Dutchman

A very strange thing.

It’s set on the New York subway. Based on a play. Filmed in England in a studio set with a few cutaways of the real subway. Actually the sense of place is really convincing, and butts up against the theatricality in a way that’s quite nice. Shouldn’t work but does.

DUTCHMAN, the first film directed by editor Anthony Harvey, who went on to adapt THE LION IN WINTER and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. It’s written by LeRoi Jones, who later became as Amiri Baraka. The subject is race and sex and power. Is that more than one subject? Not according to this film. It stars Al Freeman Jnr and Shirley Knight, and it’s terrifying. I shoved it in the DVD player as a diversion as we were almost but not quite ready to sleep and the thing is an odd length, 55 minutes. It’s a miracle we were able to sleep afterwards.

Knight is electrifying. She’s beautiful, but one doesn’t particularly think of her as a sexy actress, more just a really good one (PETULIA, THE GROUP) who really should be more celebrated. Here, she plays an overheated sexuality that’s quite worrying (Fiona found it very scary indeed) because it’s so inappropriate and demented. “Is she a killer?” Fiona immediately asked. I mean, based on Knight’s very first LOOK.

Maybe partly because Knight isn’t normally associated with faux-sexy acting, the effect of her overheated writhing is disturbing rather than erotic (or maybe a little erotic, in a sickly and confusing way). She’s a little like a Fellini nympho in one of his childhood memory scenes: a cartoon of a burlesque of a dream of a memory of a misconception. Or she’s a little like if you met someone who really acted like Marilyn Monroe in her prime: unbelievable, alarming, demented.

Freeman has a more slow-burn naturalistic role at first, but is also amazing: discomfort at the social violation represented by, well, everything Knight says and does, vying with a male instinct to say What The Hell, She Wants Me. And I really don’t know what the play/film is about, what it’s saying, but the conviction and commitment of the actors is so awesome that there can be no doubt they know exactly what it’s all about.

It’s a very strange thing, and completely hypnotic. Now please go and view the whole thing at Shadow and Act.

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34 Responses to “Dutchman”

  1. Sounds very interesting – will watch! Disturbing things happening on subways always makes me think of ‘The Incident’, with a VERY young Martin Sheen.

  2. The Incident sounds fascinating. I love Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography, especially with architecture (eg the titles of Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, the scary clinic of corpses in Coma) so I’m assuming his hidden-camera work on the subway would be striking.

  3. Fascinating you should bring this up as I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately re President Obama.

    Back in the day LeRoi Jones was bohemia’s most talented Phoebe. His “Blues People” is an utterly essential study of the history of jazz. He was “on the scene” all over the place and numbers among the men who Frank O’Hara had sex with because they asked him to as they were curious to “know what it was like.” He was married to a wehile woman. After the marriage failed he had a “Saul at Damascus” moment out of which Dutchman emerged. It was quite the Big Deal when it premiered off-broadway. Critics (Susan Sontag being the most eloquent) immediately recognzed it as a successor to both Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” The truly weird title is derived from the fact Jones saw Lula and Clay as a couple carrying on through ternity a la “The Flying Dutchman”

    I’m sure he saw Lewin’s mad masterpiece.

    Jones’ notion is that beneath the polished veneer of the “Nice Negro” was a reservoir of rage that under the right circumstaces could be easily uneashed. This is precisely what fascist bottom-feeder Dines D’Souza believes of President Obama ad promulgates in his “documentary” 2016 based on his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage.” he claims that Obama is under the sway of a father he met exactly twice in is life, and is an anti-colonialist firebrand who hates white people.

    If you follow the U.S. media at all you’ll know there are any number of softcore versions of this. Constant meat upet harping on “the REAL Barack Obama” even tough the real man is right there.

    Anyhoo Jones changed his name to Imammu Amiri Baracka, turned his back on his past (sort of) and tired getting a black theater started in Newark New Jersey. He was by that point a committed Marxist. Not sure how much he’s hung to Karl since then.

    Anyhoo he made a very impressive cameo appearance in Bulworth — Warren Beatty’s mastereice and the only serious political film to come out of Hollywood since Warren’s previous film Reds.

    “Perhaps we shall hear more of this masquerade.” (H. Melville)

  4. Fascinating. I guessed at some of Jones’ biography just from his screenplay, though guessing about authors from their works is foolish. But I guessed correctly.

    Just watching the thing made me feel gay, since Knight’s performance is all about sexual display that misses its target and winds up seeming alien and perverse. An analog for feeling that the mainstream culture’s sexual messages aren’t aimed at you?

