Criterion Film a day, day 13: Getting ready to be offended with “The Emperor Jones”

People–especially liberals–love nothing more than to be offended. It gives us a chance to flex our big, liberal muscles. Sadly, however, the film The Emperor Jones did not piss me off like I so wanted it to do, even though it is a film from the early 30’s with an (almost) all-black cast.

The beginning of the film–which is an elaboration off of Eugene O’Neill’s career-making play of the same name–does not disappoint. It starts with a dance circle surrounded by stereotypically “tribal drumming” and then, just to make the point really clear, dissolves into a scene of dancing in the south, and finally, to a black church. It serves as a highlight reel for what black actors generally were asked to do in film and theater at the time.

The dialogue, too, helps date this film as one made for and by a white audience. I sho wishes it weren’t so distractin to lissen to how dem white folks think black folk talk, I shorely do.

And so on.

Paul Robeson plays the titular character, Brutus Jones–a Pullman porter who gets caught for killing a man in a fight. In a reference to Moses, he then refuses to whip a fellow prisoner and ends up killing the slave driver instead. He again escapes, this time to a small island in the Carribean, dominated by a voodoo religion. Brutus Jones is captured, and sold by the black leader of the island to a slave trader named Smithers.

This time, with a nod to Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King, Brutus Jones cleverly replaces the bullets of a soldier’s gun with blanks and then, in front of the island’s leader, provokes him to “shooting” him. He declares himself able only to be killed by a silver bullet, and so, takes control of the island.

Its hard to ignore the parallels to Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, the newly crowned Emperor Jones even dresses like him. His reign is short, and odd: His right hand man is his former slave trader, who he contracts to help build the palace, and mocks the former leaders and his current subjects as “bush niggers.” He is a tough and severe ruler, and after punishing several men cruelly, a rebellion forms.

Jones rolls with it, as he ever does, and takes off into the forest, where the rebel’s “charms” force him to confront his demons–the man he killed, the chain gang. Driven to madness he pleads for salvation and respite, but doesn’t receive. Instead, he is driven into the hands of the rebels, and is killed by a silver bullet.

The last scene, notably, is of Smithers–the white man–standing over him, offering a brief and cynical eulogy.

In the end, the story really refrains from making a statement about what Garvey’s dreams would look like if turned into reality. O’Neill begins to make a statement in that direction, but seems to pull back and into the much safer territory of looking at his main character’s flaws, pride chief among them.

The film can’t help but indulge in a fascination of tribalism, portraying the natives of the islands as wholly superstitious, easily manipulated people, even if the voodoo eventually wins out over Robeson’s pleas for salvation.

Harder to tease apart is the “Bush nigger” element–this disdain Jones has for those on the island, that he can so easily colonize them and manipulate them, and that he is more shocked that they are rebelling against his superiority than anything else has most in parallel with white colonial rule (Smithers, notably is British).

I’m not really sure what a good answer is in this regard. O’Neill, no doubt aware of the Harlem Renaissance and certainly liberal enough to write a halfway-respectful play about black people, could (most troublingly) be making a Chris Rock-like distinction between two sorts of black people.

Perhaps the best answer is a criticism of Garvey himself, who could likely have held contempt for Black people who did not want to go with him or were looking for integration, not separation. His movement, which had some elements of pyramid scheme, likely betrayed some contempt for those who did not join his vision or his Black Star cruise line. Garvey even went so far as to meet with KKK leaders because of their shared perspective on separatism.

This seems too much. Perhaps he was just interested in exploring the different cultures of the black diaspora, or thinking through Garvey’s dreams and exploring what a black culture free of white domination would look like.

I don’t have a good answer for that, and the film is worth seeing, if only to provoke a similar confusion.

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Criterion film a day, day 12: 1921’s The Phantom Carriage

Like many of the other silent films I’ve watched, this film takes a long and somewhat struggling time to reach its slut, but when it does, the slut is very, very satisfying. Of course, this being a swedish film, “slut” means “the end”.

The film takes the course of a very dark, very Lutheran sort of It’s a Wonderful Life. An unrepentant drunk dies on New Year’s Eve, and as legend has it, because he died at the stroke of midnight, he will be doomed to drive death’s carriage for the following year. The previous driver (an old friend of our protagonist, David Holm) appears, and takes him first on a review of his previous year and all the evil he committed.

