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The Green Mile****

It was probably only coincidence, what someone in a letter to me once called "non-causal synchronicity" that I returned home from an afternoon viewing of The Green Mile to hear the strains of Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony booming over the local classical radio station, XBACH. But after three hours of sojourning in territory originally staked out by Stephen King, anyone might succumb to a moment of superstitious credulity. Not that I would compare either Stephen King--the author of the novel upon which The Green Mile is based--or the film's director, Frank Darabont, to Mahler, but a music lover might be forgiven for noticing a certain similarity between the movie's long, emotionally draining depiction of life on death row in a Louisiana prison in 1935, and one of Mahler's grandiose, stormy compositions. The Green Mile's most evident similarities, however, are with The Sixth Sense. In the first place, both films venture far into the realm of the occult. Secondly, both movies deal with the theme of criminal violence, especially violence directed against children, and in both the dramatic center is an emotionally charged relationship between an institutional figure and a character suffering from supernatural gifts: in The Sixth Sense between the child therapist and the boy; in The Green Mile between the guard Paul (Tom Hanks) and the condemned Black prisoner John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who forms a bond with Paul after mysteriously curing him of an excruciating bladder affliction. Thirdly, both films have a plot shtick that they save until the last reel, and both are conspicuously slow paced.

But there the similarities end--to the advantage of The Green Mile. Where The Sixth Sense frequently drags because of inept direction, The Green Mile which is really long--some 188 minutes--never gets tiresome in spite of its leisurely tempo in telling its tale. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Darabont also has at least one evident visual idiosyncrasy, a thoroughgoing use of close up's throughout the movie--and some of these, like the shot that introduces Paul in old age as the resident of a retirement home at the beginning, are very close indeed. Yet no one who has a little bit of patience could watch the film for long without being aware of the director's control over his material. There is never a moment in The Green Mile when I had the sense that Darabont was sticking something on the screen for the lack of anything better to put there, like the endless procession of inane inserts in the Shyamalan picture. When he cuts to an overhead shot of guards leading a prisoner to his execution, it counts as no shot in The Sixth Sense ever does. It is true that Darabont pays a certain price for his restraint when he starts to pull narrative rabbits out of his hat in the last third of the film. Yet if the intended surprises have a curiously anticlimactic effect coming so late and following on the heels of some of the movie's dramatic high points, this shortcoming does not necessarily weaken The Green Mile's impact as a whole. Where the movie has problems, they emerge precisely at the point where The Green Mile becomes problematic--not at the level of its basic construction, which is superb. Judged by current standards, The Green Mile, which does not rely on fancy editing tricks and makes a restrained use of effects, in spite of its quasi-supernatural subject matter, is nearly a "classical" example of filmmaking.

The idea of combining the prison and horror film genres certainly seems an unpromising one at first glance, like the subject for one of Monogram's or PRC's cheesy thrillers from the 1940's. But in the movie the combination works very effectively up to a point. On the one hand, the supernatural motifs add something new and unusual to the staid convention of the traditional prison movie; on the other, the primarily realistic treatment of the prison setting provides an effective ballast to Stephen King's febrile fabulations. Moreover, Darabont, whose last movie was the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, wisely gives the preference to the realistic foreground subject, instead of attempting to balance off the one genre against the other. To what could just as well have been a straightforward drama, the intervention of supernatural forces--whose presence the film wisely does not try to explain--adds an unforeseen complication which heightens rather than detracts from the main conflict. Nevertheless, the somewhat arbitrary union of the two genres does not proceed without friction, particularly when the film falls back upon the conventions of the horror genre to motivate a deus ex machina dénouement which at one blow not only unmasks and disposes of the criminal actually responsible for the crime of which John Coffey has been unjustly accused, but also punishes the sadistic prison guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison). At this point, the tension between the ultimately irreconcilable demands of realism and fantasy reaches the breaking point. Still, the not wholly successful attempt to straddle genres with fundamentally contradictory requirements only sets the stage for a much larger problem.

