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Tag: "film"

The Barnyard Brat

[ 4 ] April 23, 2013 |

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.

The Searchers and Race

[ 78 ] April 22, 2013 |

Last month, SEK brought up the racism of The Searchers, which I argued was as racist as Birth of a Nation. I decided to rewatch the film. It had been a couple of years after all. Both of my major contentions about the film were reconfirmed. First, it is a brilliant masterpiece. Second, it is deeply and disturbingly racist.

In many ways, The Searchers and Birth of a Nation tell the same story. Both revolve around the fundamental taboo of American history–sexual relationships between white women and men of color. The major theme of John Ford’s career is the creation of a white nation through violence, even if that violence is often jocularly portrayed, and through shared suffering in the service of creating modern America. Ford could often transcend this brilliantly when avoiding regeneration through violence. The Grapes of Wrath depicts people suffering from violence and dispossession while in Young Mr. Lincoln, Honest Abe’s manhood is proven through halting mob violence rather than participating in it.

In any case, the theme of violence for racial purity binds Ford and Griffith together. The Iron Horse witnesses the Irish and “whites” uniting on the railroad to create Americans only when attacked by Indians. Ford himself could make this clear. The casting of Henry Walthall as the ex-Confederate preacher in the awful Judge Priest is hardly a coincidence as Walthall was Colonel Ben Cameron in Birth of a Nation.

If The Searchers is more ambivalent about the racial project than Birth of a Nation, that’s the reflection of the times. The latter came out in 1915, at a height of racial fear in America (and 2 years after Traffic in Souls, which dealt with the purity of the white race in a very different way, though the fear of white slavery). The former came out in 1956, the same year that African-Americans won the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for filmmakers to tell stories of racial conquest in purely victorious terms given a changing nation.

Ethan Edwards is still the ultimate hero in creating a safe world for white women. Ford may have to show Ethan’s great personal suffering and sacrifice and provide a character (1/8 Cherokee but the rest Welsh!) as a foil to Ethan’s murderous racism. But Ethan is still a clear hero with who we sympathize, even if a touch uncomfortably.

The most obvious and famous scenes about racial purity is when Ethan goes into the building holding the women rescued from Comanche capture and when he tries to kill Debbie after seeing her defiled by Scar. But it goes much deeper than this. While Ethan’s Confederate past and unwillingness to surrender isn’t directly tied to defending slavery, that doesn’t have to be named. He is the last man willing to stop at nothing to protect pure white womanhood and the American race. Moreover, while Ethan is the enforcer of white purity, he’s hardly the only character to express these thoughts. Laurie supports Ethan over Martin in the idea of killing Debbie, telling him, “I tell you Martha would want him to”–Martha being Debbie’s mother. Before Brad rides off to his death, his primary concern is not whether the Comanches killed Lucy but that they raped her, which it is clear they did from Ethan’s response to his question. When Ethan won’t let anyone see Martha after the homestead is ravaged, the subtext is not that she is dead but that she was violated and therefore should not be seen.

We also need to examine the relationship, such as it is, between Martin Pawley and the Comanche woman who he inadvertently marries. There’s no evidence that Martin has sex with her. He seems more disgusted than interested. But the point is that he certainly could have. Interracial sex between Martin and a Comanche woman makes Ethan howl with laughter. Interracial sex between Scar and Debbie makes him murderous. This reflects the broader attitudes toward interracial sex in American culture, with its obsession to protect white women and its tolerance of sex with women of color.

A common defense of Ethan and thus the film is that he understands Comanche culture and speaks the language, thus showing a history of some understanding. I’m not convinced this means so much. Ethan is a middle-aged man in the late 1860s. That may well have put him in Texas in the 1840s or even 1830s. He may have dealt with trading for captives from the Comanches for years. The Comanches were still raiding in Mexico into the 1860s as well and who knows what kind of interactions he had there. But I can easily see a scenario where Ethan knows the Comanches well and wants to use that knowledge to destroy them.

It’s at least worth noting that Ford’s obsession with the Comanches as the great horror of racial mixing in the West had a background in specific Comanche traditions. As chronicled by Pekka Hamalainen’s Bancroft Prize winning book, The Comanche Empire, Comanche warriors engaged in widespread public rape of captive women on the Taos Plaza before exchanging them in the slave trade that dominated the border economy in the 18th and early 19th century. By the mid-19th century, I don’t know of much evidence that this was still going on. But at that point, you have a Comanche empire posing a serious threat to American expansion (Hamalainen makes a convincing argument that it was Comanche dominance of the Mexican frontier that undermined Mexico’s expansion plans and made it so easy for the U.S. to win the Mexican War) and a people for whom ethnicity was fluid. Acting like a Comanche meant more than the Anglo-Saxon obsession with blood and race. The most powerful Comanche when depleted resources (and not military conquest) led to their surrender was Quanah Parker, the half-Comanche, half-white son of a woman kidnapped from Texas and integrated into the tribe. Thus the very symbol of Comanchedom in the 1860s and 1870s was the product of the racial mixing that horrified white Texans.

