Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The 2017 National Film Registry: A Study in Black and White

On the day we set aside to commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, I looked back at the 2017 list of films chosen for inclusion on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The list, always announced in the waning days of the year, annually contains the names of 25 films that the U.S. government has pledged to preserve because of their historical, cultural, or aesthetic significance. Predictably the current list contains a blockbuster epic (Titanic), a classic thriller (Die Hard), an innovative aesthetic experiment (Memento), and a sentimental favorite (Field of Dreams). But—at a time when the question of racism has taken on some urgency—I was struck by how many of the selected films grapple with racial and ethnic bias. 

Back in 1947, Gregory Peck and company confronted the prevalence of post-war American anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement. This Elia Kazan-directed film (one that meant a great deal to my own parents) is on the 2017 list, along with several movies exploring Latino barrio life. But—aptly for Martin Luther King Day—I noticed no fewer than four films that give context to our nation’s struggles with the divide between black and white America.  

It was gratifying to be the one who told Karen Sharpe Kramer that her husband Stanley’s greatest hit, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, had made the list. When this film was released in late 1967, a decade after the first baby-steps of the Civil Rights movement, college-age Americans tended to scoff. For them the story of affluent and liberal-minded white parents (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn) who eventually give their consent to their daughter’s union with the world’s most perfect black man (Sidney Poitier) seemed much too corny to be of interest. Still, plenty of people, in and out of the Deep South, were outraged. But the movie’s triumph at the 1968 box office seemed to help move the needle in terms of the general public’s reaction to interracial love. A reviewer in the Tulsa Tribune talked about its impact: “What we get is a 1968 reaction to a social question by a range of people representing the full spectrum of possibilities—from the bigot with a totally closed mind to [the] ultra liberal who sees no question. . . . The film could not have been successfully released nationally five years ago; it will be hopelessly out of date five years hence.” 

Also on the 2017 list is Charles Burnett’s raw 1990 drama of black life, To Sleep with Anger. This much-admired indie has been honored by film buffs, and Burnett (now 73) received one of the Motion Picture Academy’s honorary Oscars last fall for his body of work. But as an African-American director he has never had access to the big projects his talents seem to warrant. A more prominent African-American filmmaker, Spike Lee, has a spot on the list too, for his powerful 4 Little Girls documentary (1997) about the 1963 firebombing of a black Birmingham Church, leading to the deaths of four small children. 

I suspect not many people today associate Walt Disney’s charming Dumbo (1941) with racial politics. And my own favorite memory of Dumbo, aside from its literally uplifting ending, is the genuinely phantasmagoric segment known as  “Pink Elephants on Parade.” But there was a time in the 1960s when, as I understand it, Dumbo couldn’t be publicly shown because the “Jim Crow” characters in the “When I See an Elephant Fly” number were taken as offensive black stereotypes. True, they were voiced by a famous all-black choir, but I can’t see them as anything but lovable.

Friday, January 12, 2018

John Manderino: Here There Be Monsters

My 2017 book, Seduced by Mrs.Robinson, gave me the opportunity to praise in print a recent memoir by a Maine-based writer named John Manderino. His Crying at Movies was an inspired comic summation of his own life, with each key episode tied to a movie-going memory. For instance, after his first youthful sexual encounter went badly, he sought performance tips from the lusty Swedes by watching Elvira Madigan. (Alas, it didn’t help.) Then, when he was a lowly college sophomore, a senior asked him out because she adored The Graduate and thought he resembled Dustin Hoffman. Manderino was not flattered. In his mind, “Benjamin was short and looked like a rodent.” Still, he was attracted to the young woman, and so he managed to convince her that he was indeed sweet, sensitive, and depressed, just like Ben. In the next chapter we found them in bed together.

Manderino wrote Crying at Movies in 2008. Eight years later, he published another short story volume, one that pays an eccentric kind of tribute to things that go bump in the night. It’s called But You Scared Me the Most. The title comes from a Randy Newman tune, and the collection riffs on monsters, both those encountered on a movie screen and those who surround us in everyday (and every-night) life. More often than not, we are the monsters ourselves, learning to proudly fly our freak flags, no matter who is watching. There is, for instance, the eleven-year-old boy who celebrates Halloween by turning into a vampire. And, in a delicious story called “Wolfman and Janice,” a suburban housewife joins her spouse by transforming into a werewolf. (By this point, he’s already eaten the neighbor’s cat.)

