Monthly Archives: June 2012

Weekend viewing: The Black Godfather

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Friday marked the start of a great movie-going weekend in Chicago, one that’s filled with such regal offerings as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love. Crashing the highbrow party is the 1974 blaxploitation actioner The Black Godfather (Sat 6/30, 7 and 9:15 PM, at Doc Films), which, along with films like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and Trick Baby (1972), does wonders to distill the notion that the genre was all cheap thrills and big ‘fros. If nothing else, the film could provide a nice antidote for those seeking a more facile viewing experience that doesn’t require them to turn their brain completely off.

Although it does does partake in its share of 70s grindhouse crudeness—complete with the requisite gratuitous nudity and random acts of cartoonish violence—writer director John Evans pays close attention to some latent themes that similar films tend to gloss right over. Like most blaxploitation fare, The Black Godfather is a crime drama centered on themes of power, corruption, and ambition under the guise of 1970s race relations. Rod Perry stars as an up-and-coming crime lord who beefs with Don Chastain, the head of Caucasian heroin cartel that peddles their wares in his neighborhood. Perry, a drug dealer himself, claims wants Chastain out of the picture because his drugs are poisoning the black community. But here’s the kicker: once Chastain is dealt with, Perry will be free to sell his drugs to the community, a key contradiction that befalls most blaxploitation films in lieu to the aforementioned nudity and violence.

Evans, however, refuses to gloss over this contradiction. In fact, he opts to place this conflict squarely within text of the film: as the external conflict of Perry vs Chastain plays out in a maelstrom of gunfire and car chases, the internal conflict between Perry and Damu King, who plays a militant black nationalist whom Perry hires as something of a muscle man to help regulate the streets, is where the film finds its true footing. Perry and King both see independence from white influence as a key to African American success, but they different vastly on just how achieve it: Perry, the open market capitalist, asserts more than once that “poverty is a crime,” whereas King is a leftist revolutionary in the vein of the Maoist Black Panthers. Their philosophical differences make The Black Godfather a sort of sociocultural and socioeconomic examination of the post-Civil Rights black experience.

Evans sums up his argument in a climactic scene, in which Perry and King nearly come to blows when deciding how to take care of Chastain once and for all. Perry proclaims that the problem is “out there, not in here,” and calls for a resolution so that they may achieve their common goal of becoming independent of white influence. Evans moves in for a slow zoom as the two partake in an elaborate handshake, signifying a bridging of the gap between the two ideologies—which, of course, leads directly to an elaborate and bloody shootout in a hospital. This is grindhouse cinema we’re talking about, after all.

By no means is The Black Godfather what one would call master filmmaking, but it possesses a thematic and stylistic seriousness unbecoming of many blaxploitation films. The happy middle ground the two protagonists achieve rings as a sort of idealistic possibility that, considering the prototypical conclusion of violence and bloodshed, Evans might not have considered possible. It’s impossible to know for certain because, most unfortunately, Evans only had the opportunity to write and direct three other films. Two were the blaxploitation offerings Speeding Up Time (1971) and Blackjack (1978), while the other was a short documentary about Huey Newton and the Black Panther movement called What Do You People Want?—you can watch it here, thanks to IMDB.

It’s disheartening to think about the brevity of Evans’ work. His other work, though not as thematically compelling, benefits from his deft understanding of stylistic technique. He had the eye of a real classicist; his penchant for wideshots, high and low angles, and narrative economy evoke Jules Dassin at his best. Had he enjoyed a longer career, I’m sure he would have produced some true classics.

Notebook 3: Prometheus/At Sea/Color/Palaces/Moonrise/Dreamer

A few notes on some recently released films:

Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, U.S., 2012): So much of this film has already been said and written that it seems somewhat pointless of me to share my two cents, so I’ll keep it brief: Prometheus is a good movie and the sort of escapist cinema that’s actually worth watching. The story isn’t nearly as smart as it think it is—the ideas it explores are no more intellectual than the kind teenagers explore the first time they do ‘shrooms—but I found the film valuable for its classic approach to setting and characterization: The Fordian approach to archetypes, plethora of studio or otherwise handmade sets, and reliance on genre are all tropes of Ridley Scott, who, after the abysmal Body of Lies and Robin Hood, appears have a spring in his directorial step.

