The Blacks

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.

16 Responses to “The Blacks”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Regarding drugs, Marty was VERY strung out on coke in the 70’s, particularly during the making of “new York New York.” He got clean in the wake of “The king of comedy.’ “Goodfellas” is quite rueful about drug use particularly the sequence involving Henry’s paranoia and fear the cops are following him in helicopters.

    haven’t read Kenny’s book as yet. love “Goodfellas” though I think “Casino” goes it one better. this is not a popular view. “Goodfellas’ popularity stems I feel from its portrait of basically middle-class guys ‘gone wrong”, and getting away with it — until the last reel.

  2. Thanks!

    Scorsese aimed to give a sense of what cocaine use feels like/leads to in the “last day of a goodfellow” sequence, so his druggy days had one positive outcome. But he nearly died!

    It wasn’t Scorsese who was allegedly sniffing on Goodfellas, and he probably wouldn’t have knowingly hired actors with drug habits at that stage. And maybe it’s all just unfounded gossip. Curious to see if the book “goes there.” For legal reasons it might not be able to, even if someone talked.

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    Picking up on your stray thoughts and random musings, this whole confusion between a character’s words and behaviour and whether or not the artist endorses it, is really as much to do with the audience rather than the artist, if not more so.

    I’m thinking of how various hooligans took their cue of how to look and act from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, or how apparently college fraternities started Tommy Udo clubs as homage to Richard Widmark’s giggling psycho character in Kiss of Death. A character that apparently became a template for gangster Joe Gallo. And that is not the first time gangsters used the movies to learn how to “look” like a gangster. I believe those early ’30s pics like Scarface and Little Caesar were central to how Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel dressed from then on.

    But even more than that. Often, it seems, the most reprehensible behaviour in film becomes the most celebrated in popular culture. Animal House led to a revival in hedonistic behaviour in Frat houses across America that ultimately led to serious hazing controversies and crimes a decade later.

    I guess what troubles and fascinates me is not so much how film is a holding a mirror up to the viewers as it is more like a kind of more active lens that magnifies and resonates with some troubling parts of humanity.

    I suppose it is that old question of is there really such a thing as an anti-war movie? There will always be a segment who will only see guns and explosions and violence and think “cool”.

    By the way, yes, there is such a thing as an anti-war movie… Kubrick’s Paths of Glory for one. But again, Sam Mendes seems to have watched that and only seen long-take tracking shots through trenches and thought “Cool, I can use that in my movie that will show WW1 was all done in one day and consisted of us preventing the slaughter of some troops by acts of noble individual heroism against those soul-less Huns.” Thus, proving my point while undercutting my other point, I think.

    I hate and admire you for making me confront my own thoughts and beliefs on a regular basis.

  4. Kubrick freely admitted that Alex has attributes that make him an appealing protagonist — so long as you overlook his more glaring character defects.

    Hawks was never interested in portraying “the shame of a nation” — he wanted to celebrate amoral gusto. “We really love these guys,” said Jay Cocks and Scorsese, watching it. Ironically, DePalma’s remake seems to take a more negative view — who could find Tony Montana and his lifestyle attractive? — and yet had an even wider acceptance as inspirational material for aspiring gangstas.

    It comes down, partly, to whether the filmmaker or critic believes that an art has a social responsibility. Nabokov and Cronenberg say no. And the bolder forms or art seem to follow from this approach.

    Richard Lester, by the way, questions whether Paths of Glory is ant-war. “If we’d had Kirk Douglas in charge of the French war effort they’d have been able to go out and kill Germans more effectively,” is, he says, the ultimate message of the film. Kubrick is anti sloppy thinking and stupidity, and injustice, but was a big Napoleon fan because Boney was good at what he did…

  5. Incidentally, the fact that Paths of Glory might not be an anti-war film (it doesn’t make soldiering seem attractive to me, but then nothing could since I’m a coward and a wimp) doesn’t lessen its brilliance for me as a film about military politics and politicking in general, and how we face death (Kubrick and co correctly list the three options: bravely, gibbering in terror, unconscious, and correctly note that you still wind up dead whichever door you choose; they are all equal now.)

  6. Mark E Fuller Says:

    I certainly don’t think Fred Kite is intended as an admirable figure; the Boultings are satirizing him (and by extension Union men, the Unions and Old Labour) throughout; all those who would rhapsodise about “All them cornfields and ballet in the evening”. If we find much of him sympathetic, I think it’s Sellers’ doing. The Boulting’s weren’t known for their sympathy for the Fred Kites……..

  7. Mark E Fuller Says:

    ….whether the “Blacks ” line is casual racism on the Boultings’ part or pointing up Fred’s hypocrisy on the issue is impossible to tell.

  8. Grant Skene Says:

    The other thing I like about the Kubrick film is that we never see the Germans other than the future Mrs. Kubrick being forced to sing to the troops at the end and them discovering that she has feelings and soul, too. In fact, every injury in the battle scene is due to friendly fire or anonymous. Very much a film about war is a process of self-annihilation.

