Archive for the Politics Category

A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2014 by dcairns

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The line “A nice, clean girl” &c is sneered — SNEERED! — by Richard Widmark at Linda Darnell in Joe Monkeybitch’s electrifying thriller / issues film NO WAY OUT. It’s a movie whose liberal good intentions are easy to mock, but which are played out mainly in exciting noir situations. Widmark’s racist is suitably pathetic, stupid and inadequate, but still a convincing threat by virtue of sheer vicious malevolence and the actor’s magnetism. It’s fashionable to say that Sidney Poitier, here in his first lead role (even if he’s billed fourth, AFTER the main title and in a clump of supporting schmoes) was cast in boring, squeaky clean parts for much of his career, but he’s no more virtuous than the average leading man of 1950. Perhaps a little too noble by Mankiewicz’s high standards, BUT –

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Widmark isn’t the only one who can sneer.

You also get Ossie Morris Davis and his sexy wife Ruby Dee and Mildred Joanne Smith and Dots Johnson and Amanda Randolph and Maude Simmons too — most of them uncredited, to be sure — I think whoever decided credits at Fox was not as progressive as the director — and because Mankiewicz and co-scribe Lesser Samuels (ACE IN THE HOLE) are good writers, they play a variety of interesting people. I don’t think it’s purely a desire to be progressive, I think it’s just the good writer’s desire to avoid boring stereotypes and give the audience an interesting experience with some interesting characters. Amanda Randolph pops up as a housekeeper and nearly walks of with the film.

Also interesting is Harry Bellaver as Widmark’s deaf-mute brother. The treatment of disability is not as progressive as the treatment of race, with Bellaver treated as a stooge by all and sundry — when the doctors want family permission to perform an autopsy on the third Biddle brother, nobody even considers asking him. One wishes he had a bit more independence as a character but I guess he’s relied on Widmark all his life. It’s kind of interesting to see a deaf racist in a film — we even get the sign-language equivalent of all the racist terms used so freely by Widmark’s venomous bigot — Bellaver presses his nose flat with one hand. An ironic sign, since Bellaver already has a squashed-flat neb that looks like the impact site of a putty meteor.

Darnell has one of the best roles she ever got — Mankiewicz gave her the very best in LETTER TO THREE WIVES — where she gets a tremendous range of stuff to do and a journey from slovenly tramp to well-meaning tart with a heart to racist stooge to class victim to heroine. Stephen McNally, billed ahead of Poitier, has the genuinely boring role as the nice head doctor, and the screenplay sensibly sidelines him as early as possible and omits him from the climax entirely. See The Knick for a stronger solution to the role of the head doctor dealing with his first black M.D. — boldly, the series puts the hero in the wrong.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Nervous Nellie

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 5, 2014 by dcairns

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SECRETS OF THE NIGHT is a 1924 comedy-thriller from Herbert Blaché, whom I was predisposed to dislike. The husband of Alice Guy, he supposedly discouraged his wife from taking part in their joint business (“Don’t come to board meetings, it puts the fellows off and they don’t feel free to spit,” kind of thing) and then bankrupted them. I get the impression they separated but I’m not sure. Blaché stayed in the business a bit longer than his wife, making his last picture in 1929.

If you’re looking for things to be offended by in Blaché’s film, you don’t have far to go — there’s a comedy negro stereotype played by a white guy in blackface, for starters. This is quite a few years after BIRTH OF A NATION, and though of course I knew that Hollywood patronized black characters and treated them as the butt of jokes for decades to come, the use of burnt cork or whatever on an actor who is blatantly the wrong race DID rather surprise me. It suggests that the director hadn’t moved with the times. (“My dear fellow, in the 1920s we degrade real negroes!”)

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BUT — the film has comedy relief also from Zasu Pitts, and has elements of what would become a staple at this studio — Universal — the fright film. Zasu is introduced as a submissive reader, after Magritte, freaking out over Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, although the sentence she reads is clearly a title-writer’s invention, and you couldn’t fill a hardback book with Poe’s short story anyway. Still, it’s nice to see the tale referenced in a film from the very studio that would adapt it in 1932.

We can easily play Zasu’s trademark “Oh de-earr-r!”  in our mental soundtrack.

 

It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

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