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Half-way bad; half-way good
by Asa Butcher
2008-06-13 07:51:43
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Out of Africa
Directed by Sydney Pollack
1985, Universal Pictures

The death of award-winning director Sydney Pollack in May 2008 prompted me to watch the film that won him the Best Picture awards and also the Oscar for Direction, but it wasn't with much enthusiasm. It has been a good decade since I last watched Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa and I am sorry to inform you that my feelings towards the film have not altered with the passage of time.

You may be shocked to discover that there are films that I don't like, since the majority of my reviews are positive, but don't leave the review just yet because Out of Africa wasn't completely mind-numbing and irritating - Streep's Danish accent tested my patience to the limit. I remember seeing reviews that stated the film was 'emotionally satisfying, but I can inform you that none of my emotions were satisfied... until the second half of the film. Intriguing, eh!

Meryl Streep is Karen Blixen, a Dane, who marries a friend (Klaus Maria Brandauer) for the title of Baroness and they move to Africa and start a coffee plantation. Blixen is home alone most of the time, working on the farm and adapting to her new environment. She begins to bond with two men, one of which is Denys Finch-Hatton, played by Robert Redford, and it isn't until the half-way point that they finally consummate their love.

It is this half-way point that the film turned around for me, which isn't to say that my interest was piqued by a tepid love scene! Both the main characters became increasingly absorbing and I actually began to feel as though some emotions were being satisfied - not an unpleasant sensation, I must admit. At one point in the film Meryl Streep says, "If the Gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers," which is to say that I wished the film to end and then it did… I was gutted.

Here I am writing a review to commemorate the late-Sydney Pollack and I just can't formulate my response clearly. Right, the film is beautifully shot, with incredible colours, nature and expanses brought visually to life on the screen. The panoramic vistas over the African savannah are straight out of Sir David Lean's "How to make movies" handbook and David Watkin was a deserved winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar.

Strangely enough, there had been interest for years to make a film based on the real experiences of Karen Blixen and at one time Sir David Lean had been ear-marked to direct. The real Blixen used the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen to write about her life in Africa and it was her books, along with two others, that helped create this "based on a true story" film. Meryl Streep even listened to recordings of Blixen to help her master that irritating accent… so much for admiring the Method!

The score by John Barry is among the best ever written and he too won an award for his work on Out of Africa. I have this 'thing' about watching movies with the subtitles activated and every time the music changed a title would pop up, "Sweeping Instrumental", "Adventurous Uplifting Music", "Romantic Instrumental" and so on, but how can you foolishly encompass a magnificent orchestral score with three words? At times you could hear some melodic elements that would reappear in Dances with Wolves and there were also some moments I thought of the James Bond films Barry also scored.

Finally, the great man himself: Sydney Pollack. Pollack was a great director. Period. Nominated for his direction on 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, nominated for direction and producing the superb Tootsie, directed Tom Cruise in John Grisham's The Firm and managed to direct 12 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances. Why couldn't he have won something for Tootsie, so I could have reviewed that comedy masterpiece?

Do you know what has upset me the most while researching and writing this review of Out of Africa? I discovered that to claim the Academy Award for Best Picture the film beat Witness and - I really am speechless - The Color Purple, which I happened to watch a few months ago. I am sorry but Spielberg had justification to be pissed off that night when his name wasn't read out because I am. Give Out of Africa a chance to prove its worth and you will probably enjoy it… watch The Color Purple and your emotions won't only be satisfied, they will be blown away.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-06-13 11:17:16
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanian art critic, points out in his book “In my Father’s House” that whenever African art is exhibited in the Western World economic reasons often trump artistic reasons. He used as an example “Yaruba Man with a bicycle.” This is far from Picasso’s appreciation of African primitivism as expressed in African mask and its vital connection to life. Another African, Dele Jegede, complements that insight by pointing out that whenever African art is exhibited in Western Museum, it is always out of context, as if all art were universal by nature and there is no need to point out its particular meaning within specific cultures.

If one keeps those two insights in mind, one begins to understand why Out of Africa lacks the catharsis promised by Aristotle from all great works of art, especially theater. In Out of Africa the real protagonist is the photographic beauty of Africa. The problem is that such beauty is seen through the eyes of Western Man who tends to abstract and universalize and colonize, and not though the native Africans who are mere accessories. So Africa becomes a convenient background for a romantic narrative and for the instruction of a Danish lady who later continues to use Africa for the promotion of her literary work. What has Madam Blixen learned about African culture vis a vis a Western culture who considers Africa a far away place good for romantic stories and reminiscences? The movie tells us precious little of that and that is why we remain emotionally and intellectually unsatisfied. Perhaps the book does a better job. A book usually does, if it is a work of art.

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