Although I could do without the big sweeping Hollywood music in the trailer, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative 12 Years a Slave looks to be incredibly promising. Given the deep attention to physical detail in McQueen’s films and the fact that there really are so few good movies that deal with slavery in any serious way, I am more excited about this than any film in the last year.
And by this travesty I mean the threat of Steven Spielberg directing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath, a movie I would like to think exactly 0 people would find necessary or interesting, but then again Esther Zuckerman seems excited about it in the linked article so I just don’t know what’s wrong with people.
I mean really, a Grapes of Wrath distanced from the political connotations but wrapped in more sentiment? Gross.
In less disturbing artistic news, here we have a list of the 100 greatest American novels written between 1893 and 1993, with a limit of one book per author. Good for argumentation. I’d question the inclusion of Goodbye Columbus as the Philip Roth entry over Portnoy’s Complaint. Or about 7 or 8 others actually, though I have nothing negative to say about the book. Some of the more recent books feel a bit questionable to me. Is Roots that great of a novel? Or is it just very important? Of course, given that The Fountainhead is on here, it’s clear the list is emphasizing important above good. Or readable.
It seems the Roberts Court also made a film expressing its views on American race relations and the proper order between the races. You can watch it below.
Someone brought this up in comments a few months ago but I never posted what is by far the greatest traffic safety film ever made. The great stuff is in the last 5 minutes or so. Well worth your 15 minutes on a Friday night.
Remember, one think before an accident is worth a million thinks afterwards.
There’s a ton of references in silent films to terrible and dangerous drivers. It was a real issue in the early years of autos.
Showgirls, as certain critical circles have begun to embrace, is not “so bad it’s good.” Showgirls is good, or perhaps great, full stop. But one of the more intriguing things about the film is that it has so widely and so consistently been misunderstood by critics and audiences alike, despite the fact that its director, Paul Verhoeven, made a career in Hollywood out of highly commercial satires that freely indulge in the trash they’re mocking. It’s a constant throughout Verhoeven’s career: nearly every one of his American films, each of which is fiercely intelligent and provocative in its own way, was received at the time of its release with a combination of confusion and contempt, each in turn not so much rejected as a failure as, more frustratingly, dismissed as unworthy of serious thought.
Has Slate already signed Calum Marsh to a multiyear contract?
1950′s “How to Lose What We Have” is first-rate capitalist propaganda precisely because it lacks anything even remotely approaching subtlety, unless you count its conflation of the New Deal with Stalinism. The only disappointment here is that because of the time period, the filmmakers threw in a sop about unions being legal when you know they wish it wasn’t so.
I love classic capitalist propaganda. Take for example, 1956′s “Destination Earth.” A cartoon produced by the American Petroleum Institute, it shows that oil + competition=getting rid of that dastardly
Stalin Ogg, leader of Mars.
CNBC and Fox are pretty lame capitalist propagandists compared to this.
In 1971, the film Zachariah was released. I had never heard of it until last night, but it seems to be a weirdo western starring Don Johnson, Dick Van Patten, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Walsh, Patricia Quinn, Doug Kershaw, and the great drummer Elvin Jones. In this scene, Elvin Jones wears a groovy vest, kills a man in a gunfight, and then plays a long drum solo.
After seeing this, I went straight to my Netflix queue. Good? No it certainly doesn’t seem so. 1971 weirdness? Oh yes.
I recently rewatched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I was confirmed in my opinion that this is the greatest American film about work and class. The early scenes in the factory are the most famous, with the amazingly awesome food service designed to give workers lunch without them leaving the production line, the muscle memory forcing Chaplin to twist his hands like he was holding his wrench involuntarily even when a woman is coming with buttons on suggestive parts of her coat, the panopticon style surveillance system that catches him taking a smoke break in the bathroom, and of course his getting caught in the gears of the machine. Then there’s the scene where Chaplin wants to remain in prison because he gets fed there.
It’s all brilliant. But I think it is not the most important part of the film. Because I think, like the wonderful work of Preston Sturges, the later part of the film goes a long ways to explain the failure of class-based politics in American history and the supremacy of consumerism over radicalism. The real key to the film is the appearance of Paulette Goddard* as the youthful waif. She will do anything to feed her sisters or survive on the street. But it’s not a political action. It’s sheer survival, disconnected from politics, even if her father is killed in a protest of the unemployed.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, do so. If you have, think about the scene when Chaplin gets a job as a security guard and lets his young friend in for the night. She luxuriates in the consumer goods, wearing firs and laying in a soft bed. This is what she wants.
