Life versus Desire – August: Osage County
Last night, August: Osage County did not win a single Golden Globe Award. Though Meryl Streep was nominated for an award for the best performance by an actress in a motion picture – comedy or musical, Amy Adams won for her excellent performance in American Hustle. And although Julia Roberts was nominated for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture, Jennifer Lawrence won for her exceptional and quite unique part in American Hustle. Amy and Jennifer were both superb and gave outstanding performances. But they were just that, performance, brilliant improvisations and great exhibitions.
But they will not be remembered through the years. Because playing Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) had none of the depth and profundity of the roles that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts had to exhibit in August: Osage County which I saw yesterday late afternoon. (I actually forgot we were going to see that movie and mistakenly thought we were going to see Saving Mr Banks and I had been reflecting on the notion of sentiment in preparation for watching the film so I was totally unprepared for the dark troubled tale of August: Osage County.)
Before I discuss the film itself and their two performances, I am going to make my argument in a round about way, first by discussing, very briefly, the ethnic cleansing of the Shawnee tribe and then, hopefully even more briefly, one small but crucial section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the one dealing with desire and life in the first section of self-consciousness.
In my scholarly work, I have written before about the American War of Independence as primarily a war against the British for the Indian territories and, after the Americans defeated the British and the thirteen colonies gained their independence, the Americans returned their focus to ethnic cleansing of the Indian tribes in Ohio and westward. After the American Revolution, the Northwest Indian War took place between the Americans and the Shawnee in alliance with the Miami. The latter were finally defeated in the Battle of Timbers in 1794 and the Shawnee were coerced into signing the Treaty of Greenville ceding most of their territory in Ohio to the new United States of America and were forced to move further west largely into Missouri.
In 1811, Tecumseh wrote: “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun … Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws … Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?” Tecumseh saw not just ethnic cleansing but genocide. The War of 1812 on the American side of the border was centred on Tecumseh, who led the Indians who refused to sign even further treaties of concession in 1809 ceding a further 3 million acres to the United States of America (Treaty of Fort Wayne). Tecumseh joined with Joseph Brant leader of the Mohawks in fighting the Americans after Tecumseh lost the initial battle at Prophetstown in 1811. In May 1813, Tecumseh won the battle at FortMeigis in northern Ohio but could not consolidate his victory and had to retreat to Canada. He was subsequently killed in the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada in October of 1813. Henceforth, the Absentee Shawnee, as the portion of the Shawnee were called because they were not initially part of the original treaty of settlement, went south first to Kansas and then largely to Oklahoma but also Texas as part of the forced resettlement known as the Trail of Tears.
The movie is set in OsageCounty. Osage are a Shawnee people who speak the Siouan language, akin to the language of the Algonquin Indians who are descendents of the Paleo-Indians of the American midwest, hunter gatherers in the Pleistocene Age that ended in 11,700 BC with the coming of the last Ice Age. Meryl Streep as Violet Weston is at the opposite pole from any shrinking violet and ruthlessly derides the new servant hired by her husband Beverly at the very beginning of the film. Beverly was once a male name that meant a a beaver stream that fowed with creativity and energy but it was usurped for women as the poet became damned up with the vituperative wrath of his wife. Violet asks belligerently, “Are you Cherokee?” Johnna Monevata played by Misty Upham stands her ground against what is clearly an oppressive and overbearing new boss and replies, “I am Shawnee.” (In the play, I believe she was Cheyenne.) This conversation all takes place “in a dim room, the blinds grimly endure the dead light, protecting the machined air, as the watchers watch the old lady die.” (Howard Starks)
Later there will be an early confrontation between Violet and her daughter Barbara played by Julia Roberts who insists that the servant be referred to as a native American and not an Indian because that is the name they prefer. Throughout the play, and in some revelations, it is clear that what Violet most wants is a reconciliation with her daughter but she will never risk trying for one and instead relies on barbiturates or barbs rather than Barbara. Violet replies to Barbara’s challenge, “I am as native as she is.” The reply is ironic both in Violet’s total ignorance of native American history in her overt racism, but also because Violet in her reduction of all of life to bare survival is, in another sense of the term, more native than anyone in the movie meaning not just indigenous to an area but identified with an area, in this case, with the heat, with the emptiness, with the deep overriding sense of desperation of the place, with all the ghosts that haunt the landscape of Oklahoma, both historical and family shadows. Oklahoma is not doing fine and is not A-OK. Those shadows include Letts’ own family; his grandmother was an addict who abused all her children.
