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Tag Archives: Within Our Gates

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2016

My top 10 favorite home-video releases of 2016 (and 21 runners-up):

10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith, 2015, Emphasis Entertainment DVD)

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I would be lying if I didn’t include my own first feature on this list. I love the package that Al Strutz of Emphasis Entertainment Group put together for the DVD-only release of Cool Apocalypse, which includes Pierre Kattar’s minute-long behind-the-scenes documentary and my own “director’s commentary” track in which I expound at greater length than I have anywhere else before on my influences, methods and intentions in making this little film. Thanks a million, Al!

9. The Assassin (Hou, 2015, Well Go USA Blu-ray)

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts film about a female assassin, played by the great Shu Qi, whose personal life conflicts with her professional life when she’s ordered to kill her ex-fiance during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. This is one of the transcendent film experiences of recent years: a sword fight among ghostly birch trees and a climactic conversation on a fog-enshrouded mountaintop are among the instant-classic scenes. Cinematography of borderline-supernatural magnitude like this (courtesy of Mark Li Ping-Bing who shot on 35mm) deserves a stellar HD transfer and Well Go USA’s Blu-ray certainly delivers in that department. The disc is a little light on extras — there are just four short “featurettes,” all of which clock in at less than four minutes a piece — but we should all be grateful for any chance to see and hear Hou talk about his work.

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, 2005, Paramount Blu-ray)

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2016 was a great year for America’s greatest living artist: Bob Dylan turned 75-years-old, released an acclaimed new album of standards for the second year in a row, logged 76 more dates on his Never-Ending Tour (including a co-headlining gig at “Desert Trip,” the biggest concert event of the year) and, oh yeah, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Martin Scorsese’s definitive doc about Dylan’s early career – up through and including his earth-shaking European tour in 1966 – also got a spiffy “10th anniversary” re-release. The original version had only been available on DVD so Paramount’s new Blu-ray is a very welcome upgrade – with the D.A. Pennebaker-shot footage from Eat the Document looking better than those of us who first saw it via crappy VHS bootlegs would have ever thought possible. Among the plentiful extras is an insightful new interview with Scorsese in which he discusses at length his editing choices — including the film’s dazzling chronology-shuffling structure.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949, Warner Blu-ray)

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For me, the second installment of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” doesn’t quite scale the artistic heights of the previous year’s Fort Apache but it is arguably the director’s most beautifully photographed color film and remains an essential work. Archivist Robert Harris wrote that this stunning new transfer was “taken from an IP derived from the original three-strip negatives, but so good, and with such accurate color (matched to an original nitrate), and perfect registration, that if I had to decide which way to go for the difference in cost, I’d do precisely what Warner Archive has done.” The accurate color is so crucial: the film features an expressive, boldly stylized use of color — nowhere more apparent than in the theatrical, blood-red sunset during John Wayne’s famous graveside monologue.

6. Napoleon (Gance, 1927, BFI Blu-ray)

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The way I feel about Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon is the same way a former President of Columbia Records felt about Leonard Cohen’s music: I know that it’s great but I don’t know if it’s any good. It can be hard to reconcile the film’s dubious qualities – it is unquestionably pro-militaristic, nationalistic and hagiographic – with its status as a cinematic landmark and the apotheosis of Impressionism. Whether he’s capturing schoolchildren engaged in a snowball fight or French and English soldiers fighting for literally days on end in the wettest, muddiest battlefields this side of Kurosawa, Gance has the uncanny ability to use handheld camera (rare for a silent epic) and super-fast cutting to whip viewers into an emotional frenzy. Of course, the film itself is almost beside the point now: Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, nearly 50 years in the making and 5-and-a-half hours long, cobbles together prints from all over the world to very closely approximate what the film would’ve first looked like in 1928. It’s one of the all-time great restoration stories and every movie lover should make it a point to see this version.

5. Godard: The Essential Collection (Godard, 1960-1965, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

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Studio Canal UK released this sweet box-set, combining five of Jean-Luc Godard’s most popular early features (Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Mépris, Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) to surprisingly little fanfare in February. All of the discs are stacked with welcome extras — vintage making-of docs, introductions by Colin MacCabe, interviews with Anna Karina, etc. — and feature impeccable transfers to boot (with the notable exception of Le Mépris, which has always looked problematic on home video). The real story here though is that Une Femme est une Femme and Alphaville are receiving their Blu-ray debuts and look and sound better than ever in 1080p. One is a widescreen, riotously colorful musical comedy, the other is a high-contrast, black-and-white, neo-Expressionist sci-fi/noir. But they both function as dual love letters to the cinema and to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Karina, still one of the most ravishing screen presences in all of cinema.

