Reeling Backward: The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)
This gorgeous-looking but emotionally distant Southern Gothic Merchant-Ivory production lives more in the realm of parable than realistic storytelling.
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“The Ballad of the Sad Café” exists more in the realm of parable than it does realistic storytelling. This Merchant-Ivory production was based on the 1963 Edward Albee play, which in turn sprung from the novella published in 1951 by Carson McCullers.
These sorts of Southern Gothic affairs often purport to verisimilitude but reflect Yankee otherizing of the land below the Mason-Dixon line as a place of mystery and unspoken horror. Watching this movie is like seeing kabuki theater staged by people who’ve never been to Japan but read about it.
The film is now out in a handsome new Blu-ray issue from Cohen Media.
It’s about a woman strong in mind and body, Miss Amelia, played by Vanessa Redgrave as a sort of baroness of a small Georgia hamlet in the 1930s. She inherited a mercantile store in the center of town from her daddy, but prospers most from being the only dependable moonshiner in these parts. The farmers and factory workers line up nightly to drop some coins in her pail for a large jar of her clear hooch.
She keeps her still secret on an island shut off by the nearby swamp, every trip to make a new batch more like a spiritual sojourn, complete with the ritual of self-purification by washing off the muck with a bucket of clean water.
Miss Amelia is the object of much curiosity from the locals, a mix of reverence and resentment as the closest thing to a rich person they have. Physically she is imposing, as tall as any man with fierce blue eyes and boyish short hair. She goes about in pants, shirts and boots, as if there is no other way.
She has no family or companions, and barely can be bothered to return the respectful greetings offered when she passes by. In an early scene, we see her barge into a household in the middle of the night to confiscate the woman’s sewing machine over a $2 debt, despite their protests that it’s the family’s only source of income.
Some years earlier Amelia was briefly married to Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine), a troublemaker who seemingly had reformed his ways. Amelia accepted his proposal as more of a business agreement, offering her handshake rather than her lips to seal the deal. Upon attempting to claim his husbandly reward that wedding night, though, Marvin was violently rejected and thrown out of the house, humiliated and made to sleep in the shed.
Marvin soon ran off and committed a string of crimes, including robbery and attempted murder, that landed him in the penitentiary. His return and accompanying desire for revenge forms the spine of the narrative, as he and Amelia are bound by dark fate into a final confrontation with each other.
But Marvin’s arrival is preceded by another, unexpected one.
Lymon Willis (Cork Hubbert), a dwarf (to use the parlance of the time and film), shows up one day claiming to be the son of Miss Amelia’s long-lost half-sister. A hunchback who wobbles along in a shambling gait, Lymon is prone to sudden bipolar fits of sadness and manic glee. Amelia takes pity on him and invites him in.
The townsfolk, having not seen Lymon for a few days afterward, speculate that Amelia has murdered him for the contents of his suitcase. Finally summoning the courage, they gather at the store to find Lymon in a gregarious and playful mood, performing little magic tricks and such to amuse the hayseeds, his signature being his ability to wiggle his ears.
It seems clear that Cousin Lymon, as he comes to be known, is something of a rapscallion and confidence man. He soon takes on Miss Amelia’s aloof airs, and comes up with the idea of turning the store into a café. They can sell her moonshine by the glass and make more money, along with chicken dinners and the gaiety of a player piano.
Almost overnight, the café becomes the centerpiece of town culture, with Miss Amelia as the haughty proprietress and Lymon as the court jester who keeps everyone smiling and ponying up.
Rod Steiger has a small role as Reverend Willin, who attempts to steer his small flock in the right direction. The acrimony between Marvin and Amelia represents his largest vexation, as he facilitated the marriage.
In probably the longest piece of dialogue in the film, he calls Marvin the lover and Amelia the beloved, but says they might as well be from different countries. Amelia acted more as the object of Marvin’s own unlovable nature reflected back at him. “He knows that his love is a lonely and solitary thing,” Willin says.
