The Library of Congress named this year’s National Film Registry selections today. As usual, it combined some big-budget movies people love even if they aren’t really that good (Top Gun? Ghostbusters?) with some classics (Winchester ’73 and Imitation of Life) and then some real treasures of American film that need the commitment to long-term preservation. Here are a few of the winners:
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.
That will teach you to gorge yourself on Welsh food.
King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, one of the socially conscious classics of the Depression.
And then the 1946 Disney cartoon on menstruation, The Story of Menstruation.
There are a bunch I didn’t know about either, including the 1931 Spanish language version of Dracula and the 1929 Duke Ellington film Black and Tan. Pretty cool.
Haskell Wexler, the great cinematographer, has died at the age of 93. He worked on so many films, but for me, and for himself actually, his finest achievement was directing (and of course shooting) the wonderful Medium Cool. Here is the beginning of that film.
Since it’s that kind of day, let people also discuss their memories of two other famous people who died today, the outfielder Dave Henderson, noted for his home run in the 1986 ALCS that saved the Red Sox from defeat and started their comeback to win that series and for his terrible broadcasting with the Mariners where he made Joe Morgan look like Vin Scully, as well as Ellsworth Kelly, about whom I have little to say since that high-falutin’ abstract art is too smart for me I guess.
…It also seems, although unconfirmed by major news sources, that the legendary anthropologist of the Caribbean Sidney Mintz has also died. Mintz was the author of Sweetness and Power, on the role of sugar in human history, among other very important works. Here’s a lovely little essay on the first time Mintz ate Chinese food, an important moment for a pioneer in food studies.
Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actors in film historym has died. Hara worked with most of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, but her finest work was in the wonderful films of Yasujiro Ozu, including the transcendent Tokyo Story, where she plays the widowed daughter-in-law who cares more about her aging in-laws than any of their surviving children. Not a lot happens in Ozu films except talking but given that he largely shot the films with the actors speaking directly to the camera, the personal power of these family stories transcend postwar Japan and created some of the finest films ever made. Her performances radiated a powerful independent grace in a transitioning Japanese society. She disappeared from the public eye in the early 1960s and I didn’t even know she was still alive. In fact, she died in early September at the age of 95 and it was never reported until today.
You’ll thank me for the theme song and Bucky Dent, if not the fine, fine acting and disco. Not to mention Jane Seymour and Bert Convy.
The Daughter of Dawn is more than just another Friday night flick. It is a cinematic wormhole into America’s past.
“The rediscovery of The Daughter of Dawn is a great historical find,” Jeffrey M. Moore of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture tells NPR. “Not only is it significant because so few independent films from the silent era survived but it captures a time period often romanticized in a very real and authentic way. The imagery from American Indian culture on the Southern Plains is for the most part presented unfiltered by the non-Indian filmmakers.
In the movie, Moore says, “The viewer gets to see Kiowas and Comanches wearing their traditional clothing without the help of Hollywood wardrobe departments. Besides the scenes on horseback and hunting buffalo, there are scenes of traditional dances being performed that would have been forbidden by the federal government if not for the fact that they were part of the film.”
And the background landscape of the Wichita Mountains, he adds, “gives an environmental purity lost when later films portraying Plains tribes would be filmed in locations like Monument Valley.”
My only caveat to this is that a silent film being an amazing window into the past is not something limited to this film but rather is actually a quite common and wonderful feature of silent film. That’s especially true in the 1910s when people were still figuring out on the fly how to make films and before Hollywood methods and sets were common. So you have street scenes from New York in 1903 that are shocking to the viewer because that’s simply something you don’t expect to see, for example. The Daughter of Dawn is definitely not the only Native American based film that is a must see as well. In fact, there are a lot of really fascinating examinations of Native Americans in silent film. One of the best is the 1929 film Redskin, which is about both the transformation of Navajo culture through the Indian schools and the Navajo-Puebloan divide that went back centuries to the times when the Navajo were raiding the pueblos left and right. The film is actually partially in color, using an early technique that did not allow for the full palette of colors, but was still an amazing advancement (see also the amazing and 100 percent no holds barred exercise in Orientalism 1922 film The Toll of the Sea with Anna Mae Wong for use of early color in silents). Plus the scenes of the Navajo Nation, filmed at Canyon de Chelly and revolving around herding culture are filmed in color and the scenes after the main character is forced to go to an east coast Indian school are in black and white, which is more shocking. He then falls in love with an Acoma girl at the same school. They come back and of course neither are any longer accepted as full tribal members. The final scene consists of a near-battle between the Acoma and Navajo. In order to film this scene, the director had a road built up Acoma Pueblo. For those of you who have visited the Sky City in western New Mexico, this is the road you take today. It was built for a film. So once again, this is a pretty fantastic examination of Native American life, even if it directed by a white person and the main stars are white actors.
