Friday, October 28, 2022

Guess Who’s Getting Out

Back in 1967, when I was evolving into a movie nerd, one of the nation’s most popular films was a romantic fable introducing the then-bold idea that an interracial marriage could succeed. The film, of course, was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Its director was Stanley Kramer, known and respected for such hard-hitting work as The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremberg. Its stars were Hollywood legends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who finished shooting his role a mere 3 weeks before he died), along with Sidney Poitier, America’s favorite Noble Negro. Everyone involved knew that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was essentially a fairy-tale, in which all potential social difficulties are swept away by a burst of good feelings, culminating in Tracy and Hepburn joyously celebrating their daughter’s engagement to a man of color. (The plan is for the young couple to spend their married life in Africa, where Poitier’s doctor-character is engaged in doing serious humanitarian work, so that their probable difficulties in building a life in an American suburb are neatly sidestepped.)

 Though the film roused in some Americans a great deal of anger (including death threats directed at Kramer and his family), most the country applauded it. It was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, in a strong movie year, and won two, including a statuette for William Rose’s sentimental but serviceable screenplay. This hardly meant it impressed the intellectuals (of various colors) on both coasts. James Baldwin, for one, quipped, that “as concerns Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we can conclude that people have the right to marry whom they choose, especially if we know that they are leaving town as soon as dinner is over.” But a columnist from America’s heartland, Bill Donaldson of the Tulsa Tribune, sagely put the film into historical perspective: “It could not have been successfully released nationally five years ago; it will be hopelessly out of date five years hence.”

 It took not 5 but 38 years for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to be updated into a laugh-out-loud comedy starring Bernie Mac as a frazzled dad reacting to the surprise of meeting his daughter’s intended (Ashton Kutcher). By 2005, a mildly-humorous social problem play with an uplifting ending had morphed into a farce, with the focus on the Black father’s awkward stabs at accepting a white son-in-law-to-be. The film was a box-office hit, but not exactly Oscar bait.

 Then came 2017, when Jordan Peele burst onto the scene with Get Out, which I believe is the first time the basic situation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was turned into a horror film, as seen from an African-American point of view. I didn’t check out this film immediately upon its release. When I did watch it on video, all the buzz insured that I pretty much knew what was coming. (What a shame that we so rarely approach horror films in a state of total ignorance: imagine encountering Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you had no idea of the relationship between the two men!) Still, in Peele’s film there were a few perverse plot twists I hadn’t anticipated, along with some logic questions I couldn’t help asking. Recently, I watched Get Out again, after being told it’s the rare film that’s so craftily written that it contains no extraneous parts. Quite true, as I’ve discovered: some seemingly random characters and bits of dialogue turn out to be totally essential. Just keep your eye on that central relationship, and discover that the guest who’s coming to dinner may be welcome for all the wrong reasons.





Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Witching Season

 The Witch is not an easy film to like. This 2015 release, written and directed by award-winning indie darling Robert Eggers, is atmospheric but murky. Its characters speak in a sort-of English dialect virtually impossible to understand without turning on subtitles. I’m not sure how successfully The Witch played in theatres, but I suspect it’s best watched at home, with a lot of patience. It’s mostly billed as a horror flick, but there’s hardly a plethora of jump-scares here. Instead this is best seen as a powerful mood-piece, one that calls for some philosophical probing of what’s going on.

 The Witch is set in colonial New England, in the same general time and place as the Salem Witch Trials. As a student of literature and a one-time drama kid, I’m deeply familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the historical drama about a time in which non-conforming local women (and a few men) were tried and hanged for supposedly consorting with the Devil. Miller, who wrote his play in 1953, was most interested in the social issues raised by the trials. In an era when the Red Scare dominated headlines, when neighbor turned against neighbor in a bid to root out Communists from public life, Miller focused on social hysteria, and on the ways in which unpopular beliefs could be pinned on those without the resources to fight back. The real demonic forces at work in The Crucible are the self-serving majority who blame weaklings and outsiders for any ills affecting the community.

 The family at the center of The Witch are not publicly accused of witchcraft. But the film’s opening scene (the only one in which we see a gathering of community members) does start with a trial: William, a proud and stern man with deep Christian convictions, is being cast out of town, apparently because his rigid beliefs don’t align with those of his neighbors. The rest of the film shows William, his wife, and their children (including Anya Taylor-Joy as a young teen) struggling to make a go of it on their small, isolated farm, set against an ominous forest.