Departing greatly from It’s a Wonderful Life David Holm is a monumental asshole–a consumptive drunk who deliberately coughs in other people’s faces, gleefully rips off the repairs the loving Sister Edit put in his coat and chases his fleeing wife and daughters around Sweden seemingly only to emotionally abuse them, too.

What I don’t get about this film is the character’s transformation: If you’re that far gone down the road of dickishness (on the way, presumably, to dickeyville) I’m not entirely convinced that seeing a highlight reel of your nastiest moments is going to make you transform.

David does have a transformation, finally resorting to prayer after Death takes him to witness his wife, distraught over her consumption and the possibility of leaving her daughters orphans, attempt to poison all three of them.

The film is enjoyable, and certainly influential–having a huge impact on everyone from Ingmar Bergman (think, Seventh Seal) to Stanley Kubrick (think the Axe scene in The Shining). This is also the first silent film I’ve seen that made focused use of filters: night was often represented by a blue filter, gaslighting by sepia, and so forth. In terms of special effects, the film makes incredible use of double exposure to show the ghostly horse and driver. Double exposure within the camera wasn’t available until the 30s, so this all had to be painstakingly done by hand.

Speaking of hands, the film’s message is rather heavy. The violent and destructive reaction all men in this film have to alcohol brings to mind the histrionics of Reefer Madness. The god message is also pretty clear: Sister Edit, who first mends David’s coat and then devotes herself to putting him back together with his wife despite his cruelty towards her, is a saintly figure. She is dying of consumption and still wants to see him, still loves him in the most Christian of ways.

The film doesn’t go full-bore saint, and when she professes feeling guilty for attempting to bring David Holm back together with his wife (a reunion, given the consumption and the poisoning that didn’t go well), it briefly toes the line between being further proof of her saintliness and a criticism of pandering good intentions. How much of this is about her and her own desire to be good?

This question is quickly stifled though and the film returns to its regularly scheduled messaging on alcohol and saintliness.

Overall, its a film worth seeing if you watch film for the sake of understanding how the genre developed–this is one of the central films of Swedish cinema and you can see pretty clearly the influence that it has had.

If you’re looking for a rocking good time to enjoy your satanism and a beer, probably not for you.

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Criterion film a day, day 11: Weekend and the (non) politics of gay sex and love

Let’s be clear, when we talk about “gay” sex or “gay” marriage, very rarely are talking about the union (physical, spiritual) of two men: Yes, abstractly that’s what it is, but in reality those words to transform the sex or the marriage into something else, something highly politicized, something hated, something satanic. It depends on your interpretation. At its core it becomes a signifier for something different: Sex is natural, “gay sex” is controversial and needs to be called out as “gay” sex.

The film Weekend grapples with this with astonishing power. On one level, it’s just a really sweet, great love story between two young men lost in very different ways. Instead of being maudlin a powerful combination of acting and script come together to give you that rarest of rare elements in cinematic love stories: intimacy. It is the first “gay” film I’ve seen that I felt really might have stepped away from hetero-normative filmmaking.
On a second level, the film calmly examines how the politics of being gay become so woven into everything about gay life. The film challenges its viewers to understand that this is not a heterosexual film not with the spectacle of sex between two men (something that could make straight folk ooh and ahh with either disgust or amazement at their own open-mindedness), but something far more concrete: Two men recalling the details of their night together. The scene quietly extends itself, daring the viewer to really think about not just sex, but intimacy—and the shocking realization of what a new normal, a normal that included homosexuality as equal to other forms of sexuality would look like.
It is an incredibly smart, deftly played scene, and the rest of the film unfolds with similar mastery. There are various discussions about different ways to be gay—one of the lovers is out but uncomfortable with public affection, the other is patient and understanding, but obviously frustrated. They debate and argue about it as their short, two-day relationship builds and twists in the way that only such a fling works.

This is not a film about gay victimhood, or if it is, it is a film about how all people who are not heterosexual are victimized in the most mundane ways—and how tedious such bigotry must be. The film keeps the judgmental world on the periphery—and it sometimes invades their intimate moments, with passers-by glancing, or people off in the distance yelling or whistling. Without making it an issue, it shows the power of that steady, humming sense of difference that gradually becomes a part of your sub-conscious and then conscious like the most insidious type of white noises.

The love story is beautiful, the politics frustrating, both are magnificently, powerfully portrayed.

