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Tag: "film"

Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Postwar Consumers’ Republic

[ 148 ] May 5, 2013 |

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.

The Terence Malick Effect

[ 86 ] April 24, 2013 |

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.

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?

[ 101 ] 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!

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