John Coffey has not only been wrongly condemned to death for a crime he did not commit; even worse, the highly unconventional means through which Paul learns of Coffey's innocence--a kind of vision transmitted by the prisoner to the guard--virtually preclude any hope of securing a reprieve for John. Nonetheless, Coffey, far from rebelling at this unjust twist of fate, accepts it wholeheartedly, making his execution into a sacrificial act that endows him with a Christ-like aura--an aura the movie explicitly bestows on him in a remarkable scene discussed below. In this regard, however, if John bears less resemblance to the founder of the Christian faith than he does to such figures from American literature as Herman Melville's Billy Budd or William Faulkner's Joe Christmas, The Green Mile clearly makes him the vehicle of a supernatural revelation that is doomed to be misunderstood or rejected by those around him. In fact, John himself, like many of Stephen King's characters, experiences this revelation of invisible powers as a terrible affliction from which only death can provide release, and Paul, in turn, to whom John communicates some of this occult knowledge, suffers from it as from a curse at the film's conclusion. Precisely like the gifts bequeathed by gods to mortals in pagan mythology, these powers are highly ambivalent, carrying a potentially fatal risk to whoever uses them. This is the stuff tragedy is made of, and there is nothing edifying about tragedy itself, whose origins go back to primitive religious rituals in which human sacrifice may have played a role. If this is true, the death of tragic hero marked first of all the reenactment and commemoration of the execution of a sacrificial victim, and The Green Mile evokes these memories in its own horrifying execution sequences. Here The Green Mile wisely refuses to draw any comforting moral from the spectacle of capital punishment but recreates the sense of an irrational, barbaric rite of catharsis in which neither morality nor justice play any part just as Franz Kafka did in his story "The Penal Colony", echoing Friedrich Nietzsche's observation in The Genealogy of Morals that "Without cruelty, there is no festive celebration--the oldest, longest history of humanity teaches us this--and punishment is so festive!"

The title of The Green Mile refers to the corridor that leads from the cell block to the death chamber, but the film makes it clear in Paul's final monologue at the end, when the action returns to the present day and the retirement home in which it begins, that the phrase is a metaphor for human existence itself--no more than a passageway to ultimate annihilation. The Shawshank Redemption made good its title by providing Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) with a symbolic rebirth when he first had to crawl through a sewer main in order to escape, and then emerged into a baptismal rain shower which cleansed him both of the physical filth left on his body by the sewer and of the moral filth left in his spirit by his years in prison. But in The Green Mile there is no redemption, much less a resurrection. Nevertheless, the movie possibly allows one exception to this gloomy rule in a sequence which occurs late in the story, when John Coffey finally faces execution and asks to watch a motion for the first and last time in his life. As he sits in a prison theater watching Top Hat, Darabont shows him in close up from a low angle, giving him a numinous glow by letting the beam from the projection booth create a luminescent radiance around his head while Fred Astaire sings "Heaven, I'm in heaven..." on the screen before him. Several  years Herbert Ross had used the "Let's Face the Music and Dance" sequence from Follow the Fleet as a touching counterpoint to the unhappy love affair of Arthur (Steve Martin) and Eileen (Bernadette Peters) in Pennies from Heaven, but this scene makes a far more powerful, raw appeal to the emotions, harking back to movies of the 1930's like Mervyn Le Roy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) or Frank Capra's Lady for a Day (1933) or Broadway Bill (1934). Described in this way, the episode sounds unbearably kitschy, but on screen it is almost unbearably emotional--as are some moments in Capra's best films. Visually the shots transfigure Coffey, but their ultimate implication remains rightly uncertain. Do they elevate Coffey to sainthood or do they only show the charismatic attraction of a popular icon, an attraction quite similar to that exercised  by cheap religious icons on the faithful poor in Catholic countries? Or does he see something our trained vision has rendered us immune to? To the archaic power of the image as such?

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