I really object to this analysis that calls Sullivan’s Travels “reactionary” toward the poor and poverty. Evidently the writer actually wanted to see “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” or that film Sullivan shows at the movie’s beginning about capital and labor fighting and dying on the train. What Preston Sturges did was make the depiction of poverty and its horrors palatable enough for the public that people would actually watch it. Laughing through poverty for the actual people suffering through the Depression meant Sturges was touching their lives. As the studio executives point in the film, the people who watch hard political intellectual films are politicized intellectuals. And that’s fine–I love Salt of the Earth and I Am Cuba and The Battle of Algiers as much as anyone (in fact, the latter is one of my top 5 all-time favorite films), but there’s no doubt that Sturges represented a truer version of poverty to popular audiences than any of those films. And not just through Sullivan’s Travels either, but in Christmas in July and in Easy Living, which he wrote but did not direct. These are all really sad stories that resonated with people. If they didn’t have the explicit goal of turning people into socialists, that doesn’t mean no viewers thought about their lives in new ways after seeing them. There were several such films in the 1930s. You could say much the same about Gold Diggers of 1933, which might be an absurd fluffy film but which also legitimately portrays poverty and has an entire final scene about the Bonus Army. I guess by these standards because it wasn’t calling for explicit class battle, it’s a reactionary film, but I don’t see it. The author clearly wants a certain kind of political film (he’s writing a book on anarchism and film) but that doesn’t mean a film that doesn’t have an objectively leftist agenda is a reactionary film.
I saw Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young and found this Molly Lambert piece on the film really good. Like her, I feel myself in this sort of time warp where everyone I know has children and their lives, naturally enough, revolve around them, whereas I don’t and have absolutely no desire to ever do so. So it makes social relationships slightly odd sometimes, even if most of my friends are not like characters in the film and talk about their children constantly. I basically live the life I always have ever since college, with really relatively only slight changes. Lambert is a few years younger than I am so she feels herself somewhere between Gen X and a millennial. I graduated from high school in 1992 so I am prototype Gen X but I hated that whole culture at the time (even if I have later embraced some of it; after all not listening to Pavement is a bad decision). There’s a lot more about millennial culture I find appealing than I did my own at the time. So I’m kind of stuck in the middle as an old man still trying to follow new young rock bands. For example, I’m a technophobe who has become relatively well known by embracing the kids’ technology. However, I will not go down the road of creating value for crap pop culture when it doesn’t exist as they often do. There is about as much good about Meat Loaf or Journey as there is about ketchup.
The movie is pretty good outside of making the aging childless viewers think about their own positionality within the world. I know some people don’t like Ben Stiller, but his schtick works pretty well with Baumbach’s directing. Naomi Watts is always great. Adam Driver is very good at playing annoying hipsters that you want to punch in the face. Charles Grodin is always welcome. There’s lots of good scenes of a couple in a stale relationship, the absurdity of hipster culture, and the excuses people find to never finish anything they start. And while the film doesn’t really end on a high note, by and large it’s a pretty funny satire of both hipsters and somewhat older people like myself who like a lot of the same things as these younger people but who are surely, aggressively even, not one of them. Pretending one is one of them is ripe material for satire and humor. And if Noah Baumbach films are always about immature people dealing with growing up, well, lots of good directors mine the same type of material over a whole career.
Enjoy this 1940 Rural Electrification Administration documentary on the drudgery of rural work before electricity and how REA cooperatives and the New Deal transforms the lives of farmers. Good stuff. I love the films of the New Deal. There are also useful stories here. Robert Caro’s first LBJ book is a wonderful book on Texas, the main character in its first half. Years later, I continue to recall how he described the drudgery of farm women’s labor in the Texas Hill Country. LBJ helped end that through being a big supporter of public power. That was necessary because with private utilities, profit comes before service. So even as late as 1940, you had American cities in the modern age and American farms basically in the 19th century when it came to life inside the home. The REA played a huge role in changing that. Public power was a justice issue. Naturally, Republicans largely opposed it, the godfather of public power George Norris being the exception that proved the rule as he was a Republican only to keep his seniority and openly attacked Republican presidents over the power issue.