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Criterion film a day, Day 10: George Washington

We equate a loss of youth with a loss of innocence, but the truth is, we’re never really quite sure what we’re losing. We lose innocence, sure, or as we get older (for life is, one long loss of youth) we lose fitness, but the fact of the matter is that these losses so gulf from the person that we once where that one feels like an entirely new person with a foggy past, not someone who has recently misplaced a possession.

As a result, making a film that attempts to get fully inside the head and perspective of a bunch of teenagers is a nearly impossible task. Most films and novels deal not with youth, but with loss of youth–something we can remember better. The films that manage to succeed best at it are really the ones that succeed best at creating a version of childhood to which we adults can relate–it is at best an accurate evocation, not the real deal.

With this in mind, the best part about David Gordon Green’s George Washington is that it does fail at evoking even a childhood that we adults would readily accept.

The film follows a group of adolescents–just embarking into the ultimate years of loss–and their pointlessly important explorations around their decrepit North Carolina town. They play in various abandoned rail yards, schools and (I believe a mini-golf course. The fascinating decay of these places is really brought to life by consistently excellent cinematography.

The troop of actors are unpublished and about as well-spoken as any group of 13-year-olds, an excellent choice as the slow-paced scenes unfold with wonderful intricacy.

When one of the boys is accidentally killed while playing, the story splits, following various character’s attempts to grapple with the death. The film pays particular attention to George, who becomes a town hero after saving another youth, and then throws himself fully into the role of super hero.

His is the best tale of what this film–and all films on the subject of youth–really get at: not a loss of innocent past, but a gradual and painful dimming of the future. The loss of innocence may indeed come with the first adolescent realization of one’s own finitude. The film really nails this emotion at a few moments in the film, and it is really all it should need. No sense in beating a dead stuffed horse.

It stumbles in two key areas: It falls prey to the temptation to represent southern characters and towns as cartoonish places filled with harmlessly outlandish characters; It also completely ignores race.

Notably, this is the first film I’ve watched that has had more than one token person of color in it–and the film brushes up against race a couple of times. There’s a secretive interracial relationship, a tense scene between a white mother and a black mother, and the name of the film is…George Washington.
But that is about as far as it goes–and the story of what it must be like growing up black in this country is one that, if it has been told, demands to be told in a real way.

The film only deals with it obliquely, which is a nice change from, say, Boyz n the hood, but seems like a striking and unfortunately deliberate missed opportunity.

 

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Criterion film a day, day 9: Three Colors: White

Remember when Rolling Stone came out with it’s numbered list of 100 greatest guitarists, and teenage boys everywhere flipped out about how unjustly placed guitar king x was vs. rock god y? That’s the problem with definitive collections–that they claim to be definitive in a wholly subjective realm.

The Criterion collection wisely sidesteps this problem by refusing to order their films. Furthermore, Criterion isn’t collecting “great” films, but merely “significant” films, films that have had an influence on the medium or on culture. That being said, from what I’ve seen the collection has become much less sure of itself past the 60s, and seem to be working much more off of the premise of “Well, it’s set in Paris, so it must be a great film.”

Three Colors: White is the first film I’ve seen that I don’t believe in the Criterion collection, it’s a mean, silly little film entirely focused on what it means to be a big dick and be a man.

The film follows Karol Karol, a hairdresser whose wife divorces him because he’s struggling with impotency. Desperate, broke and angry, he returns to his native Warsaw and begins to cheat his way improbably into running a large and successful company. Oh, this isn’t about him getting his life back together, but really an elaborate way for him to get revenge on his ex-wife and regain his masculinity.

The film literally climaxes with him finally able to perform in bed, then skip out on his ex-wife, leaving her to be arrested under the suspicion of murder.

The film isn’t terrible: It’s an enjoyable black comedy and one that lightly gets at life in post-Soviet eastern europe. Its not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. Its just not a film that I could ever call “essential.”

A final note: Part of the problem is that I’m working off of Criterion’s collection on Hulu, which becomes thinner the more contemporary it gets because of the increasing difficulty of getting the rights. I may need to switch up how I watch films post-1980.

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Criterion film a day, Day 8: Deprisa, Deprisa (“Faster, Faster”)

Rebellions for freedom have always been the war of the young, which isn’t to say it’s a consistently well-fought campaign. The four youth of the 1981 Spanish movie Deprisa Deprisa, are hedonistically desperate to live up to what they believe is their birthright to freedom and lack of responsibility. Their youthful nihilism and self-obsession blinds them to the dangers of the tragic path they are on, and the film calmly, artfully, and insightfully follows their downward spiral.

