Category Archives: american films

Caped Wonder Stuns City: The Cinematic Death and Rebirth of Superman

Justice League (2017) opens with a shot from a camera phone of Superman (Henry Cavill) rescuing people from a burning building.  It’s daytime, and Superman’s costume looks conspicuously like a Halloween costume, its airbrushed textures and fake muscles clearly evident.  He’s about to fly away when a child, the one filming this, asks if he could answer some questions.  Superman begins to give him a polite brush off when the child explains its for their podcast.  “Well, if its for your podcast…”  The little boy and his friends proceed to ask Superman a number of questions – “Does that ‘S’ really stand for hope?”, “Have you ever fought a hippo?” – before finally asking what Superman’s favorite thing about the human race is.  Silently, Superman thinks.  Then he smiles.  Cut to black. This opening shot, about a minute long, is easily the best part of Justice League, and is probably the best Superman movie since 1981.  

Henry Cavill

Justice League is a mess of a movie, a Frankenstein monster resulting from hasty reshoots, studio meddling, conflicting artistic visions, tight deadlines, and shoddy special effects.  It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap-looking, and a lot more fun than it has any right to be.  And one thing it gets absolutely right is Superman.

Despite being one of the most iconic fictional characters of the twentieth century, filmmakers and studio executives have struggled to understand the Man of Steel.  No one can seem to wrap their heads around what makes Superman work, operating under the conviction that this is some corny, irrelevant piece of pop culture ephemera that must be radically retooled in order to be popular.  But Superman is already popular.  People love Superman; they have his insignia tattooed on their bodies, adorning their cars, their shirts, their underwear.  All over the world, children are still tying blankets around their necks and jumping off the stairs pretending to fly.  Words like “kryptonite”, “Bizarro”, and “Brainiac” are part of the common English vernacular.  People discuss flight and x-ray vision in everyday conversation.  We don’t need to be sold on Superman; we’ve already bought in, and anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to be swayed by seeing the character brood and get blood on his knuckles.

In a way, Justice League marks the first appearance of Superman in the “DCEU”, Warner Bros’ shared “cinematic universe” for the denizens of DC Comics.  This continuity began in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) but it would be hard to mistake the protagonist of that film for Superman.  Snyder’s character is a bully and an idiot.  He makes out with his girlfriend in a pile of human ash before snapping his opponent’s neck and encouraging the audience to join the military.  Superman’s defining characteristic, more than flying or super-strength or changing in phone booths, is that he always does the right thing.  As soon as the character stops doing the right thing, he stops being Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are either wary of or uninterested in this.  It’s too simple.  It isn’t cool.  The fantasy of power abused is, on the surface, more compelling and relatable than power used righteously.  But that’s not the story of Superman.  Superman represents a kind of apotheosis of humanity, human flaws discarded in the Daily Planet storeroom so that human virtues may be elevated to godhood.  Superman is devoid of human flaws like doubt, jealousy, and anger.  Those are Clark Kent’s problems.  Superman is all-encompassing good, selflessness with the infinite capacity to commit selfless acts.   This is something that many of the older cinematic adaptations understood.  The Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s, the film serials of the same decade, and the classic 1950s television series were all in close enough proximity chronologically to the character’s creation to not really questions any of this, to not feel the urge to deconstruct or retool the formula.  Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz , the creative minds behind Superman (1978) grew up on these adaptions and the comics of that era, and consequently, Superman understands the character perfectly.   Beautifully portrayed by Christopher Reeve, this Superman is kind, chivalrous, charming, polite, friendly, while Clark Kent is awkward, shy, bumbling, uptight, and also charming.  This was more than just the Superman from the comics.  It was like the character had stepped out of our shared cultural imagination and understanding of who Superman is.