This history was still popular lore in Texas a century later. Ethan’s need to kill the despoiler of white women thus serves much the same function in regional popular memory as did Ben Cameron and the KKK’s ritual murder of the black marauder in Griffith’s post-Civil War nightmare of miscegenation. Only when the landscape was ridden of uncontrolled men of color could white women be protected and American civilization advance.

Again, The Searchers is a great film. In fact, it’s a near perfect film. Ford does show the ambivalence of racism, which is much of what makes it so interesting. But at its heart, it is still a film about the heroic quest of cleansing the American landscape of those who would defile pure white womanhood. In that, and in Ford’s open love of Griffith, The Searchers is a direct descendant of Birth of a Nation, for better and for worse.

Les Blank, RIP

[ 3 ] April 7, 2013 |

The great documentarian is no more.

Tonight in Animated Soviet Propaganda

[ 19 ] March 25, 2013 |

“Plus Electrification” from 1972

Awesome stuff. On the other hand, propaganda about electrification was relevant in the Soviet Union in 1972.

For Dennis Rodman

[ 23 ] February 27, 2013 |

In honor of Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea, I thought a North Korean propaganda cartoon was in order.

There’s no subtitles, but like you really need them

Among the many problems with this cartoon is that no one under the age of 30 in North Korea has ever seen an actual tree.

Physical Alterations and Acting

[ 89 ] February 24, 2013 |

I am agnostic over the question at hand in this article, whether Anne Hathaway is a good actress. This is largely because I can’t think of a reason why I would watch most of her movies unless the wife wanted to go. Rachel Getting Married was pretty interesting. My wife did force me to watch The Devil Wears Prada, which was decent enough for the genre I suppose. In any case, I certainly have nothing against Hathaway, even if I never quite understood the buzz.

But I do have an opinion on the point about whether the weight loss and short hair in Les Miserables (which I most certainly did not see) constitutes something in itself that means good acting.

A part like Fantine also caters to the industry’s weakness—shared by most actors, male or female—for flagrantly masochistic martyrdom. Since Hollywood’s definition of “winning ugly” is different from the NFL’s, it doesn’t hurt that Hathaway starved herself silly to play Victor Hugo’s tramp with a heart of lead. Then she consented to having her hair done by the guy from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She may shill for Lancome in “real” life, but in Les Mis, she looks and carries on like the spokesmodel for a pricey but pungent new fragrance named Nostalgie de la Boue.

At least since Robert DeNiro gained all that weight in Raging Bull (or maybe even since he gained weight for Godfather, Part II), the idea of physical transformation as great acting has had a lot of appeal. DeNiro was truly amazing in those films, although especially in Raging Bull a lot of the popular conversation about it revolved around the weight gain. Maybe the most egregious actor in this genre today is Christian Bale, where both in Rescue Dawn and The Machinist, he put himself through masochist sacrifices in order to satisfy his directors. A subsection of this is the idea that playing someone with a mental or physical disability is also a way to get notice for your acting. The first time Leonardo DiCaprio came to fame was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As an actor once told me, that kind of role is not particularly hard. Far more difficult is an actual portrayal of mental illness that makes sense (say Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, although that’s hardly a film without problems) or having a physical aliment that can shut off the brain and force an actor to switch back and forth, a la DeNiro in Awakenings.

I think all this shows is a willingness to throw oneself into a role, which is fine. At this point, I certainly can’t blame someone for doing it because, for whatever reason, that sort of physical transformation is a great way for people to think you’ve created a great performance. But I’d argue that it really is more or less irrelevant. While I suppose we wouldn’t want Philip Seymour Hoffman playing someone in a concentration camp in 1945, it’s also a bit ridiculous to expect living people to starve themselves in order to play a role. And if they do, the added touch of authenticity or whatever doesn’t mean much either way to the quality of the acting or the quality of the movie.

In other news, Oscar night, etc. I didn’t see enough of the films nominated to have too strong of an opinion. If Lincoln wins, well, it’s middle-brow enough to fit and will probably be forgotten about by 2015, but it clearly superior to the average Best Picture winner.

George Bailey: Communist

[ 45 ] February 21, 2013 |

Maybe some of you have heard about this before, but I just found out this week that It’s a Wonderful Life was communist propaganda.

Communist stooge begs before capitalist hero

Or so said a FBI memo in 1947:

To: The Director

D.M. Ladd

COMMUNIST INFILTRATION OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY

(RUNNING MEMORANDUM)

There is submitted herewith the running memorandum concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry which has been brought up to date as of May 26, 1947….