For her part, Miss Amelia seems untouched by the very notion of needing or even feeling love. She knew that she was lonely and that is the primary reason she likes having Cousin Lymon around, despite his obvious chicanery. She even buys an old Model T Ford for $75 so they can drive into the only city of any size nearby and watch the moving pictures.
Tellingly, Lymon loves gangster stories.
Redgrave plays Miss Amelia as resolute and strong-willed, but not particularly empathetic or smart. Seen by today’s lights, you could even argue Amelia is simpleminded or on the autism spectrum. She projects an identity of what we’d now call intersex, constantly rolling up her sleeves and flexing her arms in a boastful way, the traditional notions of masculinity and femininity seeming not apply to her.
Upon Marvin’s return, he seems a changed man from the eager, submissive fellow we saw during their brief marriage. Always wearing a bright red shirt — which acts as counterpoint to the crimson dress Miss Amelia has taken to wearing to entertain guests at the café — he carries a guitar and plays taunting blues tunes with a bottleneck slide. His gaze is constant and hard, and the fear he had for Amelia before has fled.
I get the sense this is the way Marvin was prior to his reformation, when he summoned the idea of marrying Amelia… perhaps as a way to cement his redemption. But since we never saw that side of him before, he re-enters the picture seeming more like the victim of Amelia’s mercurial fits than a figure of remorseless vengeance.
It’s true, Marvin has come to abuse Amelia, but only to return that which she first gave him. He wants to tease and taunt her before making an end of it.
The film — directed by Simon Callow (his first and only stint behind the camera) from a screenplay adaptation by Michael Hirst — makes no attempt to explain why Amelia suddenly agreed to marry him and then reject him sexually just as quickly. Was she really completely unaware of what husbands and wives do, or just think that bit wouldn’t apply to her?
Even Amelia’s taunting insult for Marvin — “loom-fixer!” — seems to demonstrate more about her own lack of capacity to grasp human nature than a denigration of him. I can find no slang iteration for the term, which essentially means someone skilled in the machinery of textile-making.
I guess Miss Amelia prefers her own loom remain untouched.
The truly strange thing about this last act is Lymon’s behavior. Despite being derided as a “brokeback” and even slapped around by Marvin, Lymon becomes completely infatuated with him. To him, Marvin represents a romantic ideal of tough, independent masculinity that his own afflicted body can never afford. His attraction is not sexual but a reflection of his own hidden self-loathing.
Lymon invites Marvin to stay with him at his room above the cafe, and even takes to mocking pantomime of Amelia’s behavior. Amelia seems more bothered by this betrayal than Marvin’s taunts, but does nothing about it.
The story ends with an arranged fistfight between Marvin and Amelia as the way to settle their score. (Rev. Willin is absent for this, but surely must know of it.) They punch each other to a bloody pulp in a grotesque display that goes on and on, shifting the mood of the audience from orgiastic glee to repulsed pity.
Amelia gains the upper hand and seems on the verge of choking Marvin to death, when Lymon leaps from the cabinet top where he’d been watching to defend his new champion from his old one. (The effect of the tiny man flying about 25 feet through the air is LOL cheesy.) Marvin knocks her out, but leaves without killing her.
Awakened with a pail of water, Amelia moans and wails at her defeat, retreating from the café to her quarters, knowing she has forever lost her once-loyal cousin and her status in the town.
Marvin and Lymon return that night to bust up the place and then go set her still on fire. Short bookend scenes at the beginning and end show the town many years later, now grown and bustling, the busy people ignoring the boarded-up café and the woman who stares out from the top window.
My main beef with the movie is I never for one moment bought the three main characters as real people who could walk beside us. The trio make no sense, even to themselves. They are some writer’s kooky figments — creations made for poetry, reflections of our own impulses and fears rather than the bound flesh of living, breathing persons.
“The Ballad of the Sad Café” is an interesting movie, if not a good one. Its look and feel of a fictional South, more fairy tale than history, is evocative in a way that is curiously both pleasing and repulsive.