Monthly Archives: October 2011

Author Interview: Sara Vaux

Due out before the end of the year from Eerdman’s Press is The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood, a major new book on the iconic actor/director with a strong emphasis on his recent work. The book’s author, Sara Vaux, has taught courses on religion, literature and film at the University of Chicago, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Seminary and, since 1998, Northwestern University where she has graciously hosted me as an occasional guest lecturer. As her pedigree suggests, Vaux, who also authored Finding Meaning at the Movies (Abingdon, 1999), writes about cinema from a serious ethical perspective but in a style that is always as entertaining as it is illuminating.

Eastwood has in my opinion found his ideal critic in Vaux, whose incisive new book should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the man.

MGS: Your book takes a refreshingly original approach to Eastwood in that you consider him as someone deeply engaged with moral and spiritual issues. Did you always view him this way and, if not, how has your view of him as both actor and filmmaker evolved?

SV: Until I saw Unforgiven when it first appeared in theatres, I only knew Eastwood through snatches of movies I caught while my boys were watching them on TV. The first one I remember is Firefox. When I commented upon the dark screen and the strange persona of the protagonist played by Eastwood, I received a long lecture from my sons about the actor’s contributions to the mythology of the American (male) hero. With Unforgiven, I realized that as a director (and as an actor who plays it low), Eastwood was a sage cultural analyst who was not afraid to challenge myths of a “pure” west for “just” conquerors. He also is not afraid to expose the devastations that ecological disasters and economic greed have visited upon men, women, and children.

MGS: There have been more and more books written about Eastwood in recent years and I know you’ve read them all. What does your book bring to the table that the others might not? Why should an Eastwood fan pick up your book?

SV: Apart from Christopher Frayling, Laurence Knapp, and Kent Jones, American Eastwood analysts have focused largely upon his depiction of the American male, his private life, or the plots of his many movies. French critics, with a broad film background that includes classical American cinema (including westerns), approach his best films from a philosophical and humanistic as well as a cinematic perspective. Michael Henry Wilson’s astute interviews, Noel Simsolo’s art-centered approach, and recently, essays in the French journal NUNC that look at Eastwood as deeply invested in the social, political, and ethical health of American society grasp the foundational agenda of a serious director. My book offers an up-to-date analysis of Eastwood’s most probing movies (although when I finished it, Hereafter was not yet available for study) from an ethical and “religious” perspective little encountered by American audiences.

MGS: One could say that you take the ultimate auteurist approach to Eastwood because you are essentially claiming that his body of work is highly unified even though he’s never had a hand in writing scripts and is notorious for shooting his screenplays without rewrites. What do you see as the essential components unifying Eastwood’s diverse body of work in terms of both form and content?

SV: Every one of the movies I dissect (including the ones included in the chapter on “The Meal”) engages with the social fabric of American society: the (false) myths of cultural superiority that permeate a large portion of Hollywood movies; the marginalization of increasing numbers of non-white, non-rich persons; the moral dilemmas in which everyday people find themselves; and strong storytelling. Eastwood movies use darkness and light to create their emerging meanings—soft darkness for affection; hard darkness or bright light for evil. The stories often unfold at a deliberate pace; the director includes sequences that deepen the human dimension of a character rather than editing to emphasize a character with broad strokes or move the movie along at a breakneck pace. His use of music (particularly his own—think of Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby) subtly creates a meditative mood. I love all of his scores except for the ending of Invictus!

MGS: One of the most compelling aspects of your book is the discussion of the “angel of death” character in Eastwood’s movies, a figure that perhaps finds its most pessimistic expression in Mystic River‘s Jimmy Markum. You show how this character has evolved over the last decade – from Million Dollar Baby‘s Frankie Dunn, who becomes an angel of death but out of love and mercy, to Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski, who has the opportunity to become this type of figure but refuses to do so. Do you think it is significant that the “angel of death” has been absent in the post-Gran Torino films?

SV: The Angel of Death, a trope present in any religious or literary system that privileges a “hero” figure, is demolished entirely in Invictus. The hero’s strength arises from his complete transformation from guerrilla fighter into wily spiritual/political figure who appeals to his allies’ and his enemies’ best selves. Great story choice by Eastwood: the “great American hero” with blazing guns attacks the defenders of “God-given white superiority over the land” not by weapons but by the strength of love and non-violence. He’s Walt Kowalski’s reborn sacrificial figure who does not have to die to redeem the community. In Changeling, the spectator longs for Christine’s rescue. True, the fire-breathing preacher does mobilize a rescue team to spring her from the psychiatric hospital, but he himself is an ambiguous figure, and the problems the movie exposes—social corruption and even deeper, the presence of pure evil—transcend narrative resolution.