Poster for Superman: The Movie

It would be unfair to expect as shaggy a dog as Justice League to pull all of this off, and it doesn’t.  But it does manage to give us the best cinematic version of Superman in decades.  Here, Superman smiles.  He actually laughs.  A great, big belly laugh.  His big entrance line is “I believe in truth…and I’m a big fan of justice!”, delivered by Henry Cavill (who had previously been confined by scripts that had him sulking in front of green screens) with the kind of cornball conviction that would do Kirk Alyn or Buckaroo Banzai proud.  The line got a big laugh.  It was ridiculous, but in a sincere, joyous way, and this was the biggest, happiest surprise – and achievement – of the film.  Superman radiates joy, not just fun or entertainment.  Joy.  It’s something that’s missing from most other modern superhero movies, including many that are much better than Justice League.  But that small, simple quality is worth celebrating.

So, bring your kids to see Justice League.  They’ll probably love it, warts and all.  And they’ll finally get to see Superman on the big screen.

-Hank Curry

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Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) brings audiences one film closer to Thanos in the upcoming Avengers film. It is a new chapter in the Marvel cinematic universe. Cameos by our favorite superheroes abound, and so did bright colors and nutsy sets. Thor: Ragnarok even comes with trailers for the upcoming Justice League and New Mutants films. No doubt that this truly is the age of the comic book.

Blanchett as Hela

Thor: Ragnarok is a hopelessly complacent film. It is as if the executives at Disney/Marvel Studios are just going through the motions (maybe they are distracted by Star Wars). Thor: Ragnarok does not take itself seriously at all, nor does it attempt to direct its playfulness towards a subversive end. It exists simply to fill Marvel’s unspoken promise of delivering a picture every season, raking in the receipts at the box office every few months.

Thor: Ragnarok isn’t even up to being the kind of decent escapist fare that Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Doctor Strange (2016), arguably, both managed to be. In large part this is due to the absence of any dramatic stakes or decent character development (it was sad to see so little done with Cate Blanchett in the role of Hela). Yet, something should also be said of Taika Waititi’s lackluster direction, the employment of actors as signifiers of “qualities” associated with the characters that they have played in other films (Jeff Goldblum especially), but also the film’s inability to deliver the spectacle of the Marvel Universe which usually yields some interesting images born out of special effects and cinematography (I’ll admit that Thor is unlike anything else Javier Aguirresarobe has shot).

So what is the appeal of the “superhero” film anymore if it loses even its most superficially attractive qualities? Honestly, apart from the spectacle of a comic rendered in live action, there isn’t very much to recommend these films, DC or Marvel, to begin with. Consistently the genre has defined itself by its lack of social relevancy, its avoidance of controversy, and its casual attempts at political correctness.

Silver Star
So when is Jack Kirby’s Silver Star ever going to get made?

-Robert Curry

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Four Films About Cassavetes

You think I want to be popular? You think I want them out on video? I want millions of people to see my movies? Why would I? – John Cassavetes

Cassavetes and Rowlands

When I teach film directing I inevitably discuss John Cassavetes at length, usually with regards to collaborating with actors. I prefer to show an interview or documentary to my students as opposed to one of Cassavetes’ own films so that they can hear from him about his process as a filmmaker. The reason why I don’t usually show one of his films is that most of my students have already taken my film analysis course where I show either The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) or Husbands (1970). So the issue isn’t so much their familiarity with Cassavetes’ work so much as it is an issue of familiarizing them with Cassavetes as an artist at work and de facto teacher.

An episode of Cinéastes de notre temps (dir. Hubert Knapp & Andre S. Labarthe, 1968), I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work (dir. Michael Ventura, 1984), Anything For John (dir. Dominique Cazenave & Doug Headline, 1993), and A Constant Forge (dir. Charles Kiselyak, 2000) are the four films about Cassavetes that I choose from for various reasons, though usually the choice is predicated by running time (I may only show an excerpt), the students’ ability to focus, and the students’ own aesthetic interests. Each film has its own merits, each has its own limitations; but I have found all of these films to be indispensable as a teacher and as a filmmaker.