4. Dekalog (Kieslowski, 1988-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Sell your old Facets DVDs if you still can! The mighty Criterion Collection did Krzysztof Kieslowski proud with this amazing set that combines new restorations and transfers of all 10 one-hour episodes of the director’s legendary television miniseries Dekalog with the expanded theatrical-release versions of episodes five and six (AKA A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). While Kieslowski is probably still best known for the later “Three Colors” trilogy that saw him move to France and work with notable Euro-arthouse stars like Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, the Dekalog remains his supreme masterpiece: Each episode is set in the same housing project in Warsaw and corresponds — to varying degrees of literal-ness — to each of the Ten Commandments. The series dares to ask the question: how might these Commandments serve as the basis for ethical dilemmas in the modern world? The episodes can be watched in any order and discovering the ways in which the different stories subtly intersect (a major player in one episode may turn up for a cameo in another) is fascinating to behold. Is it television or is it cinema? Who cares? As the Criterion jacket copy states, it’s one of the 20th century’s great achievements in “visual storytelling.”

3. Early Murnau (Murnau, 1921-1925,  Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Aw yeah. Masters of Cinema did silent movie fans a huge favor by bundling together five of F.W. Murnau’s great early German films (The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Grand Duke’s Finances, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe) into one stellar three-disc set. If I had to list the virtues of this Early Murnau box, it would be endless: All five films are making their Blu-ray debuts, all are based on meticulous restorations by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation, all are presented with the original German intertitles and feature optional English subtitles, there are copious extras, etc. While The Last Laugh is the (deservedly) best-known film of the bunch, what a joy it is to see an undervalued mini-masterpiece like Phantom looking so crazy and beautiful in 1080p. Murnau is a God of cinema, someone who knew how to put emotion into camera movement — in the same way that someone like William Faulkner knew how to put emotion into a string of words — and being able to witness that kind of cinematic expressiveness in the optimum quality it’s presented in here made me ecstatically happy. Now where’s The Burning Soil, damn it?!

2. Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Various, 1915-1941, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart curated this incredible and extensive compilation of early movies by African-American filmmakers, all of which were made far outside of the Hollywood studio system between the mid-1910s and the mid-1940s. It’s an impressive act of restoration and reclamation that stands as one of the most significant home video releases ever. Spread across five Blu-ray discs are a dozen feature films and twice that many shorts — totaling 24 hours of running time altogether. This set includes newly restored works by such relatively well-known
“race film” directors as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as a wealth of exciting new discoveries by previously unknown filmmakers who immediately qualify as what Andrew Sarris once termed “Subjects for Further Research.” Chief among the latter are James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife traveling evangelists whose surreal visual allegory Hellbound Train depicts Satan as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell.

1. The Jacques Rivette Collection (Rivette, 1971-1981, Arrow Blu-ray)

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There’s no way in hell anything else was going to top this list. Jacques Rivette has always been the most underappreciated of the major New Wave directors — mainly because his work has always been the most difficult to see. This imbalance was in large part redressed with Arrow Video’s mammoth box set, which was released 11 days before Rivette’s death in January. The centerpiece is Rivette’s greatest work, the near 13-hour-long Out 1, originally made for but rejected by French television. In this epic series Rivette intercuts the stories of two theatrically troupes rehearsing different Aeschylus plays with the stories of two con artists separately investigating a secret society with its origins in Balzac. The way Rivette gradually brings these various characters together — as if pieces on a giant chessboard — is alternately hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating. Only shown a handful of times theatrically and on T.V. over the decades, this cinematic holy grail was primarily seen by cinephiles in recent years as an illegal digital download of dubious quality with “fan-made” English subtitles. This new transfer boasts nicely saturated colors and beautiful film-grain quality via a 2K restoration of the original 16mm elements overseen by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Also included is Out 1: Spectre, a four-and-a-half hour alternate version (not a reduction) of the original that stands as a major work in its own right; Duelle and Noroit, two delightful female-centric companion films from 1976 that function as mythological noir and pirate-adventure story, respectively; and the globe-hopping thriller Merry-Go-Round, an interesting but somewhat lesser work starring Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider. To pore over the contents of this set is to understand why Rivette is one of the giants of the medium. The Rivette renaissance will thankfully continue in 2017 as Cohen Media Group has acquired a whopping 10 more Rivette films for distribution.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Criterion Blu-ray)
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942, Criterion Blu-ray)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965, Criterion Blu-ray)
Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, 1971-1972, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962, Criterion Blu-ray)
Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Welles, 1968, Criterion Blu-ray)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, Criterion Blu-ray)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, 2012, Criterion Blu-ray)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971, Criterion Blu-ray)
Muriel (Resnais, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951, Warner Blu-ray)
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Player (Altman, 1992, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection (Fassbinder, 1969-1978, Arrow Blu-ray)
They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945, Warner Blu-ray)
A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1971, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Pioneers of African-American Cinema