As for Hereafter, it thoroughly engages evil in many forms through three specific story lines. Transformation, not revenge, lies at the heart of each story trajectory. Whereas I think Eastwood has been influenced by Dickens for decades, this is the first time he’s brought the author’s overarching conversion narrative to the fore.

Let me qualify all of my sweeping terms (evil; hero; conversion) by noting that Eastwood the director stays close to his individual characters—their mystifying, specific, human sufferings and joys. Bridges of Madison County and A Perfect World may offer the best examples of funny, loving, tragic movies full of rich anecdotes. I wish I had time to analyze these (and Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy) more fully in the book.

MGS: Also speaking of the recent films, from Mystic River through Letters from Iwo Jima it seemed like Eastwood could do no wrong as far as critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were concerned. By contrast, the last four movies have been met with indifference or damned with faint praise. To what do you attribute this change?

SV: So sad to see critics’ misunderstandings of powerful storytelling. The films’ reputation is growing among cinephiles in Europe—I have not read Japanese criticism yet. Curiously, too, as I travel around, I’ve spoken with dozens of French and American cinema-lovers who had seen Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, or Hereafter on DVD and found them deeply moving, even brilliant.

What can I say about critics who may only watch the beginning of a movie and assume that’s the whole tale? Or who are moving on to consider the next best thing? In addition, if you’re looking for a Spaghetti Western or Dirty Harry, you won’t comprehend any of the four recent movies.

MGS: A lot of the readers of this blog are students who are probably more familiar with Eastwood as an actor than as a director. What movies would you recommend they watch in order to deepen their appreciation of his filmmaking artistry?

SV: Unforgiven first. The Outlaw Josey Wales. Million Dollar Baby. Gran Torino. Letters From Iwo Jima. Changeling. A Perfect World (my students’ favorite). I love them all!

MGS: Hey Sara, what’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?

SV: Unforgiven…..then Bird and Invictus.

The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood can be pre-ordered from amazon.com here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Crazies (Eisner)
2. Goodbye (Rasoulof)
3. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino)
4. Le Havre (Kaurismaki)
5. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira)
6. Rabies (Keshales/Papushado)
7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino)
8. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
9. The Last Rites of Joe May (Maggio)
10. Citizen Kane (Welles)


In Praise of My Wife

Last night my wife Jillian and I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival, which included a screening of the locally shot indie drama The Last Rites of Joe May (starring everyone’s favorite real-life-Chicago-cop-turned-actor Dennis Farina) as well as a swanky after party at the Chicago Cultural Center. Although we are longtime CIFF attendees, this was the first time we’ve actually walked the red carpet on opening night. The reason? Jillian won a contest in which she created the festival’s official gelato. The assignment was to create a delectable flavor concoction from an array of possibilities and give it a movie-themed name. Her submission? A chocolate gelato with a banana mix-in named . . . Inglorious Bananas!

Out of the hundreds of submissions the CIFF received, they nominated five finalists and a taste-test was held at NoMi where local film and food critics convened to vote on the best flavor-and-name combination. I don’t know whether it was the clever Ben and Jerry’s-style name or the delicious simplicity of combining chocolate and banana but “Inglorious Bananas” prevailed over such other worthy contenders as “The Blues Berry Brothers” and “Red Velvet, Red Carpet.” In addition to winning two tickets to opening night of the festival, we will also receive 12 pints of Al Gelato (the official manufacturer) for six months and a private tour of the Al Gelato factory in Franklin Park where we will actually get to make the festival gelato. I could not be more proud of my wife.

This is how Jillian enjoys her gelato:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Le Samourai (Melville)
2. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
3. The Vanishing (Sluizer)
4. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
5. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz)
6. Brighton Rock (Boulting)
7. Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean)
8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)
9. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
10. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira)


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Within Our Gates

One of the best kept secrets of Chicago’s secret film history is that the Second City was in fact first when it came to producing “race movies,” films made by, for and about African Americans. William Foster, the black manager of Chicago’s Pekin Theater, founded the Foster Photoplay Company and directed what is believed to be the first movie with an all-black cast, The Railroad Porter, in 1912. The success of that slapstick short film, reportedly inspired by the Keystone Cops, in turn inspired other African Americans to try their hand at motion picture production and black-owned independent film companies soon sprang up in America’s major metropolitan areas. It would not be until 1919 however that an enterprising black filmmaker would attempt to make a “feature” motion picture (i.e., one running more than forty minutes in length) and this too first happened in Chicago: the film was titled The Homesteader, an epic “super-production” running over two and a half hours, and its director was an ambitious first-time helmer named Oscar Micheaux (pronounced “me-shaw”).

