Friday, 16 March 2012

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall

The star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is, above all, the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia. Director Clint Eastwood’s camera lingers over the grandly verandah-ed antebellum mansions, the Spanish moss draping the willow boughs, and the historic squares. And the screenplay, based on John Berendt’s best-selling book, lets the genteel eccentricity of the city’s characterful inhabitants seduce the audience. Morality may be missing from Savannah’s salons, saloons, and cemeteries, but the decadence sure looks wonderful!

New York writer John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in Savannah, Georgia, on a brief from Town and Country magazine, to cover the famous Christmas party of socialite and art collector Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The charm of Savannah, the courtesy of its inhabitants and its notable eccentricities pique his interest. He is woken the next morning, however, by police sirens. After the party had ended Jim Williams had shot a man dead – Billy Hanson (Jude Law). John selves his plans to fly back north and settles in to Savannah society as he writes-up the case. His investigations into Williams and Hanson’s background bring to light a plethora of interesting folks – not least the charismatic nightclub hostess Miss Chablis Deveau – and their tales.

It is the inhabitants and their contradictions and quirks that make Savannah thrive. Williams is a self-made millionaire and art-collector is charm personified; he is also in a sexual relationship with the drug-abusing street hustler Billy. Chablis is fearless and ballsy (literally!) but is secretly looking for someone to love. Luther (Geoffrey Lewis) walks around with flies leashed to his lapels with string and threatens to poison the town water-supply. The biggest local celebrity is Uga, the bulldog mascot of Georgia University. Another dog is Patrick, a greyhound whose master set aside in his will a daily payment for him to be taken for a walk; the townsfolk are too well-mannered to point out Patrick died twenty years ago and so everyday his leash is taken for a stroll around town. Society dames at balls chat openly about their husbands’ suicides and produce derringers from the décolletages. And then there is Minerva (Irma P. Hall), the local voodoo priestess who seems to have an entrée to all levels of society. And I mean all levels. Kelso describes the city to his agent as being “like ‘Gone With The Wind’ on Mescalin… Listen to me, they walk imaginary pets here, Garland. On a fucking leash. Alright? And they’re all heavily armed and drunk. New York is boring!”

And the Savannahians come alive in the story. Not surprising, as many of them actually appear. Australian actor Jack Thompson may appear as Williams’ lawyer Sonny Seiler, but the real life Seiler has a lot of screen time playing Judge White. The real-life Chablis Deveau appears as the semi-fictitious Chablis Deveau in the movie, and is totally convincing as the brassy drag-queen with a hidden sensitive streak. Savannah resident Emma Kelly, ‘the Lady of 6,000 Songs’ makes an appearance playing piano, and many of the real-life Jim Williams’s guests and family members appeared in the party scenes. Because, yes, Jim Williams did exist. As did Chablis Deveau, Sonny Seilor, Joe Odom, Uga the bulldog. Billy Hanson was based upon Danny Hansford. John Kelso was an invention of the screen-writer, but was based upon the original author, John Berendt, to a certain extent. The movie is based on the book, with some dramatic license being employed; the book was based on real events, with some dramatic license being employed. What is seen on screen, then, is a dramatisation of a dramatisation of real events. I am reminded of the wise words of Manchester’s own most artful self-publicist Anthony H. Wilson: I there is a choice between printing the truth or the myth, print the myth.

Truth, then, is a somewhat nebulous concept in this story. By the end of the film we have two different stories about what occurred between Jim and Billy on the night of the murder – the story accepted by the jury and the story Jim tells John in his cell. It is not clear which – if any – of these stories is the truth. “Truth”, Jim says, “is in the eye of the beholder. You believe what you choose and I’ll believe what I know.” If he is going to be found guilty in the trial, he would rather it be for lying than for murder, even if the end result is the same. Here charm and manners are, perhaps more important than morality. People know about Jim Williams’ homosexuality, but they prefer it as an open secret rather than out in the open. They may not care for Billy Hanson’s behaviour, but they care that he has been killed before they had chance to see whether he was as good in bed as gossip says he was – he was, in one memorable phrase, “the good time not yet had by all”. This is a town where good and evil are separated by next to nothing – in Minerva’s voodoo it is just the church clock striking midnight that separates the time for doing good and the time for doing evil.

