the south

Worst Best Picture: Is In the Heat of the Night Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: nytimes.com

image source: nytimes.com

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1967 winner In the Heat of the Night. Is it better than Crash?

Sometimes I look through the list of nominees for a year and I’m blown away. 1967 is just such a year, since The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde both came out, and lost, to In the Heat of the Night. It’s really pointless to argue what the best movie in that trio is — some would say it’s pointless to compare them all to some dumb movie about racism but those people are wrong we’re gonna do this damnit.

There’s a chance you only know a few things about In the Heat of the Night. Maybe you just know Sidney Poitier’s “they call me Mister Tibbs” line. Mister Tibbs himself has to work with an all-white police department in Mississippi to get to the bottom of a particularly complicated murder case. That’s Rod Steiger as the town sherriff who certainly doesn’t think he needs help from a city boy, up there in the photo. There’s a lot more going on than the black-guy-in-the-South drama of man vs. just about damned everybody, but that’s the best part.

It’s part mystery and part racial play, and it’s excellent at both. It stays tense — there’s a ton of twists as Poitier and Steiger get closer to figuring out what actually happened — and it does so in more ways than one. Every time I expected a heavy handed treatment of race in a situation I was surprised. Right down to the eventual physical fight where Poitier has to literally run away from racists, it’s difficult, but it’s all the better for it.

I’m from the South and I was home this weekend for a visit. I generally tell people that the South is everything they think it is, and that that means whatever you need it to mean, depending on the situation. I can’t say my world was Poitier’s world, but it feels like a real one. It’s important to remember that not all racists are obvious villains and that hate isn’t always as clear as stories make it seem. Crash is offensive because it wants to tell this same lesson, but it does so with a megaphone rather than a reasoned argument. In the Heat of the Night is almost contemplative by comparison. It’s a movie about race and about solving a murder, but it’s about how we interact with “the other,” as well. That part is what will stick with you.

The Best Part: Our heroes go to investigate the motives of one of the dead man’s enemies, and the conversation turns hostile once he knows what they’re asking. It’s 1967. Remember that when you watch this two-minute clip. Pull up a list of other things that happened in 1967 for context. Smear the number “1967” on a mirror in red lipstick and then watch this video next to it. Well, maybe not that, but just think about the world around these two men, and how people must have reacted when they saw this:

ICE. COLD.

The Worst Part: The leads are both excellent, but most of the supporting cast is downright goofy. The town of Sparta, Mississippi is supposed to be ridiculous but it’s probably not supposed to be as silly as I found it. I honestly loved In the Heat of the Night, but c’mon, guys. This is me grasping at straws, but everyone other than Poitier and Steiger is largely interchangeable. Ignore this section. Go watch that slap video again. Pow!

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There is a scene where the two men bond with some good drink and try to get to the bottom of the whole mess. That scene is in every movie, and it usually is so obvious. This one adds some important depth to Steiger’s character, who easily could have just been a white cop that says “dagflabbit” and “boy-ah” a lot. He’s more than that, and you notice it play out slowly over the movie, it just finally pops in that big scene. These are the small pieces that make up smart movies. These are the quiet, but significant, chunks of great storytelling. Crash is loud and big and dumb in the exact opposite ways. There is no nuance to Crash, and I can’t think of a better example of “no, do it like this” than In the Heat of the Night, which came out nearly 40 years earlier.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples and How to Write the Way People Actually Talk

Andrew Findlay

The Golden Apples is a collection of interwoven short stories about a town called Morgana, Mississippi. It explores the people, places and values of the town. It is very similar in structure to The Dubliners, except instead of Dublin it’s focused on Mississippi. Mississippi is a weird place. Like New Jersey, it has very specific associations in the national consciousness. Like New Jersey is supposedly hideous, marred by endless highways, and filled with people who only care about gym, tan, and laundry, Mississippi is supposedly just farmland, devoid of culture, and filled with fat racists. The problem with national preconceptions about different regions is that they are held mostly by people who have never been within 300 miles of those regions.