This week in my film class, I made the students watch Birth of a Nation out of class and Superfly in class to get at depictions of African-Americans in film over the 20th century. The great Gordon Parks directed the latter and while it is a cheaply made blaxploitation flick, it also has some truly great scenes. Like the cocaine montage, which we should all watch tonight.
On Oscar night, it’s always worth a reminder that Crash is a disgusting, loathsome piece of garbage that is the worst Best Picture winner in Oscar history, despite what SEK says (and I grant him that under normal circumstances Titanic should have a good claim, but this is Crash we are talking about here). In 2013, Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Petersen had a conversation about just how awful it was. The conclusion: truly awful.
Mallory: Liking Crash is a symptom of the worst kind of moral and cultural laziness. I feel free to make the wildest assumptions about Crash enthusiasts: they probably also enjoy Dave Matthews’ “Crash” and making Guy Fieri jokes. They pronounce it “cue-pon,” not “coo-pon.” They eat at the kind of restaurant where the provenance of each ingredient is carefully listed but the servers and bussers don’t get health insurance. They buy scented candles and the wrong kind of disposable napkins. Crash fans also wade into the comments of news articles to take issue with referring to George Zimmerman as a murderer because “we don’t have all the facts yet” and pride themselves on their objectivity. Related: I am a monster.
Anne Helen: Can we talk about how for many years the movie was perpetually #1 on Netflix’s most-rented list? That fucking kills me. Why do people rent this movie? Do they rent it and realize that they never want to watch it because it’s so self-congratulatory and head-thumpingly moralistic and thus never send it back? Or, WORST NIGHTMARE, do they rent it, watch it while sharing a bottle of Chardonnay, turn it off, and talk about how awful those things were but thank god we don’t live in a place where racism is actually a problem?
Mallory: I do worry about this! I worry about these people very much (you’re welcome, people. I am looking out for you).
Anne Helen: Crash pushes the sort of middlebrow pseudo-intellectualism that I have zero problem decrying. I’m not a total asshole; I’m constantly interrogating the conflation of taste and class. But as you say above, admiring Crash is lazy. Thinking it’s deep is lazy.
Mallory: Also this movie has the worst and weirdest moral equations going on, like Q: If someone who sexually assaulted you later saves your life, is he still racist? A: My daughter is dead.
If anything, this underplays how bad Crash is.
100 years ago today, D.W. Griffith showed his racist epic film “Birth of a Nation” at a private White House screening for President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson called it “history written with lightning,” and said lightning strike sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which in its late teens and early twenties form became a gigantic nationwide organization of conservative white men marching and organizing against not only African-Americans but all sorts of perceived threats ranging from women with short hair and the theory of evolution to Jews and socialism. When it declined in the late 20s, it wasn’t because of federal oppression or a rejection of the KKK’s ideas. Rather, it was because of widespread corruption in the organization’s leadership, including the the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan’s trial for the brutal rape and murder of a teacher named Madge Oberholtzer on a train.
I was first exposed to Birth of a Nation as a college student. While I did watch it for a class my senior year, it was my sophomore year that I actually first saw it. I worked for the AV department in college and this was long enough ago that films in class were being shown reel to reel (the switch to VHS capability in classrooms was taking place while I was in college). One quarter I had the job of running the previews of the 100-level intro to film course for the professor. Saw a bunch of weird stuff–Un Chien Andalou, The Gold Rush, and Notorious are three I distinctly remember. But none shocked me like Birth of a Nation, as I had never heard of the thing. I never forgot the shock of what I was seeing.
And if you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation, it really is must viewing, both in spite of and because of its racism. As a film, it’s great. As social commentary, it’s repulsive.
Following up on news of Steve McQueen directing a biopic of Paul Robeson, it seems Raoul Peck will be directing The Young Karl Marx, depicting the friendship between Marx and Engels. Quite a heady time for film adaptations of leftists.