And all Charlie does is want to give them to her. When he ends up in leading the march of the unemployed, it’s by accident. He goes on strike when the shop goes on strike. But class politics isn’t Chaplin (even if Charlie himself was a socialist). It’s the sheer desire to work and provide your loved ones the goods that capitalism was denying workers in the 30s and not denying them in the 50s. When Chaplin and Goddard walk down the road at the end, it’s not to radicalism. They are walking to a life where someday, maybe, they can have the furs, or at least a home of their own.
This brings me back to Preston Sturges. In Sullivan’s Travels and in his other great films of the period, the working class is noble and brave and also loves to buy things and have a good laugh. But they know that for as horrible as poverty is, engaging in American consumer culture is way more fun than lame, boring, and dreary revolutionary politics. All people want is a home and maybe a few furs if they get really lucky. And however they get lucky doesn’t matter, so long as they aren’t poor.
I think these films are really profound about class in America. If you are a working-class person in the 1930s, much about your life is probably terrible. But if you can tap into prosperity in the 50s, why would you reject that for communism, especially when that communism is as puritanical and unpleasant as that of CPUSA or Stalin himself or the lovely nations of eastern Europe during the Cold War?
This doesn’t mean I don’t think the greatest mistake the CIO ever made was evicting the communists from the labor movement in the late 40s. In fact, that was a terrible idea. But the great working-class films of the Great Depression understood the American working class in a way that communists never did. As Lizabeth Cohen shows in her excellent history of consumerism and the postwar working class, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the working-class openly embraced consumer goods over radical class-based politics after World War II. And that’s OK. Let’s face it, as both Chaplin and Sturges knew, revolutionary politics are not fun for most people. Hard struggle stinks. Taking dangerous risks or watching television, which would you rather do?
For all as many of us might wish for a history of working-class politics that was more militant and created more power in the present, it is really very easy to understand why that didn’t happen.
Also I swear I’m not stealing SEK’s bit. Despite the heavy use of stills from the film!
* Paulette Goddard is really fascinating. She was married to Chaplin from 1936-42. Her last two husbands: Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque, of all people. She died extremely rich in 1990, leaving $20 million to NYU.
This is an interesting essay on the Malick Effect, which can be summed as up people copying Terence Malick by having hands run through grain for effect:
That Green was initially able to pull off this plagiaristic trick is somewhat amazing, given what a careful balance Malick strikes between poetic inquiry and narrative plotting. But as evidenced by Undertow, his third film, even Green found that mimicking Malick posed the threat of reducing the director’s work to just its rudimentary building blocks, a problem that’s also undercut many subsequent copycats. Sean Penn (who co-starred in both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) performed a pale impersonation with his directorial job on 2007′s Into the Wild, wielding pseudo-Malick landscape cinematography and accompanying voice-over blabber in a thoroughly blunt, leaden manner. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gussies up its Malick-isms (meditative and mournful narration over naturally lit vistas of the West and its existentially wounded characters) with smeary visual expressionism that makes the film play, in large part, like a beautiful cover song. However, at least Jesse James has a clear sense of itself; last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, comes off as the nature-is-ugly-yet-magical stepchild of George Washington, a third-hand piece of recycling made by someone who knows the moves but has none of the mysterious soul. By the time John Hillcoat — an accomplished director whose The Proposition also commingles natural beauty, violence, and religious turmoil — helmed this Levis ad, it was clear that, for many, Malick had become merely a collection of tricks and devices, the simple sum of various parts. Just ask Zach Snyder, whose initial Man of Steel teaser trailer, with its portentous narration, soaring music, and shots of sun-dappled butterflies and clotheslines swaying in the breeze, awkwardly evokes what a superhero blockbuster helmed by a second-rate Malick might resemble.
Unfortunately, Malick himself has moved closer to self-parody with each passing movie in his latter phase of actually finishing films. The brilliant The Thin Red Line devolved into the decent The New World which then devolved further into the largely unwatchable The Tree of Life. The reviews on To The Wonder do not sound promising, although I suppose I’ll watch it. Unfortunately, with The Tree of Life, Malick fully gave into his most self-indulgent impulses (more dinosaurs and galaxy shots in a movie ostensibly about growing up in the 1950s please!). It’s too bad because Malick is indeed so brilliant and does have so much to offer other filmmakers in terms of style, even if they misuse his methods for their own self-indulgent ends.
Quiet evening here, seems like a good time to embed a Dave Flesicher cartoon. From 1939, this is The Barnyard Brat. This is part of his Hunky and Spunky series, which doesn’t have the power of some of his more socially oriented work, but is by and large a pretty entertaining series about a baby donkey and his mother.
I’m totally not embedding this because it reminds me of a lot of children I have seen. Nope, not at all.