You do that voodoo that you do so well...
Kevin Spacey and John Cusack cast a spell

And all of this is played out against a backdrop of smooth southern jazz. The soundtrack is comprised solely of tunes written by Savannah native Johnny Mercer (whose ancestral home is owned by Jim Williams). On his first night in town Kelso plays a tape of New York street noise to drown out the new sounds he hears here: party chatter and jazz hanging in the air. Savannah is not a town that lets its guests close themselves off however; his sleep is interrupted by Mandy (Alison Eastwood) inviting him to a party. And everywhere, be it formal cotillion, party whether grand or impromptu, or neighbourhood bar, there is always a piano playing.

What have I learnt about Georgia?
What I’ve learnt about Georgia is really what I’ve learnt about Savannah, quite possibly one of the nation’s most colourful towns. Savannah has always been a town for a good time; according to the tour bus introduction to the city the town grandees welcomed in the vengeful Union General Sherman and got him and his officers so drunk that they didn’t have the heart to torch Savannah as they had done Atlanta. As a result that sort of pre-war society lauded in Gone With The Wind still sort-of exists in a bubble here. It is a perfect encapsulation of the Old South – grand antebellum mansions, moss-hung trees and all. And the people have just the right mix of good ol’ southern hospitality. Manners and courtesy are important here and outsiders have to learn them; Chablis will not even speak to Kelso until he has presented her with flowers. So, as a consequence, is gossip. This is the real currency at the women’s’ card afternoons. Frankly, with the manners, the eccentricity, the old money and the nouveau riche, and the gallons of alcohol swilling everywhere, the place is almost English. Julian Fellowes or Richard Curtiss would have given their back teeth to have invented such a cast of colourful characters!

But it is also a depiction of the New South too. Kelso attends the Alpha Phi Beta cotillion – a social coming out ball for debutantes who happen to be black. If my complaint about films set in Alabama was that the black characters were all victims, here in Georgia (albeit some forty years later) we can finally see rich, successful, confident black characters. And probably a darn sight richer, more successful and (in the case of Chablis) more confident than you or I!

There is also a darker side. When the word ‘voodoo’ is used, one’s mind tends to automatically dart to New Orleans in Louisiana (or Haiti. Or Benin for those who really know their ogouns). But it is alive and well in Savannah if this tale has any truth at all in it.

Can we go there?
After my only brief trip to the US in 2010 (New York, Philadelphia and Washington, since you ask) I had said that when I returned I would be concentrating on the great outdoors and the national parks rather than America’s modern cities. New Orleans, San Francisco and – possibly – Miami were honourable exceptions to this. Now Savannah has been added to that list. This is a historic town and is a great evocation of the genteel Old South. But modern-day  Savannah is certainly geared up for tourists. And they know all about what they ever-so-pleasantly refer to as ‘The Book’. You can get tours showing you locations featured in Midnight… as well as other movies (Forrest Gump, for instance, sat on a prop bench waiting for a bus in Chippewa Square).

Good parts of the film were shot in Forsyth Park. The Mercer-Williams House – home, at different times to musician Johnny Mercer and murderer Jim Williams – is open for tours . Sonny’s law offices were filmed the Armstrong House on the corner of Bull and West Gaston Streets. Luther is first met in Clary’s Café, 404 Abercorn Street. The Federal Court House was the location for the courtroom scenes (unsurprisingly). Kelso stayed at 200 West Jones Street, but visitors might like to stay instead at the Hamilton-Turner Inn (‘America’s Most Romantic Hotel 2012’). Joe Odom used to be the manager here and he held raucous parties that made it into The Book. In the evening head out to Club One, to see the real live Lady Chablis’s cabaret show. Or, for a quieter night, visit Churchill’s Pub & Restaurant; sadly this is not the original Churchill’s seen in the movie where Kelso and Sonny drink and Mandy sings as that has since burnt down. One final location to track down should be Bonaventure Cemetery, which can be seen at the start and end of the film. It is the location of Johnny Mercer’s grave; the famous Bird Girl statue that was featured on the original book cover and the film poster, has since been donated to the Telfair Museum to try and prevent disturbance to the cemetery by visitors. You can still go on organised tours of Bonaventure however.  

Overall Rating: 4/5