    I’d also thought possibly Jones had had a relationship with a white woman that had ended badly, leading to a lot of anger, which is mixed up, not too coherently, with political anger about racial prejudice.

    Freeman brilliantly plays the central conceit, dropping his “civilized” white manner and becoming his “inner self,” working class and “authentic” — it does play into stereotypes popular with the right, as with Rush Limbaugh’s recent repellant remarks.

    The difference being that Jones at least has the experience and the right to speculate about this, and he does it eloquently, idiosyncratically and with a desire to understand, which is as far removed from the current Republican party as one can get.

  5. True.

    Freeman, BTW, an unbelievably brilliant performer in everything from (Finian’s Rainbow to Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored) passed away recently.

  6. As you know, David, the mixing up of race and sex has a long and troubling history in America, with the racial politics colliding with the personal and sexual. It’s what you’d call a “touchy subject”. I’ll have to catch this, and maybe I should finally get around to screening Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.

    Shirley Knight is an terrific actress, who I got to know through sixties television.

  7. Freeman got to play Malcolm X (in Roots: The Next Generations) and Elijah Muhammad (in Malcolm X), which has to be some kind of record. He’s amazing here.

    Knight was still working at least until recently, but the last new thing I saw her in was years ago, a student film called Death in Venice California, I think. She ought to be as celebrated as Ellen Burstyn or someone like that. Not that Burstyn gets as many great roles as she deserves, either.

  8. Shirley Knight works quite a lot. Her second husband, playwright John Hopkins, was bisexual. She was known as Shirley Knight Hopkins during their marriage.

  9. Petulia is the one I’ll always know her for. Mainly one scene, which is simply incredible. (They didn’t tell her George C Scott was going to throw the cookies AT HER.)

  10. Anthony Harvey did some fascinating things, but his career never really did seem to take shape!

    His TV film of THE GLASS MENAGERIE (with Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Wingfield) was the first version of the play I ever and, for that reason, the one that will always stay with me.

    And I’m still curious to see THE ABDICATION.

  11. Now THAT’S an angry man. I kind of wish Obama was angrier. As demonstrated above, there’s no shortage of things to be angry about…

  12. jiminholland Says:

    Two questions, one on topic, the other not.

    First, after reading David Cairn’s description of the film, and then reading Wiki on the play and its movie adaptation, I still have no clue about why the piece is called ‘Dutchman.’

    What are we to make of this title that has no direct connection to the characters/milieu/action of the piece (at least as it’s described in the sources I mentioned — perhaps if I’d actually seen the play or film, my question would be unnecessary).

    [There is, by the way, a kind of double national interest for me on this--although I'm 'jiminholland,' I'm also 'jimfromtheusa.']

    Okay, second, the off-topic thing.

    And this is really self-indulgent of me, I know, but —

    I just got roped into teaching a course on film noir; budget cuts at my university are causing all kinds of unexpected improvisations on the part of faculty.

    Now, I don’t believe there ever was such a thing as film noir — I think there were some unusually ‘tough’ American crime films in the ’40s/50s, but that these were a diverse group of movies with insufficient connections to each other to constitute a coherent category (hard-boiled hero? see Zinnemann’s Act of Violence; femme fatale? see Phantom Lady; “expressionist” visuals? see Postman Always Rings Twice…).

    But am I going too far in my introductory lecture — written just a few hours ago and to be delivered on Monday at 0900 — when I say this about the editor of the Film Noir Encyclopedia:

    “Look VERY SKEPTICALLY at any critical/historical work on noir associated with Alain Silver, who isn’t nearly as much interested in exploring film noir as an unstable historical (epi)phenomenon, as he is in reifying noir as a clearly marked-off territory over which he can govern as gauleiter.”

    All kinds of potential objections, here — academic jargon, language verging on Godwin’s law, etc.

    But are they really objectionable?

    And what about that Dutchman business?

  13. David Ehrenstein provided a clue to the title in his first comment. By that reading, Shirley Knight would be the Dutchman, forever riding the rails with a succession of victim/lovers. She’s also obviously Eve, with her bag of apples of temptation (none of which she finishes–discarding them after a bite, as she discards her men).

    Genre boundaries are ALWAYS flexible, but you’re right that noir is more amorphous than most, especially as the genre went out of existence as soon as it was named. None of the filmmakers thought they were making noir. It’s a style, or better, an atmosphere: the filmmakers soaked it up from the world and it emerged in their work, filtered through the production norms of the day and they’re own psyches.

    But the atmosphere was real enough (but intangible, as atmospheres are). Like you, I find the differences between films just as important as the similarities. Out of the Past is a wonderfully archetypal film, but it’s great to me because of all the ways in which it surprises, rather than obeying supposed “rules”.