My new blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns Kino/Lorber’s essential new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. My original version, longer and more intelligible than Time Out’s edit, is reproduced in its entirety below:

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Newsreel image of Oscar Micheaux directing a film, probably The Brute, in Chicago circa 1920.

Kino Lorber’s new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, available on both Blu-ray and DVD, offers an invaluable tour through an alternative history of American cinema in the early 20th century. The contents include 19 features and 12 shorts, not to mention various other fragments and supplements to provide historical context, adding up to an astonishingly rich and authentic portrait of black American life and culture during that period. All of these films, made between 1915 and 1946, were created far outside of Hollywood’s studio system. As Chicago was the birthplace of “race movies” (films made by and for African Americans) in the silent era, there is plenty of Chicago-related content in the set.

Disc one is especially Chicago-centric: it kicks off with three slapstick comedy shorts in a row, all made by the locally owned Ebony Film Corporation. These “two-reelers,” produced by the enterprising J. Luther Pollard, show the obvious influence of the Keystone Cops and are still quite funny by modern standards. The highlight is undoubtedly A Reckless Rover, in which the protagonist (Rastus Jones), on the run from the police, seeks refuge in a Chinese laundry and accidentally overdoses on opium. These shorts are followed by Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 Chicago-shot masterpiece Within Our Gates, an incendiary drama that climaxes with a taboo-busting lynching scene that explicitly critiques the similar climax of D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation.

There are, of course, plenty of films in the set made outside of Chicago that will be of interest to movie lovers. Chief among them is Hellbound Train, a surreal visual allegory in which Satan is depicted as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell. Made by traveling evangelists James and Eloyce Gist, it was screened not in commercial theaters at all but exclusively at church-sponsored gatherings across the country. It is but one of many examples of an early African-American film that has been notoriously difficult to see (or only been available previously in a poor quality transfer). Pioneers of African-American Cinema, co-curated by the University of Chicago’s Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, represents a remarkable feat of restoration and recovery that should go a long way towards helping to reintroduce this important part of our cinematic heritage to a contemporary audience.

For more information visit Kino Lorber’s website.


Welles and Micheaux on Blu-ray / John MacLean’s Slow West

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My latest blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns the two most important surviving Chicago-shot movies of the entire silent era: Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job (the only film he made in my fair city) and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American). Both will be released in newly restored editions on Blu-ray — from Flicker Alley and Kino/Lorber, respectively — in the next year. Read about it here.

At Cine-File Chicago, I have a review of Slow West, a new Michael Fassbender-starring western (from which the above still was taken) by the Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker John MacLean. It opens at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre tonight and I highly recommend it. Peep my review here.


An African-American Cinema Primer

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s post is an African-American cinema primer. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (for one thing, I’m limiting myself to one film per director) but here are 10 essential movies made by African-American filmmakers that I think have valuable things to say about black life in America. I hope this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring African-American cinema.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

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The only films made by African Americans prior to Gordon Parks helming The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969 — much to the shame of the major Hollywood studios — were independently financed. The most important black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century was Oscar Micheaux, who directed over 40 films in a career spanning 30 years in both the silent and sound eras. The incendiary drama Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s second film and is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. Sylvia Landry Evelyn Preer) is a young Chicago 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 south, and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate time frames in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where 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. The complex and clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of Griffith’s film by showing the historical reality of who really did the lynching. 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, it is now available on DVD via Grapevine Video.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

