There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read — thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it’s showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.
I wonder if there’s anything else the 1979 version of Mike Huckabee can nostalgically remember not happening in the South of his youth?
But friend, it’s happening all over and no one’s blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil’s moved in and the devil’s moved in but what’s really happened is God’s people have moved out and made room for it. We’ve put up the for sale sign and we’ve announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We’ve sold our character, we’ve sold our convictions, we’ve compromised, we’ve sold out and as a result we’ve moved out the devil’s moved in and he’s set up shop. And friend [he’s] preying on our own craving for pleasure.
I for one crave catchy songs while being nailed to the cross.
I just watched Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer and was blown away by it. One of my favorite leftist films. Then I wondered what the best leftist films are. I brought this up on Twitter today and thought it would be a good conversation here.
What are the best leftist movies? These come in 2 basic forms I think, which are films that display left activism and films that analyze left activism from a perspective that is basically sympathetic. Obviously people are going to define what makes a leftist film differently, which we can argue about.
Anyway, here are 20 I like a lot, more or less in order.
Interestingly, when I think of the greatest leftist directors, Ken Loach is one of the first to come up. But his most overtly political films are often his worst (that terrible SEIU Justice for Janitors film with Adrien Brody) while his relatively apolitical portrayals of the English working class are his most powerful (Sweet Sixteen, Throwing Stones, etc).
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.
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.
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.