  14. The atmosphere is real but the characters and dialogue are entirely stylized. “You look like Death eating a soda cracker” is not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation.

  15. When you look at the incredible range of literary and artistic and psychological influences that made up what we call noir, it’s not surprising that they were pretty florid.

  16. jiminholland Says:

    Geoffrey O’Brien on noir:

    It is “a nexus of fashions in hair, fashions in lighting, fashions in interior decoration, fashions in motivation, fashions in repartee…”

    However inadequate this description of noir, I find it far preferable to those invoking expressionism, existentialism, and so forth.

    (Actually, pressing matters forward on the “ism” front might be interesting:

    Siodmak–expressionist from the Blaue Reiter school, or Die Brücke?

    Preminger–Sartrean or Heideggerian existentialist?

    Or, perhaps, Wittgensteinian proto-pragmatist?

    [uh oh, that last one might in fact be kinda accurate–don’t let on that it has nothing whatsoever to do with existentialism, but rather with post-structuralism, especially in its user-friendly version by the American philosopher Richard Rorty (with whom I studied, years ago…)

    Preminger and Rorty, together again, for the very first time…)

    I think that Jacques Tourneur was one of the great Hollywood filmmakers of the post-WW2 era; I also think that, as wonderful as Out of the Past is, its “noir classic” status has sadly diverted attention from Canyon Passage and Stars in my Crown–films so lovely and fluid and complex that my eyes well up just at the thought of them….

  17. jiminholland Says:

    And for whatever it’s worth, my film noir course will include — by hook or by crook — Borzage’s Moonrise and Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury.

  18. A perhaps contentious point is that noir might not have happened exactly the way it did except for the development of technology. Cameramen at the studios liked high key lighting and mistrusted darkness and shadows as they couldn’t control lens flare/aperture ghosting easily (the lenses used in those days were nothing to write home about). Development of lens coatings c.1939 allowed less lighting to be used and to have light sources in the frame without worrying about severe lens flare, which helped location shooting as well. Not all noirs used this, but many did.

  19. The Sound of Fury certainly seems like noir. Moonrise certainly partakes of some noir qualities, as well as harking back to silent cinema rather like Night of the Hunter (although in Borzage’s case it’s slightly different because he WAS a silent filmmaker). It’s not nostalgia, but a kind or artistic reinvigoration, connecting to the source.

    The technical aspects are critical. Aesthetically, too, everybody wanted to exploit the possibilities opened up by Citizen Kane, but I think they felt they had to tie them to genre to make them accessible to the public. Thrillers provided a clear alibi for darkness, distortion, a blend of subjective effects, realism and nightmare.

  20. The Sound of Fury goes well beyond noir in a way common to a number of post-WWII films at the time of what’s inaccurately referred to as “The Mccarthy Era .” See also Losey’s M and The Big Night, and the culmination of them all, Aldrich and Bezzerides’ Kiss Me Deadly. The violence of these films is particularly brutish and ugly — reflecting their world.

  21. The Sound of Fury is VERY strong. It makes very clear another impulse of the films of that era, to make social comment. This was certainly hindered by the blacklist, and HUAC which, if it makes any sense at all, can be seen as a deliberate attempt to close down liberal discussion of social problems in the cinema. I think the common view that HUAC was a misguided attempt at fighting communism is probably wrong: it was a carefully-planned and often successful way of limiting the discourse of movies.

  22. It wasn’t fighting Communism, it was fighting Liberalism.

  23. Exactly, and it wasn’t, mostly, misguided paranoia, as the British press imagined at the time, that was a smokescreen for the attack on the true target.

  24. I know one of the true targets, personally. Marsha Hunt.

  25. I love Marsha Hunt in Kid Glove Killer. The most radiant smile of the 1940s (an era not lacking in glamorous tooth-display).

  26. Her smile is still radiant.

  27. Yep, I’ve seen pics.

  28. DUTCHMAN is one of the greatest – and most underrated – filmings of a stage play, the two lead performers magnificent. Because of this, I went to see Shirley Knight, co-starring with Barbara Rush, in a play called KENNEDY’S CHILDREN, and she was again magnificent.

  29. She’s really extraordinary, and underrated.

    More on Anthony Harvey soon — a filmmaker with a few rather interesting credits tucked away.

  30. Noir as a category of film has become like a hip neighborhood in the
    real estate biz: its boundaries keep magically expanding.

  31. Thanks! Some good hints there of stuff I should see — if I can find it…

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