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“. . . Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality . . .” So reads a fitting quote at the beginning of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking third film, one that he financed independently (which included a $50,000 assist from Bill Cosby) when Columbia Pictures balked at the proposed storyline. Van Peebles himself stars as “Sweetback,” an L.A.-based gigolo who beats up some racist cops for harassing a Black Panther and then flees to Mexico with help from members of the black community (who are collectively credited as “starring” in the movie in the opening credits). This film bears roughly the same relation to 1970s blaxploitation cinema that John Carpenter’s Halloween bears to 1980s slasher flicks: it almost singlehandedly kickstarted a dubious subgenre after becoming a surprise commercial phenomenon (although none of the movies that followed in its wake arguably matched it for subversive political content). And while its still debatable as to whether the copious, unsimulated sex scenes are necessary (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting one scene and was able to get “worker’s comp” from the DGA for being “hurt on the job” — money that he promptly sunk back into the budget), it’s important to remember that cinematic depictions of black American males prior to this had always been meek and asexual. A fascinating relic of its era that still feels revolutionary today.

Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)

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This terrific high school movie — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.” Like George Lucas’ beloved period piece, this low budget indie looks back nostalgically and humorously on a more innocent time by focusing on a group of teenagers at the end of a school year — and features an equally amazing soundtrack (nearly all Motown) to boot. Best friends Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) cut class, crash a party, chase women, shoot craps, inadvertently get mixed up with the law after unknowingly going for a joyride in a stolen Cadillac, etc. All the while, their friendship is tested by their divergent career paths: the literary Preach, a character modeled on screenwriter Eric Monte (who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project), dreams of becoming a successful writer, an ambition that Cochise doesn’t understand. This was directed by Michael Schultz, a former theater director who does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns. It also features arguably the greatest use of Chicago locations of any picture shot in my fair city.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of its insider’s view of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another, and playing in railroad yards never fail to bring tears to my eyes because of how much they remind me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and often engaged in “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

The Killing Floor (Duke, 1984)

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Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013.

Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

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Spike Lee’s long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a “good, lively filmmaker.” Lee’s best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film’s unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without providing any easy or reassuring answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes — by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee’s credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson.

Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

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Julie Dash is part of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers along with her fellow UCLA graduates Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark. But unlike her male counterparts, all of whom directed their first features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed and released until 1991 (it was, in fact, the first feature-length movie directed by an African-American woman). It was also worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands off of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. More specifically, Dash’s movie centers on one Gullah family, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving the islands behind and immigrating to the mainland for good at the turn of the 20th century. The film is primarily a non-narrative experience, one that Dash claims is based more on African folklore traditions rather than Western storytelling: characters in period costume frolic on the beach, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography, images frequently accompanied by poetic voice-over narration about the importance of tradition and memory. Regrettably, this is also Dash’s last theatrical feature to date.

One False Move (Franklin, 1992)

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Three drug dealers/killers — two men and one woman — pull off a big score in L.A. and then head across the country to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Two L.A. cops, aware of the trio’s plan, beat them to their destination and must work there with the local-yokel sheriff in order to apprehend the criminals. The always welcome, perennially underrated character actor Bill Paxton has arguably his best role as Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man who seems overly eager to have the chance to crack an important case alongside of the big city cops. What starts off as a compelling neo-noir, however, gradually deepens into something much richer and more complex as layers are peeled back from each of the characters, some of whom prove to be connected in unexpected ways. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Epperson and a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-stars as one of the crooks). The taut direction is by Carl Franklin who, as a result of this, landed the plum assignment of helming the Denzel Washington-starring Devil in a Blue Dress. But I would argue that the independently made One False Move, which makes no false moves, remains the director’s finest hour.

Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, 1993)

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Menace II Society is by far the best of the early 90s “hood movies,” which essentially transposed classic Hollywood gangster film tropes to contemporary urban black neighborhoods. The auspicious directing debut of twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes (and still their best movie to date) follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad and hustler, and his charismatic but crazy sidekick O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they navigate life on the mean streets of Watts over the course of one long and deadly summer. This is much more violent and less obviously moralistic than John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the film that had kickstarted the genre two years earlier, and consequently generated much controversy upon its first release. Seen today, it’s much easier to view it as the intelligent cautionary tale and social critique that the filmmakers intended.

Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)

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Kasi Lemmons wrote and directed this singular fever dream of a movie about a woman looking back on her childhood growing up on the Louisiana bayou in the late 1960s. It begins with the title character narrating as an offscreen adult how she “killed” her father the summer that she turned 10-years-old. Much like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, this is a great “memory film” that introduces viewers to the cast of a large, colorful family through the subjective reminiscences of its youngest member. Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced, gives one of his finest performances as Louis, a handsome doctor and the patriarch of the Batiste family. His extra-marital dalliances, which cause his family grief even as they put up with his roguish behavior, ultimately lead to tragedy. Among several interwoven story threads is one involving Louis’ sister and her practice of witchcraft, and another involving a disturbingly ambiguous treatment of incest. I’ve heard it said that female filmmakers are less concerned with narrative logic than their male counterparts, and more concerned with the poetry of emotions. Whether or not that’s true, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually poetic narrative in the best possible sense.


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.


A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 1

As I grow older, I am becoming more and more enamored of the silent film era. Even a bad silent movie will typically have a certain “lyrical” quality that I find myself admiring due to the necessity that bound all silent filmmakers of having to tell stories primarily through visual means. The silent cinema in America was a particularly fecund period, in which the rules of “narrative continuity filmmaking” (the predominant mode of filmmaking in the world today) were first invented and popularized; it was an exciting, experimental time when talented directors could improvise on the nascent language of movies in much the same way that Shakespeare riffed on verbal language in Elizabethan England. In Hollywood during the late silent era, this visual language had become almost impossibly sophisticated, as evidenced by films as disparate as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. After studying – and teaching – this period in depth, I can only concur with the old Hollywood masters who lamented that something was irretrievably lost when the transition from silents to talkies was complete.

The silent film era in America also saw the formation of Hollywood’s studio system, which paved the way for the “golden age” of Hollywood that began in earnest in the 1930s. As with the posts I made about that era, this list (consisting only of feature-length movies), has been supersized to include 26 titles and will be broken into two parts. Part one begins with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915 and continues through Buster Keaton’s immortal The General in 1926. Part two will be posted next week.

In chronological order:

The Cheat (DeMille, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)

D.W. Griffith is mostly known today for creating The Birth of a Nation, a film whose unfortunate racism has had the side effect of dissuading budding cinephiles from exploring the director’s filmography in depth. But everyone should see Intolerance, an insanely ambitious, epic movie consisting of a quartet of intercut stories set in different historical eras united by the common theme of “love’s struggle through the ages”. The film’s audacious pageantry and complex structure show off the narrative cinema’s first true master at the height of his considerable powers.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American director of feature length movies and the Chicago-shot Within Our Gates is both his earliest surviving film as well as his best. A convoluted melodrama about a northern woman’s attempt to raise money for a struggling school in the Jim Crow south, this film’s shocking climax contains an extended flashback to a white-on-black lynching and a near-rape that serve as an explicit rebuttal to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Low-budget and technically crude, this is nonetheless an invaluably authentic look at black life in early 20th century America, one of only a handful of movies about which that can be said.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, 1921)

In 1968’s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

Greed (von Stroheim, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.

He Who Gets Slapped (Sjostrom, 1924)

Victor Sjostrom is best remembered today as the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries but he also directed a couple of the best American films of the silent era – this Lon Chaney vehicle and 1928’s Lillian Gish-starring The Wind. Here, Chaney plays a scientist who is betrayed and humiliated by his wife and a wealthy benefactor. He consequently resigns himself to a life of self-flagellation by becoming a circus clown whose wildly popular act consists of being repeatedly slapped by the other clowns. Chaney was known for suffering for his art through the application of painful prosthetics but it’s the subtle emotions that play out on his face when he’s not wearing make-up that provide the high points of this awesome morality play.

Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)

The highest grossing film of the silent era is King Vidor’s anti-war tour-de-force about Jim (John Gilbert), a callow rich kid who is shamed by patriotic friends into enlisting in the army during the first World War. Leaving his American fiance behind, Jim travels to France where he romances a peasant girl before heading to the front lines. The intense, realistic battle scenes were extremely influential on subsequent war movies (including All Quiet on the Western Front) but the highly emotional homecoming scene remains the most memorable in the film.

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926)

Buster Keaton’s best-loved film tells the story of Johnny Grey (Keaton), a Civil War-era engineer from the South who ventures behind Yankee lines to rescue his beloved train after it is stolen by Union spies. Not only a very funny film and one that features Keaton’s amazing trademark stunt work, this is also notable for being one of the most authentic recreations of the American Civil War (influenced by the famed photographs of Matthew Brady) ever committed to celluloid.

To be continued . . .


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