With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”

[redacted] recalled that approximately 15 years ago, the picture entitled “The Letter” was made in Russia and was later shown in this country. He recalled that in this Russian picture, an individual who had lost his self-respect as well as that of his friends and neighbors because of drunkenness, was given one last chance to redeem himself by going to the bank to get some money to pay off a debt. The old man was a sympathetic character and was so pleased at his opportunity that he was extremely nervous, inferring he might lose the letter of credit or the money itself. In summary, the old man made the journey of several days duration to the bank and with no mishap until he fell asleep on the homeward journey because of his determination to succeed. On this occasion the package of money dropped out of his pocket. Upon arriving home, the old man was so chagrined he hung himself. The next day someone returned the package of money to his wife saying it had been found. [redacted] draws a parallel of this scene and that of the picture previously discussed, showing that Thomas Mitchell who played the part of the man losing the money in the Capra picture suffered the same consequences as the man in the Russian picture in that Mitchell was too old a man to go out and make money to pay off his debt to the banker.

Read the original document here.

Oshima

[ 7 ] January 16, 2013 |

Nagisa Oshima, legendary Japanese director, RIP.

Sorry that comments were closed for this post earlier, I actually just had to delete that post and start again. Or maybe I am can’t handle people talking about “In the Realm of the Senses.”

Lincoln

[ 76 ] December 23, 2012 |

I finally saw Lincoln last night. I doubt what I have is to say is anything others haven’t verbalized. But a couple quick points. As a film, it’s classic Spielberg. Well made entertainment in the broad and often obvious populism of D.W. Griffith and John Ford. Several eye-rolling lines, BIG music. It’s also hard to believe that someone could make a film about the end of slavery in 2012 and neglect to have a single vital African-American character, but it’s Spielberg so there we have it. On the other hand, the film does do a good job on focusing on the political machinations of the 13th Amendment, with generally very good casting, pacing, and editing. Daniel Day-Lewis is always good, David Strathairn seems destined to play Forces for Good through his career but he does it well, Tommie Lee Jones was sufficiently cranky as Thaddeus Stevens. The movie definitely should have finished 20 minutes earlier, with Stevens in bed with his black partner. This would have avoided the pointless march through time to Lincoln’s assassination, though there was something so old-school Fordian about how it ended with Lincoln’s second inaugural address that it was hard not to feel a little warm about it.

What really matters here though is Spielberg’s point about politics. He so obviously wants to give today’s Americans a lesson on how to GET THINGS DONE IN WASHINGTON! So here’s how you do it. First, 35% of the country secedes. Every single one of the politicians from the seceding states opposes your platform. Without that 35% of the nation, you have a bare legislative majority that allows you to pass legislation if you hold your fractious party together. For situations that need a supermajority, you need your president going into a sort of mid 19th century Green Lanternism on politicians, combining LBJ style physicality with endless yarn spinning tales of life in Illinois and an appeal to morality that will convince them to Do The Right Thing. You also need the kind of patronage positions to buy off your opponents that mercifully began to end after the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. And then, with luck, you can get your supermajority.

In other words, Spielberg’s film has absolutely nothing useful to say about modern political life.

A Casablanca Sequel?

[ 100 ] November 8, 2012 |

Alyssa Rosenberg leads us to discussions of a Casablanca sequel:

The New York Post is reporting that there’s some momentum behind a decades-old script treatment for a follow-up by one of the original movie’s screenwriters, Howard Koch, which would have focused on the son Ilsa ends up having after finding herself pregnant from her encounter with Rick in Casablanca. The sequel would cast older actors as the original stars, and would bring in the son as an adult character having adventures in the Middle East, a la Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

OK fine Republicans. You win. We surrender. You can have the presidency. For that matter, the Yankees retroactively win the 2012 World Series. Just don’t make this movie!

Storytelling

[ 120 ] October 30, 2012 |

Why has television surpassed film as the most important form of motion picture media? Maybe because shows like Mad Men tell interesting stories while the 14th sequel to a superhero movie might sell tickets in China but is culturally irrelevant over the long-term. And while I don’t doubt that TV being free after subscription and pirating are issues, the real problem for Hollywood is that they don’t tell interesting stories anymore, preferring to rely on CGI and tricks to get 15 year old boys to spend money, while adults can watch Mad Men or Girls or The Wire or whatever.

But hey, I’m sure having Seth MacFarlane host the Oscars will make a huge difference and put film back on top. Clearly Hollywood studio executives have identified the problem correctly…..

The Films of 2007

[ 119 ] October 17, 2012 |

I just finished watching California Dreamin’, which is an absolutely outstanding movie you all should see.

Now, I am a list oriented person, for whatever reason. So I keep a list of my favorite movies of any given year, up to 15. Here is my list for 2007, as it currently stands:

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
2. There Will Be Blood
3. Silent Light
4. No Country for Old Men
5. Juno
6. Katyn
7. The Edge of Heaven
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
9. California Dreamin’
10. Persepolis
11. The Savages
12. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
13. Eastern Promises
14. Knocked Up
15. In the Valley of Elah

That’s a list that so far bounds beyond anything else in the 2000s, or really probably anything since the 1970s, that it’s kind of crazy. I know some people didn’t like Knocked Up, but I liked it a great deal despite the sexism at its core, and it’s only #14 on my list. In the Valley of Elah is a really good movie and it is #15. And everything in the top 13 is basically a really outstanding film.

It’s my belief that 30 or so years down the road, 2007 is going to be a year that film critics are going to look to as a time when the stars aligned.

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