Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

Movies That Matter

New Plaza Cinema last week hosted one of its popular Zoom presentations with film historian Max Alvarez. The theme this time: The Cinema Seeks Justice, and the examples included courtroom dramas and other stories in which the law was used to achieve greater fairness or to redress wrongs.

Filmmakers wanting to make an “issue movie” face a number of challenges. Perhaps the first challenge is to move past Samuel Goldwyn’s famous admonition: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If their story based on real life, as all of Alvarez’s examples were, situations probably don’t work out as quickly or neatly as the film portrays. Real life is messy; a film has to be selective about the size of the cast of characters (too many are confusing and require too much backstory) and they may simplify complex stories. Nevertheless, they can be powerful emotional touchstones. Alvarez illustrated a half-dozen issues with the films that portrayed them. This type of film must be popular in my family, because we’d seen most of them.

The issue of human rights emerged in a 2006 film from the late Michael Apted, Amazing Grace, set in 1787 England, in which William Wilberforce struggled to persuade Parliament to abolish Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it wasn’t until 1833 that the practice officially ended. A young Benedict Cumberbatch appears as William Pitt on the anti-slavery side.

The quest for racial justice has any number of strong films, and Alvarez selected the 2017 movie Marshall, set in 1941, in which young NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) defends a young Black man on a false charge of raping a white woman. His second example was Loving, from 2016, the story of a mixed-race couple who lived in a Virginia county where such marriages were illegal. Their case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to the elimination of laws banning miscegenation.

In the environmental justice category, the 2019 film Dark Waters dealt with a DuPont chemical disaster (with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the company’s practice of deny, deny, deny. I especially admired Tim Robbins’s performance as the conservative head of Ruffalo’s Cincinnati law firm. In 1998’s A Civil Action, lawyer John Travolta takes on the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods also for contaminating the local water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is a good example of the long tail of these cases. The lawyers lost this one, but the EPA took it up and, years later, the environmental cleanup in Woburn finally began.

Several noteworthy films have been made about justice for Holocaust victims, including, most memorably, Judgment at Nuremberg, with its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster pictured). Alvarez also highlighted Denial, about the 2000 British trial of David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, played by the always excellent Timothy Spall. Playwright David Hare took much of the dialog verbatim from the trial transcript. Glues you to your seat.

The legal system itself can perpetuate injustices, which Alvarez illustrated with the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four—young men wrongfully convicted of a 1974 London bombing. Police lies resulted in life sentences for them men. After 15 years in prison,  they were exonerated and released.

Finally, Alvarez illustrated the issue of what he called global justice with the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (in French), a slightly fictionalized depiction of the assassination of a democratic Greek politician. It received Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning the latter. (Costa-Gavras, never one to shun controversy, also was responsible for the terrific film Missing, about an American father and wife trying to learn the fate of their son and husband in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Here, the U.S. legal system was no help.)

Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)

Movie Titles as Mood Creators

Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)

Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.

A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”

In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.

Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!

How Was That Movie?

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Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

Two Tasty Movies

Ramen Shop

Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.

In Search of Beethoven

The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.

Movie Jam-Up

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In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!