Cinéastes de notre temps (which translates to “filmmakers of our time”) is a series for French television about the cinema; the episode about John Cassavetes can be found as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection release John Cassavetes: Five Films. This television documentary first introduces the viewer to Cassavetes in 1965 as he is editing Faces (1968) during a break from shooting. In this first section, Cassavetes’ euphoria in the midst of his second independent production after two films for major studios is contagious. It’s all jokes and laughs as he walks through his hand-held shooting style and drives along the Canyon where he lived in LA. The second section, shot in 1968, picks up with Cassavetes at Cannes after screening Faces. Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber. This episode of Cinéastes de notre temps epitomizes one of the serious pitfalls of independent production for Cassavetes in how these two halves demonstrate the serious toll that completing Faces has taken, both physically and emotionally. But it is also interesting to hear Cassavetes, before and after, as he discusses the intent of the film. There isn’t a variation in terms of aesthetic goals, but there is a variation in language and conviction. For these reasons I find Cinéastes de notre temps works better as a portrait of the artist rather than a portrait of the artist’s process.

John and Gena
Michael Ventura’s film  I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work is distinct for having been made with Cassavetes’ cooperation during the actual shooting of one of his films, Love Streams (1984). Ventura does not venerate his subject, and this film is all the better for it. Cassavetes can be seen going wild on set directing his wife Gena Rowlands, throwing tantrums at the crew, and espousing some particularly elegant musings on the condition of American cinema in sit-down interviews. Running at just about one hour, I’m Almost Not Crazy is one of the most fascinating authentic portraits of a filmmaker at work that I have ever seen. I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work, like Cinéastes de notre temps, is also available as a special feature on a Criterion release, though this time for Love Streams.

I chanced upon Dominique Cazenave and Doug Headline’s Anything For John on the bonus disc of the Wild Side Video deluxe release of the film Husbands (this is a French release and therefore Region 2). Unlike the two films discussed above, Anything For John was shot after Cassavetes’ death and therefore takes the approach of an oral history. Al Ruban, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Sam Fuller (a neighbor of Cassavetes apparently) are all interviewed and each sings the praises of Cassavetes. The interviews are intimate and yield their greatest rewards when former co-stars begin to goof around a little, inadvertently shedding some light upon their relationship as collaborators. This becomes even more fascinating if one views one of Cassavetes’ films immediately before watching this documentary. Seeing actors’ spontaneity in performance and then in life can give one a precise idea as to what control Cassavetes exerted as a director.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Charles Kiselyak’s A Constant Forge (which is available in the Criterion Collection’s release John Cassavetes: Five Films). Unlike these other films, A Constant Forge is epic in scale (running at 200 minutes) and much more frank about Cassavetes’ shortcomings as an alcoholic. Like Anything For John, a bulk of A Constant Forge is made up of interviews and film clips. Kiselyak’s film’s most unique attribute is that it incorporates footage of Cassavetes from I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work and Cinéastes de notre temps as well as a voice-over narration of an actor reading some choice quotes from Cassavetes (that can be found in Ray Carney’s excellent though controversial book Cassavetes on Cassavetes) in an attempt to keep Cassavetes’ own voice heard amongst the chorus of interviewees. A Constant Forge’s grand scale allows it to be this inclusive and seemingly definitive, though I would argue it yields fewer rewards overall as a film than the three previously discussed pictures (despite the time it devotes to Cassavetes’ elusive stage works in the 70s and 80s for which I am grateful). The same criticism that is often leveled upon Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes is applicable to A Constant Forge in that while being so inclusive in its texts it misses out on one of the great truths about Cassavetes, and that is, like his filmmaking process, he is a different person everyday, infinitely adaptable. In a book this is an acceptable loss, in my opinion, especially if the book intends to read like a patchwork autobiography. What makes it detrimental to A Constant Forge is that it serves to pinpoint Cassavetes’ appearance in the film to be nothing more than an illusion. Anything For John, on the other hand, employed Cassavetes’ absence rather well, structuring much of the film as a sort of make-shift eulogy where his absence is very much the point.

directing Love Streams in 1984

What all of these films lack is a healthy appreciation for Cassavetes’ early days as an actor in films and television. Only A Constant Forge deals at length with this period, though mostly only with regards to Cassavetes’ work in Martin Ritt’s film Edge Of The City (1957). I would have enjoyed some analysis of Cassavetes’ work as a director on Johnny Staccato (1959) as well as a more in-depth biographical context.