New Jersey

This is New Jersey.

That is to say – they might be based in part on fact, but the resulting ideas have usually been extrapolated beyond all semblance of reality. Mississippi definitely has problems. One prime example is that in 2009 (2009!) students at a Charleston, MS high school had their first integrated prom. Yea, sure, that’s messed up, but that doesn’t mean the entire state is full of ignorant people. The artistic contributions of Mississippians to American letters are staggering. You have the old, dead greats like Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams. You have bestselling authors like John Grisham. You have current show-stoppers like Donna Tartt. Eudora Welty was a Mississippi author, and she was the equal, or close to it, of Faulkner. One of the things that made her so great was her command of language.

Her skill with language is two-fold. First off, Katherine Anne Porter once said that Welty had “an ear sharp, shrewd, and true as a tuning fork.” Her dialogue captures exactly how people actually say things, which is one of the first talents to disappear from the output of an author as they slide from first to second-rate. To give an example, this is what one character says in response to a question asking why she spent so long at her sister’s:

“I was comin’ back. Sister’s place a place once you get to it — hard time gettin’ out.”

This communicates the dropped g, the dropped “to be” verb that indicates casual Southern-accented conversation, but more importantly what happens towards the end of the sentence reflects what people actually sound like when they speak – the pause, the abandonment of the old syntax, the start of a new sentence, not grammatically correct, as a new and better way to say what you’re saying occurs to you mid-sentence. Another example, pulled from a group of people talking about a daughter’s behavior:

“Daughter wouldn’t run off and leave her, she’s old and crippled.”

“Left once, will again.”

“That fellow Mabry’s been taking out his gun and leaving Virgie a bag o’ quail every other day. Anybody can see him go by the back door.”

What stands out here is the “Left once, will again.” Completely wrong sentence. Everything is implied, nothing is clear. This is never what people would say in an official paper or newspaper article. Thing is, it’s exactly what people say in conversation to save time. In the context of the conversation, the referents are absolutely clear. Many high-level writers have trouble writing dialogue in a way that does not reflect the correct language drilled into them in grade school. Welty has no such difficulty.

She also just uses language really well. Her diction is not absurdly recherché, but it is dense and powerful. She packs a lot of meaning into collections of simple words, which is more impressive than sending your poor reader to the dictionary endlessly. Following is an excerpt from one of the stories in which Miss Eckhart, the old emotionless piano teacher, surprises her pupils when she plays.

Coming from Miss Eckhart, the music made all the pupils uneasy, almost alarmed; something had burst out unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person’s life. This was some brilliant thing too splendid for Miss Eckhart, piercing and striking the air around her the way a Christmas firework might almost jump out of the hand that was, each year, inexperienced anew.

In simple and clear language, Welty deeply explores the issues of childhood innocence, of the depths of human emotion, and of the discomfort we feel when confronted with the unexpected. This depth-through-simplicity is a feat she pulls off repeatedly throughout the book.

Here she is, looking out the window and thinking words that are probably already better put-together than anything you’ve ever put on paper.

The Golden Apples is a strange book. It does not have a strong message like 1984 about the dangers of totalitarianism or Catch-22 about the absurdities of war. Its themes revolve around the importance of family, identity, and community and the intersection among them, but instead of making a clear declaration about them, Welty is content with exploring them profoundly. Each story moves forward in time, so the reader sees the progression of different important characters as the town and the families within it grow and change. The main impression this book leaves upon completion is density – all the themes, motifs, and characters in the different stories have been exhaustively explored using a minimum of words – meaning is coiled and pressed heavily into each syllable.

Due to how tightly-packed it is with significance, it is not at all a beach read, but it is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It is a meditation on life, emotion, struggle, and resolution. It does not have the answers, only the exploration. It’s a tough climb, but it’s worth it.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Images: Myscenicdrives.com, Brainpickings.org