Some of the stories explore characters who are shaped by their interaction with screen monsters and other grotesques. The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff as The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon all make appearances, as do such long-ago pop culture icons as Kukla (of TV’s Kukla, Fran, and Ollie), a bickering Barbie and Ken, and Señor Wences’ creepily literal hand-puppet, Johnny. In such stories a human character’s response to these famous fantasy figures makes clear to us the challenges and confusions within his (or her) own life. But Manderino also sometimes gets into the head of a fantasy being, like Bigfoot (or – charmingly – an aged Nancy Drew, still struggling to sleuth out things that have gone missing.)

One of the earlier stories, “A Certain Fellow Named Phil,” begins with the first-person confession of a murder. The victim, though, turns out to be an inflatable sex doll. I’m wondering if John saw, and enjoyed, my favorite film on this topic, 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl, then gave his version a more morose ending. The final story of the collection, “The Witch of Witch’s Woods,” captures the eerie uncertainty that was an attraction of The Blair Witch Project. But the most cold-blooded story of the lot, the blandly-titled “Bob and Todd,” may contain nothing menacing at all. In this tale of a hitchhiker picked up along a highway, the driver may or may not be hauling his wife’s body along with a load of athletic shoes. That’s for him to know and his passenger to  obsess about. I can imagine this as a one-act play, something on the order of Albee’s The Zoo Story. Or, of course, it could be the genesis of a very cool and creepy movie.

I’ve never met John Manderino in person, and that’s probably a good thing. I think he’d scare me the most.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Phantom Thread": The Muse Wears Black

Fashion, as Sunday night’s  Golden Globes “black-out” has shown us, can be a potent political statement. All of those gorgeous movieland fashionistas who purged color from their party frocks certainly made a point about female solidarity and the need to end sexual harassment now. Though many of their outfits were prim by Hollywood standards, some barely-there numbers seemed, confusingly, to invite the sort of sexual attention their wearers professed themselves to eager to decry. Still, I appreciated the monochrome aesthetics of the gathering, and admired designers’ flexibility in coming up with so many all-black looks on very short notice.   

But enough about the vagaries of fashion, Hollywood-style. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread looks at the world of dressmaking with a different eye. He’s interested in the life of a London haute-couture house, one charged with dressing the cream of international society from cradle to grave. Heiresses and royals descend on the house of Woodcock to be fitted for exquisite gowns, day-dresses, and wedding ensembles, each garment a hand-sewn and timeless masterpiece. That’s the irony: in the eyes of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his staff, the dresses are far more important than the VIPs who will wear them. In one of the movie’s most exhilarating scenes, a fabulous green ensemble is deftly rescued from the drunken body of the wealthy woman who’d commissioned it. In Woodcock’s eyes, she simply isn’t worthy of being entrusted with one of his wearable works of art. 

Phantom Thread takes place in the 1950s, when Post World War II Europe was celebrating a return to high standards of luxury. Fabric is sumptuous; lines are classic. There’s no desire to shock or surprise: that iconoclastic spirit would wait until the following decade, when such rebels as André Courrèges and Mary Quant democratized fashion, hiking hemlines and turning style into something for the very young and very fit. For the wearer, the only surprise about a Woodcock ensemble would be discovering the cryptic written message that the designer tends to tuck into the occasional hem, a secret memo to himself and (perhaps) to posterity. 

In Phantom Thread there’s an enigmatic young woman, played by Vicky Krieps, who (both literally and figuratively) finds and decodes that message. Alma—whose name means “soul’—is a tall, lean figure, first glimpsed stumbling awkwardly while serving breakfast in a country tea-room. Her origins are obscure, as are her motives. But from the first she seems willing enough to fall under the spell of Woodcock, who sees in her proportions his aesthetic ideal. She quickly becomes his model and his muse, but is not afraid to announce her own tastes and to chafe against his more high-handed behavior. (Woodcock’s sphinx-like sister and business manager, ominously played by Leslie Manville, completes a strange isosceles triangle.) 

Midway through the film, Alma seems to be taking over the story, daring to assert her own will in ways  we wouldn’t have expected. Her behavior is so boldly capricious that Phantom Thread starts to seem like a different film, maybe one marked by a tinge of the supernatural. Is Alma, perhaps, meant to be viewed as an allegorical figure in a tale modeled after Poe or Henry James? Certainly, it’s easy to see her as the slippery muse who holds the artist’s fate in her hands. But Anderson’s characters are far too alive to ever be reduced to mere abstractions. The fact that they slip away from us does not reduce their humanity. (Nor, of course, does the apparent fact we’re about to lose Day-Lewis to retirement. We need him too badly to let him go.)