There are so many silent films like this. Not only are many silents great films on the merit, but the historical window they present cannot be replicated in any other way and on almost any issue of the day–radical politics, birth control, race, etc.,–you can find weird and wonderful silents.
I’d like to credit Robert Altman with crafting the most successful political campaign by someone named Walker in American presidential history. Because Scott Walker sure as hell doesn’t beat this, not to mention have Lily Tomlin singing with a black choir or have Jeff Goldblum riding a motorcycle-like vehicle.
If the writers of LGM ever got together in the same place, I believe the alcohol consumption would look something like Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan:
As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.
Boot polish, for example, would be spread on a hunk of bread, which was then toasted. The alcohol in the polish would soak into the bread; the polish itself would crisp on the surface of the toast. You’d scrape off as much as you could, then eat the bread. The same could be done with some ethanol-based toothpastes.
Alternatively, take that polished bread, sit it on top of a glass of water over night, and then drink it, as a certain amount of alcohol will have infused it. And then eat the bread, hoping it hasn’t gotten moldy in the meantime.
If you had the misfortune to be based in one of the so-called “eagle’s nest” observation posts up in the mountains, where supplies were heaved out of an Mi-8 helicopter precariously balancing one of its wheels on the slope, then you needed to turn to your surroundings. Some solvents used for cleaning weapons contained ethanol along with all kinds of toxic additives. Pour some into a metal pan and then leave it out for a while in the bitter Afghan winter; the belief was that the ethanol would stay liquid, atop a frozen layer of everything else. Fortunately, such solvents were often in scarce supply.
The soldiers would also — despite official warnings not to, as much to avoid poisoning as anything else — buy drinks from Afghan traders. Ranging from the internationally renowned brandies of the Afghan-Clemd distillery to rotgut brewed in backstreet stills, the drinks on sale, especially at venues dotting Kabul’s Chicken Street bazaar, were numerous. The Soviet Commandant’s Service military police patrols meant to prevent off-duty soldiers from stocking up on drink would, instead, “tax” their victims a share of their purchases. As one soldier reminisced, “it’s the only time in my military career I actually didn’t mind wearing the red armband” of a patroller.
The field expedients the Soviets poured into their hapless bodies may have brought a degree of oblivion to their wartime misadventures. These noxious and innovative drinks were competing with the opium that was so readily available and also with such alternatives as chifir’, a punishingly strong tea that was actually used in the Gulags to induce a mild high or stave off pain and exhaustion. They also contributed to as much as 20 percent of the cases addressed by the Military-Medical Service in Afghanistan. One army doctor recounted to me a tale of having to operate on a soldier hit by shrapnel from a rebel mortar, whose innards still smelled of cheap cologne.
Speaking of such things, I just finished On the Bowery, the amazing 1956 early cinema verité film about drunks on the Bowery. This might also look like the LGM writing crew on any given night.
Had to link instead of embed because of the film’s privacy settings, but it’s a cool documentary of sorts on indigenous Mexican ruins.
Today, the story of Murnau’s death gets a little bit weirder: Der Spiegel is reporting that someone has broken into the Plumpe family crypt outside Berlin and stolen the director’s head.
It is unknown how or when the perpetrators gained access to the tomb, though, notably, the coffins of the director’s brothers Robert and Bernhard were not disturbed. The Plumpe crypt is located in Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf, a large woodland cemetery known for its mausolea and dense forestation. According to local police, the break-in was first noticed on Monday morning.
This is not the first time that someone has broken into the crypt, and, at present, the cemetery’s administrators are weighing whether to permanently seal the tomb or to bury the director’s body separately from the rest of his family to prevent further vandalism. Police have reportedly found wax drippings at the scene, suggesting either a ritualistic element, or that Murnau’s head was stolen by old-timey grave robbers by candlelight.
I have discussed the 1971 New Left dystopian film Punishment Park here a bit before. I’ve mentioned that it is a great leftist film and that the wonderful Paul Motian did the soundtrack. And I think I’ve mentioned the plot–that post-Kent State, Nixon has ordered the rounding up of all the nation’s leftists and sent them to prison camps where they are tried by makeshift tribunals of squares and then forced into Punishment Park, a Mojave Desert training course for cops to kill hippies. This is great stuff. Great. And it is on YouTube. Watch it. Watch it now.