    Point taken about those gangster films of the ’30s and also art in general. I guess that’s what I was fumbling for. I don’t think it is the point of an artist to moralize or teach. I generally find those films insufferable. The artist portrays. And, sadly, negative aaspects of humanity portrayed often resonate with those negative humans who see it.

    When I watched Wolf of Wall Street, I found De Caprio’s character apalling, as much for what he spends his money on as his way of making it. And, the warts and all portrayal did seem to suggest Scorsese doesn’t admire the guy (I think), but I couldn’t help thinking there was a large segment of the audience, predominantly male, who saw that as aspirational and envied his lifestyle.

  9. I think whether the “blacks” line is something the Boultings didn’t consider racist or not is fairly irrelevant to the viewer. Yes, Kite is obviously an idiot portrayed satirically (my question was meant to be rhetorical, sorry) and so his line NEED NOT be taken as something the filmmakers approve of. But regardless of that, it exposes something about racial discourse in Britain in the late fifties and that’s useful for purposes of study, rather than being something that needs to be tut-tutted over in a piece that otherwise largely avoids any negative criticism.

    Jordan Belfort is another Henry Hill: a case of false values, but arising from a different social class and aspiring to yet another. Goodfellas caught the suburbanization of organized crime, Wolf of Wall St depicts the financial crimes of the wannabe billionaire class.

  10. Brings to mind a possibly apocryphal anecdote: Soviet officials approved the showing of “The Grapes of Wrath” because they saw it as a scathing expose of America. Soviet audiences came out saying, “In America, poor people can own a truck!”

    It’s tricky, because it’s human nature to look for somebody to root for and/or identify with in a story. In the absence of a morally defensible character, we glom onto whoever seems to be “winning”. The Hollywood solution is to give the central character moralizing excuses (Western outlaws as Robin Hood figures, usually pitted against some big money villain), or insert characters to tell us what to disapprove of (those tough Irish priests telling off 30s gangsters).

    In time the idea of presenting bad behavior as an acceptable response to a bad system caught on. War is bad, and desperately patching up wounded boys so they can be shot at again is madness, so surgeons can be forgiven their disrespectful hijinks. Faber College is full of hypocrites in repressed suburban America, so the Deltas’ undisguised vulgarity is virtuous by comparison. Modern gangster films often present a corrupt society as a given, so criminal lives are, if not endorsed, explained as a natural result.

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Paths of Glory” is anti-war in the same way that “The Shining” is anti-murdering-your-wife-and-son. Which is to say “Not Much!”

    DeCaprio in “Wolf of Wall Street” has Marty’s most devastating take on drugs in the scene where Leo (Wacked Beyond Words) crawls up the steps of a doorway.

    Marty is, leave us not forget, asthmatic. You know nothing about him until you’ve seen him wield an asthma inhaler — which he whips out of his pocket, uses and puts away so fast you can barely see it. Now imagine what it’ like to add coke to this. ( Cue Liza )

  12. Bad guys can make good protagonists not so much when they’re winning, but when they’re struggling towards identifiable goals, facing tricky opposition, causing the audience to wonder how they’re going to manage. Sympathy is a way of cementing all that into viewer involvement, but it’s not an essential ingredient. The trouble comes when audience members experience the drama as intended but then wrongly intuit that the protag is admirable.

    It was maybe Alexander Walker’s book on Kubrick that said his films are generally about people being entrusted to run something, and they screw up and everything goes bad. The French war effort; the Jupiter mission; the Overlook Hotel. But if The Shining is about how not to look after a hotel, then why isn’t it like Fawlty Towers?

    I mentioned to a pharmacist friend that surely a cocaine habit would be contraindicated if you have asthma — even more so than usual, I mean — and he thought about it and said that offhand, Scorsese may have gotten some relief from his respiratory symptoms via the coke. Though he nearly died when all his platelets got destroyed.

    I’m not recommending it, you understand. But maybe that makes his period of drug use more comprehensible, quite apart from the social aspect, the addiction aspect, and the highs imparted.

  13. David Ehrenstein Says:

    True, especially regards the social aspect. A prominent piece of “Studio 54” décor was a giant lit up Coke spoon, dishing put heaps of glowing lights. Like the song says “Ridin that train / High on Cocaine / Casey Jones you better watch your speed / Trouble ahead / trouble behind / Don’t you know that noti0on just crossed my mind”

  14. Thinking of Luc Moullet’s comments on Sam Fuller regarding whether the filmmaker means for us to admire or disdain the people they portray, which is that only those who have been tempted have something interesting to say on a subject. He referred to fascism, but I think it’s applicable across any anti-social behavior. The exact quote and context can be found here:

  15. Terrific, thanks!

    Re the social side: it must be terribly hard for the people who are simply more fun when they’re off their faces. I saw Amy Winehouse, off her face, on a TV game show, and felt dread: she was an entertaining drunk (most aren’t). How was she going to get help? Everyone treated it as delightful and wacky.

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