This is not the happy singing Ooook-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain. There is no rain in sight in this movie. And no wind either. What we feel is the interminable heat and deadness in the air of a very opposite Oklahoma. As Howard Starks, the poet, wrote in the poem from which Letts openly stole his title, in “the heat thickened air, no rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day.” We are in the midwest version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We are in the land of shadows where whole populations of people have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the ninety degree summer heat.
But more of that later. Readers may complain that I am reading too much into the film when I suggest that the movie is as much about Oklahoma, initially called the Indian territory, that was in turn also stolen from the native Americans, as it is about a dysfunctional family. Since I now want to suggest so much more, I will hold my firepower for now and turn to Hegel.
Consciousness depicts what our minds do when we look at things (including people often) as objects. Self-consciousness is when we look at ourselves as subjects and not just objects, as agents acting in the world and not just sensing, observing and understanding. As self-consciousness begins to develop, we become aware that other humans also regard themselves as subjects or agents. But at a more primitive stage, before engaging in the life and death struggle for recognition between selves, there is a battle within each self acted out in relationship to other selves between the need to survive as a physical being and the desire to overcome mere survival to become much more than simply someone out to survive, to become a fully self-conscious human being. This can only be done by connecting to and in relationship with an Other person. As Hegel writes, “self-consciousness is desire itself” that only attains satisfaction in another self-consciousness and you find peace with yourself only in another self-consciousness in the binding form of love. The characters in August: Osage County, with enough exceptions to prove the rule, never find that peace and tear each other and mostly themselves to shreds because they never learn the first meaning of love.
But this opposition between its appearance and its truth has only the truth for its essence, namely, the unity of self-consciousness with itself. This unity must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, self-consciousness is desire itself. (PofS 167)
Desire once fulfilled becomes the realization and expression of love. But that is not how it starts. The pathway begins in the fight to survive versus the desire to realize oneself. Violet, as she explicitly states as she reduces all the members of her family to quivering cowards in various ways using cutting comments thrust out by a razor-sharp tongue that shrewdly and cunningly probes the members of her family at their weakest points, tells them what it took for her to survive her own cruel mother who, knowing her daughter wanted riding boots to get recognition from a potential beau, in her mother’s wrapped present for her for Christmas and her black humour, gave her daughter Violet boots encrusted with mud and with holes in the soles. To survive a mother like that, one had to be strong, including the strength to devour your own children in turn and steal their inheritance to boot, which is precisely what Violet does at the family dinner. The story is about the hooks a parent puts into his or her own children, not out of love but out of blood greed. As the poet, Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, “When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back.” Survival demands eating your own children.
The movie is not just about a dysfunctional family – the Westons, that literally means a western town or settlement – though it is certainly that. Barbara Weston’s married name is Fordham, which combines ford and ham, transit across the waters to a home or founding a homestead. The name goes back to the tenth century and the Norman conquerors of the British Isles. This dysfunctional family are descendents on all sides of the homesteaders who took the lands of the native peoples but have never come to recognize their crimes. The unacknowledged past has rotted their souls. In the ruthless quest for survival and acquisition and appropriation of lands as they made their homesteads, they engaged in betrayal, theft, mass murder and expropriation.
There are exceptions in the family. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, also performed brilliantly by Margo Martindale, is not one. She is as much in her own smiling way a castrating bitch as her sister Violet with her withering twists of her verbal knife at the weaknesses of each of her children, but in the end Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie Aiken, played by Chris Cooper with total conviction, stands up to her and on behalf of his almost totally destroyed son by his own mother, resumes the meaning of his namesake, “Aiken”, an oak tree. He expresses un unqualified love for his son, little Charlie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with equally exquisite precision, and finally declares war on his wife.