If I had to pick just one of these excellent films to recommend, it would be Michael Ventura’s film. Despite its very vivid and immediate portrait of its subject, Ventura, according to his interview in Anything For John, manages to capture something of the tragedy Cassavetes faced on the set of Love Streams. Cassavetes believed that Love Streams would be his final film, his last statement to the world. This feeling just seems to permeate every aspect of Love Streams and I’m Almost Not Crazy, investing them with a taste of tragedy.

-Robert Curry

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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner (1982) has gotten a sequel. Anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s film is probably wondering why or even how a sequel could have been made. Oddly, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) does work as a sequel, surprisingly so in many respects, though what problems it runs into stem what seem to be the portions of the narrative designed to launch a franchise off of this film, presumably with a focus on the Ryan Gosling character K/Joe.

Joi & K

What works in the film is its pacing. Director Denis Villeneuve’s direction allows a lot of time for the characters to just exist in a space. This tactic not only serves to permit the audience time to invest in the humanity of a character (and thus play into one of the central themes of the film), but also gives the audience a chance to immerse themselves in the world of the film with all of its grandiose science fiction imagery. Regretfully, and I am unsure who is responsible for this, there is a good deal of replaying previous scenes and previously heard dialogue in voice over that creates a series of flashbacks which give the impression that the filmmakers do not trust or even believe in the intelligence of their audience. The character of Joi (Ana de Armas), Ryan Gosling’s hologram girlfriend, is also enlisted to articulate K/Joe’s character subtext in just as many scenes. Together, these two tactics successfully subvert Villeneuve’s pacing, betraying the aesthetic he is clearly trying to preserve from Scott’s Blade Runner for his sequel.

Joi, though often just a device for exposition, does feature centrally in the most provocative and, I think, successful sequence of Blade Runner 2049; the sex scene. This scene realizes, visually, more concepts and motifs inherent not only in the works of Philip K. Dick (whose novel inspired the first Blade Runner film), but science fiction in general than the entirety of the rest of the picture. Here, Joi has hired, though it is unclear how a hologram can do so, a hooker named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to be an avatar of sorts to enable Joi to approximate intercourse with Gosling’s K/Joe. Visually, the double exposure effect of Joi and Mariette competing to inhabit the same female form is astonishing. The fact that their forms are, in effect, interchangeable as sexual objects speaks volumes to the commodification of the female form in cinema and society. This is taken further within the overall conception of Blade Runner 2049 by the fact that neither K/Joe nor Mariette are human in the traditional biological sense. Thus the entire exchange between the three characters is an act of artificial approximation whose very impulse is at work today in online avatar communities and dating sites. One could also assume that Joi, given the evidence provided later in the film, is mass-produced while K/Joe and Mariette each represent a singular production, thus reflecting the precarious assumptions we as a society make about ourselves as individuals in terms of our uniqueness, importance, and our sense of entitlement.

hologram as mass production

The worst parts of Blade Runner 2049 are those which ignore, or should I say that they do not even pretend to address, the philosophical questions investigated by the scene described above. These scenes favor instead genre mechanics whose familiarity to the audience and whose use as signifiers do little else than to suggest that another Blade Runner film will be in the works shortly. Of course these are the scenes of the “replicant resistance”. Villeneuve’s blocking during the scene in which the “resistance” is introduced has been so overdone, is so old hat, that it bordered on the comical. Upon reflecting on this subplot, which seems like it was shoehorned in, I couldn’t help but feel that Paul Verhoeven’s classic Total Recall (1990) had somehow snuck into Blade Runner 2049 to create a terrifying Philip K. Dick narrative fusion.

The real question that Blade Runner 2049 asks despite its success as a sequel film, and it has nothing to do with science fiction, is: what is the necessity of the sequel? Could Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have written this film without mentioning blade runners at all? Does Ryan Gosling need Harrison Ford as a sidekick to attract an audience? The answer is simple: Blade Runner 2049 does not need to be a Blade Runner sequel for any other reason than to exist.

