Pastures New

I’d always read about GRASS (and CHANGO) or at least I’d read MENTIONS — in the various stuff I read about KING KONG as a kid — I would devour anything I could get on the mighty ape, even before I’d managed to see the film one unforgettable afternoon at the late, lamented Odeon, Clark Street. So I had a pretty good grounding in twenties documentary for a seven-year-old, I guess, without having actually seen any twenties documentaries.

Well, I’ve seen a few now, though I’ll probably have to see more for the next class I’m going to teach (NANOOK here we come), and thanks to this year’s HippFest I’ve finally seen GRASS.

Ernest B. Schoedsack & Merian C. Cooper, the KONG guys, follow a nomad tribe in search of grass. It’s what I call an epic! Interesting that all the early docs, once we got over the Lumiere phase, were ethnographic. The selling point was the distant and exotic. And also interesting that, although as Dr. Nacim Pak-Shiraz said in her introduction, the filmmakers clearly patterned their structure on the wagons west narrative of America, the early documentaries don’t seem closely patterned on the tropes of the fiction film. There are no real characters in GRASS. We meet the filmmakers at the start, and the nomad chief gets a few intertitles and medium shots, but the only real close shots are given to puppies and camels and a flyblown baby. Not a Bruce Cabot among them.

So it’s a film of spectacle — which is certainly a big element of Hollywood drama, but usually accompanied by individual struggles. Here there’s a quest, certainly, and we follow the travails of the tribespeople with a degree of suspense. The filmmakers’ attitude, mostly expressed by title cards, is empathetic, and clearly we’re meant to root for them to make it, but there’s no special focus on particularly charismatic examples of nomadry.

The scenery and the hairy escapades are impressive, though, and pianist Mike Nolan did well to conjure a whole lost world with just the 88 keys at his fingertips.

Also yesterday: an entertaining lecture by Dr Trevor Griffiths on Scottish cinema and the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. Incidentally, why did Donald Trump always insist on calling it the 1917 flu epidemic? Because he saw that wretched movie and the date stuck in his brain? But I think something else was going on — he would pause dramatically before saying it, and say it very DELIBERATELY. So I think he knew it was wrong, and he just liked annoying us. Or else it was an exercise in power, like O’Brien’s “How many fingers am I holding up?” in 1984. Trump saying it makes it true. It would be interesting to ask his supporters if they believe there was a great flu epidemic in 1917. Actually, no, it probably wouldn’t be.

GRASS ends with a testimonial —

Dr. Pak-Shiraz wonders how Cooper & Schoedsack communicated with the Baktyari, since it’s unlikely either group spoke the other’s language. I guess an interpreter could be brought in for the above agreement. If only we’d had such a person to translate Trump.

6 Responses to “Pastures New”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    “Have you seen pastures?
    “Was just a Technicolor movie.”

    ~ from the Sid Kuller/Paul Francis Webster lyric
    of the Ellington song “Jump for Joy.”

    it always bothered me that GREEN PASTURES was, in fact, black & white rather than Technicolor. The song, from the 1930s, was a “hooray!”
    For the death of the Bad Old South. “Don’t you grieve, Little Eve …”

  2. Jim Cobb Says:

    Perhaps a minor point but CHANG was exhibited in some cities with a Magnascope sequence. This was used for the climactic elephant stampede. This essentially used a magnifying lenses to project the image on a larger screen which expanded at certain moments. Apparently it was used pretty extensively mostly in the larger cities. Selznick used it for the storm sequence in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and even DeMille’s GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH used it for the train crash sequence in some venues. Here is an article:

  3. Simon Kane Says:

    Oo, I have to see this!
    And I think you’re spot on about Trump.

  4. You know, I’ve been confusing Magnascope and Magnifilm for years.

    Portrait of Jennie was shown with the widescreen ending in Bologna, and I’m gutted I missed it!

    I feel I need to see Chang, partly to see if the elephant stampede resembles Kong’s later rampage.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Donald Trump is a White Racist.


    ICM screened “the Chase” (1966) last night in which Bruce Cabot plays Jane Fonda’s stepfather. A truly strange and deeply hysterical film with an all-star cast. Has it been discussed in “Shadowplay” previously? It ought to be. At length.

  6. Yes, I did write about The Chase once: and I seem to have had quite a lot to say about it.

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