Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - August 2000
Au Hasard, Balthazar
Out of the Past
It's a Gift
The Sacrifice (1986)
Room at the Top
Payday

Look Who's Stalking
Chuck & Buck
Cecil B. Demented

Beau Travail

 


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A CORNER IN WHEAT, AND SELECTED BIOGRAPH SHORTS (D.W. Griffith).

It's been called the first film masterpiece. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat (1909), made in an age when the cinema was still struggling with the development of techniques proper to its sphere, is a remarkable work of poetic vision that still stands up today. Based loosely on Frank Norris's The Pit, this short film (one reel, as they all were then) focuses on the contrast between different economic classes rather than on a traditional story. We see a family of farmers tilling the soil. Their slow movements and gestures indicate both stoic resignation and a bond with the earth. There is a beautiful stately quality to the images of nature here. Then we switch to a completely different environment - the world of the capitalist financier - the Wheat King, who fools his competitors into selling their stock, making a fortune by cornering the market in wheat. The style of these scenes is completely different - the businessmen and brokers make their living in the city, away from nature, in rooms with stifling cigar smoke, and their movements are rapid, intense, even convulsive. After the Wheat King corners the market, he of course drives the prices up to increase his profit. We now cut to the poor people of the city, who come to buy their bread, only to find that this essential means of subsistence is now too expensive. Their mounting distress as they realize that they can't feed their families is intercut with scenes of the Wheat King wheeling and dealing. For the first time, Griiffith uses cross-cutting not to advance a plot, but to compare two experiences of life. Griffith was a populist, critical of big business and its materialist values. His method of contrasting the different situations of class in this film reaches a startling apex as he cuts from the rich people celebrating at a lavish dinner to a completely still shot of the urban poor standing, heads down, in a bread line. The story goes on to make some more points, in a way that would satisfy the audience's need for closure, but the real point is the stirring of our empathy and identification, solely through the brilliant use of images and editing.

The Kino video also includes several other Griffith shorts of varying quality. The Unchanging Sea (1910) is a rather maudlin tale of a fisherman and his wife, involving amnesia and long lost love. Still, it's amazing what Griffith could fit into twelve minutes or so, and the visuals are striking. His Trust (1911) showcases one of the repellent aspects of Griffith: his racist paternalism. It's about a faithful Negro house slave who risks his life to save his mistress's child from a fire. Embarrassing in content and not very interesting in form. The New York Hat (1912) targets the destructiveness of small-town Puritan prejudice and gossip, as a minister is falsely accused of having an affair with a young girl. The minister is Lionel Barrymore and the girl is Mary Pickford. Her talent is quite evident even this early. An Unseen Enemy (1912) is a melodrama with the Gish sisters trapped by thieves while their loved ones rush to the rescue. Not that great, but notable as Lillian and Dorothy's first starring roles. In The Mothering Heart (1913) Griffith's habit of idealizing women as saints is in evidence. It's a moist, but still rather affecting story of a man who drifts away from his faithful wife (Lillian Gish) to have an affair.

The Biograph shorts are essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand Griffith's importance. In them we can see the language of film being forged. And thanks are due to Kino for making them available on video.

AMERICAN DREAM (Barbara Kopple, 1990).

The story of a bitterly protracted strike in the mid-1980s, American Dream is one of the best documentaries about labor unions ever made. After Hormel posted a $30 million dollar profit, they cut wages by over two dollars an hour. The workers at the plant in Austin, Minnesota were understandably upset. They went on strike, hiring a labor consultant named Ray Rogers, whose method was to mount a huge public relations campaign against the company. The parent union, headed by seasoned labor veteran Lewie Anderson, advised against the strike and wouldn't support it. Hormel didn't back down, hiring "replacement workers," and the struggle became more and more desperate.

Kopple's camera seems to be everywhere. She interviews all the principal players, and we see the union meetings, the leaders plotting strategy, the families talking about their hardships. There's a real sense of intimacy with the people, and a well-paced dramatic structure. The cumulative effect is powerful, and there are no easy answers. Anderson, who might first seem to be something of a villain in this real-life story, turns out to be someone worth listening to. Eventually the film causes you to question the local union's wisdom even as you admire their courage. It's an engrossing portrait of a sad time in America - the Reagan era.

BITTER RICE (Guiseppe De Santis, 1949).

Every year thousands of young working class women would go to the Po Valley to help harvest rice. The wages were meager and the conditions were brutal and exploitative. Leftist director De Santis was determined to make a movie about this. In some respects his achievement was impressive. The film is visually stunning, with amazingly elaborate tracking shots over the flooded rice fields in which hundreds of women are working. It also succeeds, intermittently, in portraying a sense of camaraderie among the women, as well as conveying a gritty neorealist flavor. At the same time, however, he resorted to a melodramatic plot involving a jewel thief (Vittorio Gassman) and his girlfriend (Doris Dowling). The girlfriend hides from the law by joining the rice harvesters, where she clashes with another worker, a tempestuous beauty played by the 19-year-old Silvano Mangano in her first screen role.