Micheaux was well known in Chicago even before he ventured into the movie business. As a young man he spent five years homesteading a farm he had purchased in Gregory, South Dakota. From there, he published articles in The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most widely circulated African American newspapers, urging black Americans to follow his example by moving west and purchasing land. Micheaux’s experiences as a farmer served as the basis for the plot of his first novel, The Conquest, which he self-published in 1913 and followed up with The Forged Note in 1915 and The Homesteader: A Novel in 1917. Micheaux traveled around South Dakota, selling these novels door-to-door to his predominantly white neighbors. He reincorporated as the Micheaux Book and Film Company in 1918 and used the same door-to-door business model to sell stock in what would be his first film, an independently produced adaptation of his most recent novel. The resulting movie, shot at the recently abandoned Selig-Polyscope studio on Chicago’s north side, was phenomenally successful with African American audiences and critics. Although it is sadly a “lost” film today, the success Micheaux had with The Homesteader encouraged him to sink his profits back into his company; a follow-up movie, Within Our Gates, was rushed into production and released the following year. This incredible film, an incendiary and unflinching look at racism (also shot in Chicago), remains the earliest surviving feature made by a black director.

Micheaux directing a film that may be Within Our Gates:

One of the most interesting aspects of Within Our Gates, especially from a 21st century film studies perspective, is that it effectively functions as a response to D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 production of The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s epic, a technically astonishing piece of virtuoso filmmaking that is sometimes credited as the movie that first codified “film language,” galvanized audiences wherever it played. This was in part due to Griffith’s unparalleled skill with dynamic framing and cutting and in part due to the movie’s unfortunate racism – notably the climactic scene where the Ku Klux Klan heroically ride to the rescue of the white protagonists who are trapped in a cabin besieged by a black militia. This climax is a good example of Griffith’s pioneering and massively influential technique of using crosscutting to create suspense during rescue scenes. The fact that Within Our Gates would appropriate Griffith’s editing schemes (on a tiny fraction of the budget of The Birth of a Nation and in order to explicitly reverse the earlier movie’s ideology) has ensured that, ironically, Griffith and Micheaux are now jointly studied in film history classes throughout American college campuses.

Within Our Gates tells the melodramatic and somewhat convoluted tale of Sylvia Landry (played by the peerless Evelyn Preer), a young African American woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and the south and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate locations in order to generate a suspenseful climax. The climactic scene in Within Our Gates however is rendered even more complex by containing a lengthy flashback to Sylvia’s youth (and thus involves cutting across time as well as space) and, specifically, the events that led to her adoptive black parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where Mr. Gridlestone, a villainous middle-aged white man, attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. This disturbing near-rape occurs ironically beneath a portrait of America’s Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Gridlestone’s attempted rape of Sylvia reverses the ideology of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation:

In The Birth of a Nation, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan are justified (and even valorized) as necessary in order to combat the threat of potential assaults on white civilians (particularly white women) by supposedly dangerous black men. The complex and clever intercutting of the climax of Within Our Gates unpacks this racist ideology by showing the historical reality of who did the lynching as well as who represented the real sexual menace. Upon its initial release, Within Our Gates garnered its own Birth of a Nation-style controversy, including a protracted two month battle with Chicago’s local censorship board that virtually guaranteed the film would play to packed houses when it eventually opened in early 1920.

Like The Homesteader, Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, the film is still only an approximation of Micheaux’s original vision; sadly, all 15 of Micheaux’s surviving pictures exist today only in truncated form, typically a result of censorship boards excising material deemed inflammatory (although oftentimes such decisions were made arbitrarily). Even more remarkable than the movie itself is the fact that Within Our Gates was merely one of the earliest steps in a directorial career that lasted thirty years and comprised approximately forty five features (by far the most prolific career of any black filmmaker of the era). Micheaux would go on to be the first director to cast the great Paul Robeson in a film (1925’s Body and Soul), the first to make an “all-talkie” race movie (1931’s The Exile) and he would continue to make films undaunted, even under the threat of looming bankruptcy and occasionally in the face of scathing criticism by the black press, until shortly before his death in 1951.

The Oscar Micheaux story deserves to be much more widely known and his films deserve to be more widely seen. Throughout his career, Micheaux’s fortunes rose and fell, the quality of his output varied wildly and his battles with local censorship boards were legendary. But he was indefatigable and resilient. He had to be; Micheaux spent decades touring the country with his movies, which he self-distributed out of the trunk of his car, oftentimes while staying one step ahead of his creditors. And he did it all during an age when independent film production was not considered a viable career path for anyone in America, much less a black man. Today Micheaux is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an annual film festival in Gregory, South Dakota. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Chicago to mark the addresses where he shot his first movies. The Micheaux story is yet another chapter in the remarkable but too little known history of early film production in Chicago.

If anyone has any information regarding the location of “Capital City Studios,” the Chicago studio where Within Our Gates was allegedly shot, please contact me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com.


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