This is well-covered ground: Clockwork Orange, If…, and Elevator to the Gallows all focused in on hyper-violence of angry youth in the 60s and 70s (Ok, Elevator is 1958), but Deprisa Deprisa, though late in arriving to the international scene, is coming just in time for Spain. Franco had been dead since 1975, and the foyr youth in director Carlos Saura’s film are amongst the first to have come of age post-Franco. They are now allowed to taste freedom in Spain and leap for it wildly.

The story follows Meca and Pablo, Pablo’s girlfriend Angela, and Sebas as they graduate from pettier crimes like stealing cars to eventually holding people on the highway and robbing banks. Predictably, their haphazard criminal career comes to a grim, pointless end.

I won’t go deep in detail, so as to save some of the movie, but the only character who shows some growth is Angela, who, managing to escape, is left to an ambigious ending: She leaves with the money and a gun, but it is unclear if she’s walking away from the life of crime, or merely into the next chapter.

The film was made with an all-amateur cast from an area outside of Madrid (pointedly the areas most crime-ridden and equivalent to inner-city decay in America). There was some controversy when two of the cast members were arrested from crime during filming (the film continued to be the focus of its debate for its glorification of drugs and violence).

Of all the characters, Angela is the most well-acted, conveying a deep sense of dissatisfaction and boredom while also clinging to moments of happiness within this world. Her moment of growth towards the end is a tight, angry fist of catharsis.

Listen. Films of this nature are a dime a dozen, especially in the Vietnam era, when rebellion and anger were glorified and perhaps not questioned and criticized for its self-obsessed roots. If…, Clockword Orange, and–from an earlier time–Elevator to the Gallows, are all worth seeing if you are interested in examining this trope. Deprisa, Deprisa is as well, but with a particular Spanish twist.

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Criterion film a day, day 7: Orson Welles’ F for Fake.

F for Fake is a half-brilliant half-mess, and fully infuriating-to-parse film that. It is part documentuary, part-noir, part self-indulgent masturbation (as opposed to…charitable masturbation?), it is a film essay that runs excitedly through different story lines, ideas, and film genres.

The film is an examination of deception, of what we count as authentic and why. The documentary angle follows Elmyr de Hory, an art forger. While showing him at various parties, it follows his tale of how he came to art forgery, the brilliance of forgery, and how much his work as a forger was enhanced by more greedy art dealers. If there wasn’t a market for art, there wouldn’t be forgery. Underlying this is a clever complication (or mocking) of why we are so focused on authenticity.

Complicating this story line–for nothing is simple in this film–is de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who is most famous for fabricating a biography of Howard Hughes. How much of the legend of de Hory’s success as a forger is a hoax upon a hoax? de Hory’s is creating his own myth for his benefit, but is Irving furthering that myth to benefit himself? Circling back to the question of authenticity to art, how much of an artist’s success is based on the creation of legend around him?

Welles promises to tell nothing but the truth for an hour of his hour and 20-minute film, and the last twenty minutes sidelines into a strange little story, featuring Welles’ rather attractive girlfriend, supposedly posing for Picasso, taking the portraits, and then selling other counterfeit Picassos. It is indicative of a film that is deliberately abstruse and gleefully labyrinthine, manic.

So much of art, in any form, is inauthentic by the very nature of its obsession for authenticity. Even contemporary art, in which authenticity matters much less, is a deception–an artist attempting to play the role of the authentic artist. Those who are most successful at this deception are also the most successful artists. But then, this is true of any of us–those of us who most cleverly choose the juiciest roles and play them most convincingly are the ones we deem successful. Authenticity is a slippery thing to grab hold of–almost quantum in its super-imposed state–and when we try to anchor it to us, to possess it and observe it is when it is furthest from us. It is a state, that if we value, we only see out of the corners of our eyes.

If you’re a fan of Welles and his career-long obsession with the authenticity of art and the magic of deception (along with his literally quixotic career as an artist), this is a great film. If you’re a film buff interested in film theory, this is the film for you. If you’re looking for something that isn’t confusing, problematic, and somewhat half-assed, I’d probably skip it. To even get a weak handle on it, I had to watch in 20-minute stretches, and a second showing would probably serve me well.

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