The centre of the drama of the movie is the struggle between Julie Robert’s character (Barbara) and her mother, Meryll Streep (Violet). Meryll Streep is one of the best actors in the world. Julia Roberts surprised me. Not only is the movie a struggle between a mother and daughter for supremacy, a struggle between life as the will to survive versus desire as the passion to realize oneself through and in the love of another, but Julia Roberts matches all the brilliant acting skills of Meryl Streep and proves herself an actor of the first order.
The movie was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play that won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as five Jeff and five Tony Awards and three Outer Critics Awards and the New York Drama Critics Award for best play. The play was three hours and the movie is only two hours. Since the movie also includes the many scenes outside of driving alone on the seemingly empty roads of Oklahoma, of necessity there had to be many excisions, including the reduction of roles such as that of the sheriff who was Barbara’s Weston’s love interest in high school, and, more importantly, the role of the Shawnee servant, Johnna with the feminized male name, who is hired at the very beginning of the movie as a cook and caregiver by Beverly Weston (Sam Sheppard) for his wife, Violet who is suffering from cancer of the mouth, aptly so given her poisonous cascade of words and her ingestion of barbiturates and other pills in inhuman quantities. The relationship between Barbara Weston’s daughter and Johnna was dropped. But the essence of the play is kept. Of course, the movie cannot lose all the concentration on one place of the play, but the passions that are so raw and are thrown with such rapidity with only the odd concession to comic relief carries us past the static quality. In fact, the static sense adds to the sense of a place frozen in a purgatory of the shadows of the past.
Beverly, a former once highly recognized poet who has given up to the bottle, when he hires Johnna, gives her a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot and says “Life is lived too long” to which he comments cynically that now we cannot utter such a truism because a famous poet used it and now we have to add the credit: T.S. Eliot. The sentiment is the exact opposite of “Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains,” taken from Letts’ friend, Carter Revar, and his poem “A Song That We Still Sing” about the displacement of the Cheyenne.
The quote both adumbrates what Beverly is about to do to himself, but also echoes the sentiments of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Man”: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response, falls the shadow. Between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow” to answer his own question: “Where is the life we have lost in the living?” It is lost when we descend into the shadow world before creation towards thoughts, before responses to raw emotions, towards spasm instead of desire, towards bare existence instead of potency, in descent instead of the realization of one’s essence. The movie is the world of shadow boxing in the struggle just to stay alive. And the film ends with Violet’s head in Johnna’s lap and alluding to another line and poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “This is the way the world ends”.
I won’t go through the plot. The movie simply bounces from one bang on the head to the next just when you begin to believe that surely in this shadow world there is not another bombshell to be released. Suffice to say, Violet is not only one of the most castrating roles in fiction, but she also practices symbolic vaginal mutilation. Her greatest victim is not her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) but her youngest daughter, Karen who has opted for empty clichés and an engagement to a “successful” real estate developer who we are led to believe belongs to the same class of skanks and scumbags as the heroes in The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle. She is merely acting out the same self-destructive story. In doing so, she reveals the essence of the American murderers and thieves who stole Indian land. They were not courageous homesteaders pioneering in an empty land but used force and coercion to steal land and get the defeated peoples to concede more and more time and time again, just as Violet cuts deeper and deeper each time when you begin to believe things cannot get worse. She is a spiritual rapist. The whole movie is captured in one moment when Johnna bursts through her retiring and quiet demeanour to express her wrath on the world of rape in the widest sense. That brief scene and the other with little Charlie at the bus station when he arrives late compete with the long family dinner scene for the most powerful moments in the film.
The movie ends as the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper but with a glimmer of hope for Barbara as she drives in her pickup in pajamas and a dressing gown back to Colorado, abandoning her mother. This is not a spoiler, just inevitable.