-Robert Curry

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Discoveries

It is relatively easy today to discover a film. It is certainly far easier today than it was when I was growing up. Online streaming platforms such as FilmStruck and Hulu bring a wide variety of titles, some obscure and some not, to curious spectators and cinephiles with far more ease and accessibility than a video store or a library ever did. Yet, somehow, this great abundance and variety becomes prohibitive after a fashion; inundating the viewer with maybe too many options. There is also something to be said about collecting films. Owning a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, possessing an object, gives one a sense of material satisfaction. This satisfaction, when so many things are available in the ether of the internet, is part of the appeal of these formats. One could even say that it is this impulse toward the tangible that has sparked the revitalization of vinyl within the music industry. And similarly to how vinyl records often sound better, a film often looks better on DVD or Blu-Ray. In my own experience I often have found prints of obscure films on different streaming platforms, like Netflix, to be rather poor when I know for a fact that a better print is available.

ktbomhcolor

There is also the matter of availability. Warner Archives, for instance, has brought out and continues to bring out what seems like a limitless supply of classic Hollywood fare. Most of these films will probably never be popular enough to find a place in the foreseeable future on Netflix or Hulu. So the only way to access these titles is on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, this doesn’t even get into films that are available only in other regions. Eureka!, Second Run, BFI, Edition filmmuseum, all release prestigious and scholarly packages of renowned films unavailable in the United States, making their home video releases essential to serious students of film. Ironically, the shift in the home video market, epitomized by the strategies exemplified by Warner Archive, only came about because of the immense popularity of online streaming. That is to say that home video has become a niche market after a fashion.

These circumstances that have made so many films available for study for the first time has such inexhaustible possibilities that it can be overwhelming and often times happens only as a sort of accident. Back in July I finally saw the Norman Foster film Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948), a sort of quickie noir piece that was the first film produced by Burt Lancaster’s Norma Productions (available as a Universal Vault Series DVD release). The opening chase sequence in which Lancaster evades the police on an elaborate expressionist set-piece with all of his athletic prowess was surprising not just for its length, but what evidence it provided of Orson Welles’ influence on his one time protege Norman Foster (Foster was at one time a co-director on Welles’ famous “lost” project It’s All True, directing the “My Friend Bonito” section). One can’t necessarily credit Welles with introducing Foster to the silent German Expressionist films of the twenties, but one can credit Welles with having imbued in Foster a sensibility for the importance of the seen and unseen in a sequence. Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, like Welles’ The Stranger (1946), uses shadow and dramatic angles (high and low) to focus the spectator’s gaze on specific details in a rapid succession of shots. Foster’s employment of Welles’ visual strategy in a run-of-the-mill “quickie”, for my money, positions him in favor of Jess Franco as the “kitsch Welles”. This aesthetic relationship between Welles and Foster was one that, like so many others, I had dismissed after having seen some of Foster’s work for Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. However, after viewing Kiss The Blood Off My Hands I revisited Foster’s most famous film, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and was able to locate shades of Orson Welles yet again, though this time employed toward a more theatrical aesthetic end.