 Given the hardships of farming life and the  intense religiosity of the family (which includes the firm conviction that every human being is born a sinner), it’s not surprising that all of them believe in demonic forces. For the children, there’s both fear and fascination in the possibility that the Devil is on the loose in their vicinity. (The young twins even make a game of it, linking the dangerous-looking barnyard ram to the demon they call Black Phillip.) But the film is not merely about the superstitions of simple folk who lack our own modern outlook on life.. Within the story, diabolical things DO seem to be going on. The first is the sudden disappearance of the family’s youngest child, a mere baby, smack in the middle of a game of patty-cake.. The loss of this tiny boy, which is never given any sort of logical explanation, propels the other members of the household into a kind of spiritual frenzy, with the father desperately trying to hold his family together against tough odds, the mother nursing her personal grievances, and daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) exploring rebellion against her parents and her hard-scrabble life.     

 The climax, when it comes, is startling but perhaps inevitable. There’s a cascade of tragedies, some mysterious omissions, and a final focus on Thomasin in that forest primeval. Cue the spooky music. The Witch is hardly fun to watch, but it gives you a lot to think about when it’s over.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Dancing the Fifties Away: "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon"

The Fifties, like the Thirties, went crazy for musicals. In the 1930s, audiences enthralled by the coming of sound flocked to the movie screen to watch their favorite performers sing and dance. In the early 1950s, the advent of television made film producers eager to exploit the color and sound that the TV sets of the day couldn’t emulate. All the major Hollywood studios sought to make musicals, but MGM (under the auspices of producer Arthur Freed) was king.

 Not many movie musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar. The big era for musical blockbusters was, surprisingly, the Sixties, the decade of West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! But in 1951 an ambitious MGM musical carried off the top prize. It was made by showbiz royalty, with Vincente Minnelli directing from an Alan Jay Lerner screenplay. But of course the real star of the show was someone long dead: George Gershwin, the composer of both towering orchestral pieces and popular songs. Gershwin had died of a brain tumor in 1937, at the tragically early age of 38. An American in Paris was a glorious way to re-introduce his music to the multitudes and let it live on.

 Of course An American in Paris is about just that—a young American artist (played, of course, by the always jaunty Gene Kelly) falling in love both with Parisian life and with a beautiful young Parisienne (dancer Leslie Caron making her film debut).  Kelly’s interactions with his pals and with the young and old residents of his quartier allow for a lot of spritely musical numbers. I particularly like “I Got Rhythm,” performed with a passel of French children trying to master English. And of course there are the wonderful Gershwin love ballads, like “’S Wonderful” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” for which brother Ira supplied the lyrics. But the real treat comes at the end (unless you happen to be allergic to dream ballets), when Kelly, Caron, and company dance their hearts out to the jazz-inflected Gershwin orchestral piece that gives the film its name. At one point in this long, climactic number, the dancers and poseurs of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre seem to spring vividly to life which reduced me to tears when first I watched it. (Yes, I was an artsy kid.) 

The plot of An American in Paris is admittedly sentimental. There’s lost love, found love, age-inappropriate love, and gloriously appropriate love. Still, inevitably, the female lead is a great deal younger than her male counterpart.  Caron, about 20 years old in the film and in life, connects with Kelly (a youthful 40-plus) after severing romantic ties with the guardian who’s older still.

 Another Arthur Freed musical of the early 1950s actually has some fun pointing out the age discrepancy between its romantic duo. When he made The Band Wagon (1953), Fred Astaire was about 54, and long past the era when he and Ginger Rogers wee America’s dancing sweethearts The movie posits that he’s a has-been Hollywood star, who’s returning to New York because the silver screen is no longer a welcoming place for him. (When he steps off the train at Grand Central, the press swarms, but it turns out they’re there to photograph Ava Gardner glamorously exiting the next car.) When he’s cast in a Broadway show, the young woman chosen to star opposite him—a prima ballerina played by Cyd Charisse—seems obviously both too young and too tall. Their first meeting is a disaster . . . so it’s inevitable that they’ll fall in love.