Archive for January 15, 2021

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.