The huge success of the movie had nothing to do with its social message and everything to do with the sex appeal of Mangano, which the film does not hesitate to emphasize. She's a looker all right, but the silly plot becomes more and more forced until it ruins any chance the movie had of redeeming itself. Gassman has real magnetism as the bad guy, and the picture is entertaining in a trashy sort of way. Yet it's depressing to imagine what the picture might have been as opposed to what it is - an ostensibly neorealist film sabotaging itself in order to make a big hit. Well, it managed to be a hit - but who remembers it now?

BLACK ORPHEUS (Marcel Camus, 1958).

The Orpheus legend is transposed to Rio at the time of Carnival, in this international success which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a tram driver who is also an inspired musician. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is a naive country girl who comes to the city to stay with her sister. The acting tends to be crude - some of the supporting cast shout their lines in an annoying manner. And Camus and his writers don't know how to go very deeply into the mythical elements. (Death as a guy in a black leotard may inspire more laughter than dread.) Despite all this, the picture has a vibrantly colorful look, and the carnival atmosphere, with marvelous music and dancing, is seductive indeed. Perhaps because of the film's very naivete, it also succeeds in creating a feeling of youthful passion and romance. And Dawn, the director's wife, is as lovely a Eurydice as one could ask for. Not a great film by any means, Black Orpheus is still a luscious entertainment.

GASLIGHT (George Cukor, 1944).

In Victorian era London, a young bride (Ingrid Bergman) and her suave continental husband (Charles Boyer) move into the house where the bride's mother was murdered years before. The wife then starts to show signs of losing her sanity.

The picture, for which Bergman won her first Oscar, became somewhat notorious because it was a remake of an excellent English film of the same name which MGM bought, and then attempted to destroy all the prints. (Luckily a few survived.) Judged on its own terms, this version is a beautifully mounted melodrama, with fine performances by Bergman and Boyer - the latter surprisingly effective in a difficult role - and impeccable photography from Joseph Ruttenberg. Cukor knows how to frame everything for maximum effect. In particular he creates a feeling for the old house which is marvelous. Unfortunately, the story, (based on a popular play) is absurdly implausible, and the dramatic effect superficial. This is a normal flaw in movies that are solely predicated on plot devices with little attention paid to any complexities of character. There's no compelling reason to think about Gaslight when it's over, except as an example of the polished Cukor style, but the suspense will keep you in your seat while it's running.

42ND STREET (Lloyd Bacon, 1933).

An irascible Broadway director (Warner Baxter) is putting on one last show before he calls it quits. His financial backer is enamored of the show's beautiful star (Bebe Daniels), but she is putting all at risk by continuing an affair with an old flame (George Brent). Meanwhile a novice chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) is wooed by the show's "juvenile" lead (Dick Powell).

If you only knew this movie, and other Depression-era Warners musicals, by reputation, you might expect a relic, a corny object of amusement, enjoyable only on the level of camp. And you'd be wrong. 42nd Street has a fresh, witty script (James Seymour and Rian James) that is not gee-whiz juvenile in the least, but adult and even racy at times. The songs (Al Dubin and Harry Warren) are top-notch. And then, when the show finally opens, we are treated to the eye-popping choreography of Busby Berkeley, a kind of visual dance styling that was (and is) totally original.

Daniels, a star who is now largely forgotten, does a luminous turn as the show's diva. Keeler and Powell are quite charming and funny. But much of the movie's pleasure is delivered by a group of character actors who were to become familiar faces in the Warners stable - hilarious deadpan Ned Sparks, goofball dancer Una Merkel and her jittery boyfriend George E. Stone, wisecracking stage manager Allen Jenkins. Ginger Rogers is also on hand, in what proved to be her breakthrough role, as a tough, sarcastic show girl. There is just one part that goes over the line into caricature - and that's Baxter as the hot-tempered director. He rages and weeps and blusters, but he's not very convincing. The role is overwritten - at least it gives us the immortal speech that ends with "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

Finally there are the astonishing Berkeley dance numbers. Of course no such show could ever exist on a stage, but it was just his genius to expand the form so it would work in the movies. (One has only to compare the creaky Metro Oscar winner The Broadway Melody, made four years previously, to see why Berkeley and Warner Brothers dominated the movie musical in the early 30s.) "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title number are joyous fun to watch, and at the same almost surrealistic in their visual playfulness and abstraction.

One odd detail worth noting. I thought that a movie called 42nd Street would be set in New York. But the bulk of the story, and the climactic show itself, takes place on the road - in Philadelphia. Go figure.

Chris Dashiell