in Sirk on Sirk, Jon Halliday’s interview book with Douglas Sirk, the most important filmmaker ever to helm a film melodrama, about the director’s last American film, his masterpiece, Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk describes Annie (Juanita Moore), the African-American woman ignored by Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), the film’s lead, a self-absorbed actress. Sirk’s film ends with one of the most glorious studio set pieces in the history of American cinema, gospel specialist Mahalia Jackson singing “Troubles of the World” at Annie’s funeral. Sirk calls Annie the “secret owner” of the film, a kind of inversion of Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of the Macguffin. Whereas Hitchcock argues that he builds films around objects (microfilm in 1959’s North by Northwest, wine bottles in 1946’s Notorious) that the characters care about but we in the audience do not, the secret owner of a Sirk film is someone whom the audience cares about deeply, but is ignored by the rest of the film’s characters. In the case of Lora Meredith in Imitation of Life, it never even dawns on her late in the film as Annie is dying that her purported friend would have had an active social life in her church and community.

The secret owner of August: Osage County, as throwback a Hollywood melodrama as has been made in the United States for many a year, reminds us of Annie. Johnna Monevata (played by Misty Upham, virtually the only unknown in a massive ensemble cast of terrific actors), a Native American woman hired to take care of Violet, the drug addicted, shrewish matriarch of the Weston family, played with great negative energy by Meryl Streep. In the background for almost all of the film, Johnna is the only one seen to be doing anything productive, most importantly feeding the family. And then, shockingly, as one of the family members sexually assaults a teenage girl, Johnna picks up a shovel and smacks the rapacious middle-aged predator upside the head. The audience cheers, and indeed is relieved that their surrogate took action to avoid permanent disaster for the family. And yet, no one in the film ever acknowledges the tremendous act of protection, never mind thanks her for it.

August: Osage County beautifully explores the desolation of the dysfunctional American family. The Westons live in a state of desiccation, both physically in rural northern Oklahoma, but surprisingly more importantly, intellectually. The film begins in the study of the family’s patriarch, Beverly, a professor of poetry. As the man drinks himself to death, director John Wells’ camera lingers on his massive wall of books, held enticingly out of focus. We can see that he has Norton Critical Editions of the masterworks of literature, but the camera keeps us from knowing exactly which ones.

Later in the film, after the family gathers to mourn Beverly’s passing, various characters suggest having a massive bonfire with the books. Played by Sam Shepard, the great literary voice of the theatrical American west, as in his sparkling play, True West (1980), Beverly’s death represents the final nail in the coffin of this family’s intellectual vibrancy. Incest, literal and figurative, is causing the family to implode upon itself. The books sitting out of focus in the background of the film’s images, unopened and thus with no power to transform people’s lives, stand as a teasing emblem to the possibilities not explored by this horrid group of selfish monsters.

The family in August: Osage County stands in sharp contrast to a different Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows. In this 1955 melodrama, a straight-laced Puritan New England widow, Cary (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her younger working class gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson). While Cary’s small-minded friends, and even her own children, assume that she’s a trollop, Ron’s hippie friends, rural refugees from Madison Avenue hold a riotous party in which they sing and drink from jugs to celebrate Cary’s arrival in their lives. At the party, one of the women in the group comments on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, sitting on a side table. As Cary reads aloud the “quiet desperation” passage in which Thoreau laments American conformity, her new friend comments that while other men talk about resisting consumerism and its deadening effect on people, Ron lives his transformed life to the fullest.

The function of the book in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is completely opposite that in August: Osage County. Sirk uses Thoreau to transform Cary’s consciousness. Playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts’ title is in fact ironic: there is no sage in Osage; in fact, he’s been driven into a suicidal alcoholic stupor by the family’s anti-intellectualism. And, there doesn’t seem to be any hope for the next generation either. When teenager Jean Fordham (Abigail Breslin) sits down at a television to watch the silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera, the rest of her family berates her for wasting time by not paying attention to them. The family members ridicule any cultural fructification. And thus, Johnna’s catfish dinners serve as an ironic reminder that this family is starving to death, food being the least of their worries. Not even this secret owner can cure what ails them… but Tolstoy could.

– Walter Metz