Poster - Lovely to Look At_08

I also found a trend in later MGM musicals upon revisiting Charles Walter’s Texas Carnival (1951) as a companion film to Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At (1952); both available from Warner Archive and both featuring Red Skelton. First it may be helpful to note that the Jerome Kern musical Lovely To Look At was made quickly to cash in on the success of George Sidney’s film of Show Boat the previous year, employing almost all of the same cast but with Jack Cummings producing in place of Arthur Freed (Jack Cummings also produced Texas Carnival and handled a number of MGM’s lower budget musical productions). Both of these films star Howard Keel and each film stages an effective dream sequence around Keel as the romantic leading man. The earlier film, Texas Carnival, locates this dream as a kind of sexual reverie or fantasy that Keel is having about his leading lady, Esther Williams. LeRoy’s camera stays predominantly behind keel, though it concludes with Keel in a profile shot. LeRoy’s motivations for this visual structure are twofold. Firstly, Keel is the lesser star in 1951, and secondly this placement of the camera invites the audience to share and to participate in Keel’s gaze as an apparition of Esther Williams (courtesy of superimposition) swims around his hotel suite. In Lovely To Look At, Keel is the bigger star and has thus graduated to becoming the subject of the underrated Kathryn Grayson’s dream stuff in this film. Here, Grayson finds Keel gradually appearing in four full length mirrors as he serenades her, his voice quadrupling on the soundtrack. The camera sits behind Grayson, and the four Keels, forming an implied triangular formation, frame her. Both sequences, comic in their eccentricity, heartbreaking in their sincerity, prove just how important the commodification of a star was for MGM. Neither scene is important to characterization nor to narrative. The one aim that they prove and satisfy is in selling a star. This tactic, from today’s viewpoint, epitomizes the nostalgia and innocence promised by “classic movies”, thus rendering such scenes more memorable than some of those films’ finer sequences such as Vincente Minnelli’s uncredited climax to Lovely To Look At.

These discoveries may seem inconsequential or even mundane, but they prove that there is still so much to mine in the cinema. I chose these three films for their obscurity because it is in these films which are finally receiving a release, some for the first time ever to home video, that one can find the untold stories of film. The cinema will always be progressive, it will always move forward with hundreds upon hundreds of films completed each and every year, but it is our collective cinematic past, more than our present in this country, that is finally becoming available.

-Robert Curry

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It

When I was growing up our family doctor had something of an obsession with clowns. All over his office were little oil paintings of clowns, dolls of clowns, decorative plates of clowns, etc. I found all of this to be unnerving as a kid. But when did I become scared of clowns? I don’t know for certain if It scared me because I already feared clowns or if I was frieghtened of clowns because I had seen It.

Stephen King's It (2017)

Andy Muschietti’s film of Stephen King’s novel It (2017) is reportedly the highest grossing horror film of all time. The likely reason for this is that It, since its first publication in 1986, has become not only a legitimate cult item, but a major referencing point in our popular culture. The Tommy Lee Wallace television adaptation of 1990, which I saw as a boy, helped solidify the novel’s status in our popular imagination, perpetuating a number of signifiers tied with the horror genre for three generations. Though Kubrick’s film of The Shining (1980) may be more infamous now than the novel on which it is based, It’s infamy has stayed tied closely to the original novel; at least till now.

Muschietti’s film differs from King’s text in two pivotal ways. The first is that Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have re-structured King’s non-linear narrative for two separate films. The film currently in release represents the “childhood” narrative of the novel while the sequel film, no doubt, will focus upon the “adult” narrative. This prevents the film from drawing on parallels, both visually and conceptually, between the timelines while also depriving the spectator of truly coming to grips with the relay of cause and effect. That is to say that the novel It functioned as a kind of narrative circuit whose complex has been disassembled for the film.

There has also been an updating of the timeline by thirty years. In the novel, the chapters concerned with the character’s childhood are set in 1958, while in the film these events are set in 1988. This removes a tremendous amount of allegory from the narrative pertaining to Cold War paranoia as well as some of the historical urgency of the Mike Hanlon narrative (though it remains particularly relevant in the 1980s as it does today). 

By dispensing with these two narrative strategies the film of It becomes transformed into a rather standard horror film with a “coming-of-age” story thrown in for good measures. As such, its weaknesses as a film are relatively standard. The special effects are poor, the scares come cheap, and the suspense is ill earned. Yet Muschietti’s sense of shot design and strong empathy for the irrationality of childhood fear yield some effective moments. For the most part these moments come in anticipation of Pennywise the clown. It is enough to suggest a character’s fear, to see the horrific imaginings on their face. Hence it is in the “fake-out” moments that It finds emotional truth in its material.

-Robert Curry

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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns/Crowd the calendar of freedom/When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan/Criticizers/From the hanging cliffs of plenty/Laugh to see the fall of those/Who would remain in honest lands/Clairvoyants strive to see/The plans of those who need to know/What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, from the album Outlaw, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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