It is my birthday. I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). Speaking of old things, my birthday present to the rest of you is A Corner in Wheat, the D.W. Griffith film from 1909. It has everything you want in a political film from the time. Horrible poverty. Grotesque wealth. Bread riots. And capitalists being killed in grain elevators. One of the best movies representing the Gilded Age.
I had my students watch it out of class for my film course that meets tonight. I also had them read Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. In class, we are watching Modern Times. That’s right, it is early 20th century labor week.
Like most of you, I spend my Saturday nights watching silent films. Title cards like this one from Children of Eve are one reason.
It’s almost as if directors from 100 years ago are speaking to me from the grave.
…This title card is followed by a reenactment of the Triangle Fire and subsequent heartbreak.
…If we are strictly comparing the awesomeness of title cards however, this one from The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, from 1913, is hard to beat.
This spring, I am teaching Recent American History in Film. I have taught this before as a summer course, but those courses are unusual beasts without a lot of relevance for a traditional 15 week course. I don’t need suggestions on films, though I will put them up for you when I finish the syllabus. I do need some structural advice. This is a course that meets once a week for 2 1/2 hours. There are 30 students. Because I will be showing a film on a particular era or theme each week in class, I am going to require an unusual amount of out of class work from them (they are taking this because they think it will be easy. It will not.) Fine. But I also want them to watch another film outside of class each week, which they would have to write about before class starts on our course software website, and which would inform the week’s session. The problem is figuring out the access. We have an OK film collection in our library, but will students go in there to watch the films? And if they do, it’s all going to be the night before, so that won’t work. So then you have forcing them to subscribe to a streaming service. That’s fine, certainly. But which one? Neflix, Fandor, and the Warner archive all have their strong points, but none have the kind of library one would rely on for class. I can’t require Netflix discs I don’t think because it would overwhelm the system when I had 30 copies of Sullivan’s Travels coming all at once. I can’t realistically assign more than 1 service. I’m actually leaning toward Warner given the overwhelming number of older and American films, but that would still leave real weaknesses.
So what would you do in this situation? Surely some of you have taught film courses of various kinds, others have ideas too no doubt.
Traveling back to the U.S. today, so I won’t be able to respond much but I look forward to hearing your advice.
I recently rewatched The Grapes of Wrath and then reread the book. They are both great pieces of art. Back in my social realist days of art in the late 90s and early 00s, I found the slightly more optmistic end of the movie irritating, but really the scene with Rose-a-Sharon suckling the old man was over the top and there really wasn’t much reason for the book to go on after Tom Joad leaves. And the mild sense of hope at the end of the film really is a more palatable ending. The flood offers nothing but more despair. The adaptation really is perfect as well. I know Steinbeck loved it. The superfluous characters are eliminated, even though it’s obvious in the film that there’s no way Ma Joad would have gone that long between children.
Anyway, what do you think happens to Tom Joad? Let’s assume he doesn’t killed like Casey. And let’s assume he survives the war. If Tom Joad is alive after 1945, what is his future? Am I the only who sees him becoming a conservative like most of his fellow ex-sharecropper migrants and voting for Goldwater in 64? Steinbeck makes a compelling case for Joad the populist man of the left. But of course Steinbeck’s landscape of the California fields is incredibly whitened, eliminating the Filipinos and Mexicans who had long history of work in the fields. That wasn’t entirely inaccurate given the deportations of Mexicans from California in the depression once white people needed low-paid work. But can Joad’s populism bypass the racist attitudes he grew up in and the racist attitudes of California? I guess I am skeptical given what we know about post-war California and the rise of conservatism. Maybe Joad returns from the war, gets a job in the defense factories like so many of his family members and comrades from Oklahoma, and those racial attitudes take over. Now Tom Joad didn’t buy into the religion at the heart of this, but then he’s a young man in the late 30s when the story takes place. Steady work and prosperity will do a lot to make someone forget the hard bad times that make them do crazy things.
I mean, sure, it’d be nice to think about Tom Joad as the vanguard of a left-populist movement. But that didn’t happen, nor did it come close to happening. So if we are playing the odds, I think we have to say that Joad votes Goldwater.