D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film about how much it sucked when Progressive Era women with gargantuan hats sat in front of you at the theater.
Edward Bland’s 1959 documentary The Cry of Jazz is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. An early statement of the black nationalism that would become famous in the late 60s, Bland argues in this 30 minute film that only African-Americans have the soul and history to play jazz and that whites need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their racist history. It’s an amazing film.
Shot for nearly nothing, The Cry for Jazz has bad acting, cheesy dialogue, and an awesome political point. There’s some sort of jazz club meeting. Whites and blacks are both there. They start arguing about race and jazz. The whites typically eschew any sense that blacks are better at jazz or that they have any responsibility for racial inequality or the legacy of slavery and racism. And for Bland, those two things are inseparable. The rest of the film switches from a narrator explaining the relationship between race and music (along with some quite technical information about the music, not every casual fan would get all the references) and the conversation continuing onto new points. The black characters in the room utter such lines as “The Negro is the only Human American” and “If whites had souls, they wouldn’t have tried to steal the Negro’s.” The legacy of racism creates the suffering that allows jazz to exist, thus “Jazz is the one element in American life where whites must be humble to Negroes.”
At the point of maybe convincing the whites, the lead narrator makes an even more shocking statement–Jazz is dying. Why? Because it can’t contain the black experience. New forms of music are needed, a clear reference to rock and roll. One assumes Bland saw hip hop as the extension of this late in life, but I wonder. And let’s face it, jazz is pretty white in 2013. Not exclusively so. But pretty white.
Who thus was Bland’s choice as the vanguard of the African nationalist music at the time? Why Sun Ra and his Arkestra! First, it’s of course the appropriate choice but who knows how obvious that was in 1959? Second, this is the first known footage of the Arkestra! It’s shot very darkly so most of it is of John Gilmore and you only see Ra’s back. But wow.
The film was quite controversial within the African-American intellectual community. Ralph Ellison hated it. LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, loved it. For a period where assimilationism dominated the civil rights movement, this is quite the forward thinking statement.
Certainly not the best movie I’ve ever seen but judged for its jaw-dropping message and audacity, it’s a must see.
Stanley Kauffmann, the dean of American film criticism and one of the greatest film critics in history, has passed. He worked for decades at The New Republic, including in the 90s when he was pretty much the only thing worth reading over there. He was also pretty much the last critic who could actually remember the silent era. Working nearly until the end, reading Kauffmann was a century of film history in each review. He’d talk about knowing Jimmy Stewart in the 30s, an unknown Marlon Brando starring in Kauffmann’s own play, etc. I didn’t always agree with him, that’s for sure. But he was probably the first serious film critic I ever really read. Quite a loss.
In related news, the 20th century was horrible. Luckily, all the secular fundamentalist* ideologies that led to the killing of so many are dead except for capitalism. Sadly, it is still in the ascendant and people die in the garment factories of Bangladesh, the coal mines of China, the houses in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Maybe someday the last deadly secular ideology will also go away.
* I am perfectly aware that religious fundamentalists ideologies have their own problems. But that’s for another posts. And they’ve ultimately killed a lot less people in the 20th century.
I just realized that somehow I never posted The Teddy Bears here before. Imagine a silent movie version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with Teddy Roosevelt coming in at the end for an, um, disturbing ending. And some early version claymation bears. And the bears in full Victorian dress. But mostly that disturbing, bizarre ending satirizing Teddy Roosevelt. This is a real favorite to show students.
“Saturday Night Live” alumnus and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” actor Rob Schneider appeared in a short video (embedded below) with California Assemblyman — and Republican gubernatorial hopeful — Tim Donnelly and Politichicks reporter Ann-Marie Murrell on Monday. In the video, Schneider declared that he hasn’t worked on a film in California in seven years because of the recent rise of Democrats in state elections.
“The state of California is a mess,” Schneider declared, “and the supermajority of Democrats is not working. I’ve been a lifelong Democrat and I have to switch over because it no longer serves the people of this great state. We need to have a new voice. We need to have a new direction, and we need to break the supermajority. It isn’t helping with jobs.”
“The last time I made a movie in California was seven years ago,” he said. “And that’s because we’re not being competitive. I own a vitamin company with my friend and we moved out of state because of overregulation. It isn’t helping businesses.”
If what Schneider is really saying is that I should give my life savings to the California Democratic Party, to whom do I give my back account number and password?
Warner Brothers is trying to sign Leonardo DiCaprio up for a biopic on Woodrow Wilson. Why do we need a biopic on Woodrow Wilson? I have no idea. Maybe it will center on Wilson holding a screening of Birth of a Nation in the White House. More likely it will center Wilson and the Versailles Treaty and neoconservatives will be excited. The AV Club brings the proper snark:
It’s likely the film will also cover some aspect of Wilson’s post-presidency, as he spent the rest of his life pushing the victorious Allies to form a League of Nations, only to see the U.S. Senate reject membership. It’s probably less likely that the film will spend a lot of time on Wilson’s history as a white supremacist who re-segregated most federal institutions for the first time since Reconstruction, and either demoted or fired as many African-American government employees as he could.
It seems to me that one of the tragedies of film in the last twenty years was Robert DeNiro deciding he still wanted to work a lot but he had no desire to try or push himself in his work. One could argue it’s the same for Pacino, but not only does DeNiro have a deeper catalog of great films than Pacino but I feel he’s just a better actor (although obviously Pacino’s top 5 films stack up with anyone’s in film history so you may disagree).
…..One piece of evidence here to DeNiro really not trying. Scorsese wanted to cast him as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York but DeNiro didn’t want to have to travel to Italy where the film was shot. While I guess I understand that, it’s pretty clear that he has no problem passing up roles for easy paychecks.
Martin Scorsese gave a great talk for the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. It’s reprinted in the New York Review of Books and is on the importance of preserving our language of film in a culture that values little but the weekly game of box office numbers. A snippet:
So not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.
And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular? Who is the most popular now, as opposed to last year, or last month, or last week? Now, the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.
We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t. We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet. And we also have to remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1851, that many of the copies that weren’t sold were destroyed in a warehouse fire, that it was dismissed by many, and that Herman Melville’s greatest novel, one of the greatest works in literature, was only reclaimed in the 1920s.
Just as we’ve learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form. Granted, we weren’t the only ones who invented the movies. We certainly weren’t the only ones who made great films in the twentieth century, but to a large extent the art of cinema and its development have been linked to us, to our country. That’s a big responsibility. And we need to say to ourselves that the moment has come when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.
What’s more, he referenced one of my favorite films of all time, Edison’s boxing cats. Because of that, I will once again embed it. Maybe we should get Scorsese to write a guest post here about it.
As you probably heard, Karen Black died. A key actress to so many major films of the 70s, she succumbed to cancer. She could have had a dignified end of life. Or maybe even defeated her cancer. Instead, she lived in the United States, where our disastrous health care system (even after the significant improvements of Obamacare) forced Black and her husband to crowdsource her cancer treatments after they used up all their savings.
At least Black had the name to do this. How many thousands of people just die because they don’t have the ability to put up even a basic fight against illness?