Unlike some people, I wasn’t bothered by the obvious holes and ramshackle plotting in the script. Yes, it didn’t make much sense, and yes, not everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, but the central theme here is one already explored far more successfully in Jacques Tourneur films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon—namely, Dana Andrews’ assertion that “it’s better not to know.” If the film ends unsatisfactorily from a narrative standpoint, it’s in service of this theme and this theme entirely. Personally, I welcome this sort of ambiguity, even at the expense of logic and particularly when it comes in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster, where plotlines are painfully cut and dry. [B]

Two Years at Sea

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011): Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Ben Rivers stresses the importance of an image: The emotions they sustain, the information they share, the language of their form, and the vitality of their presence. His newest film is Two Years at Sea, which is his first feature length film after working entirely in the short form. Like most of his work, it blurs the line between documentary and fiction, but in a way that’s far less conceptual—and gimmicky—than it sounds. It chronicles the day-to-day of a Jake Williams, an elderly man who’s sequestered himself away from society and spends his days in a dilapidated hut in the middle of the Scottish countryside.

The film unfolds with the greatest of ease. It’s entirely dialogue-free and follows only the slightest of narratives, but its use of sound, light, and composition create a story all their own. Two Years at Sea is a portrait, in the purest sense of the word—an impressionistic reverie that evokes a sort of introspection I find unique to Rivers’ style. Throughout the film, I found myself reconciling with Williams’ way of life; whether or not I agreed with it; whether or not I thought he had all the answers or none at all. Of course, the point of the film isn’t to answer any of these questions, but the way Rivers is able to carve such deep avenues of thought from seemingly innocuous images is both a rare gift and true feat. [A]

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, U.S., 2011): Here’s a unique case: A film that’s so hilarious yet beleaguering, formally precise yet crudely amateurish, and intellectually stimulating yet thematically burdensome that even after a second viewing, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand with it. What I do know is this: The Color Wheel is unlike any movie to be released in a decade—at least of those that I’ve seen. It follows a stylistic logic all its own and makes no apologies as it ambles between classic road comedy, absurdist chamber drama, and psycho-sexual diegesis.

That said, I’m still not sure how much I like the movie. Its reliance on intersexuality, usually cited as one of its greatest strengths, places it squarely within a reoccurring and increasingly tiresome trope of contemporary indie filmmaking. Perry has made no allusions to the film’s sampling of Phillip Roth and Jerry Lewis, but rather than contextualize these influences via theme or characterization, they’re used more like footnotes, or, to put it bluntly, an excuse for Perry to wax intellectual on what he learned as a clerk at the lauded Kim’s Video.

I can see why this would impress and even stimulate some viewers, particularly the kind of people who enjoy conversations about art and cinema that equate to little more than a dick measuring contest—”Oh, you’ve seen this movie? What about that movie?” “I own the Region 2 copy of that movie and have seen it more times than anybody every”—but these are by far the least interesting elements of The Color Wheel. What makes the film great and possibly important is the way it makes zero apologies for whatever it is it’s trying to do. There isn’t a feeble or unnecessary scene in the whole thing—even when Perry reaches for moments he hasn’t earned (I’m speaking of the climactic scene, in particular)—which can’t be said for most films, independent or otherwise. [B+]

Palaces of Pity

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011): The opening sequence of this enigmatic parable begins with the lines “The country has changed, but we are the same,” muttered by a wealthy old woman who’s watching her teenaged granddaughters run drills in an empty soccer stadium. We soon learn that one of these granddaughters—either Ana (Catarina Gaspar) or Margarida (Andreia Martins)—are directly in line for her inheritance, although grandma’s yet to decide on who it will be. Rather than focus on the conflict of this scenario, the goal of the narrative is to contextualize history as an ephemeral and ethereal ghost story. In addition to her wealth, grandma is intent on passing down Portugal’s violent past: A flashback takes us back to the Portuguese Inquisition and we see the grandmother—portraying some sort of high-ranking official—condemning two gay men to burn at the stake. It’s within this symbiosis of past transgressions and contemporary malevolence where the characters find themselves, and, additionally, where Abrantes and Schmidt harvest their thematic concerns. Also, fire, as it turns out, winds up having a distinct roll in the film’s climactic moments.

Palaces of Pity is daring in its concept, but at the same time, there’s something very derivative about it—it evokes the loose narratives of Manoel de Oliveira and the diaphanous characterization of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but to fairly diminished returns. That said, the film is outright gorgeous to look at. The way Abrantes and Schmidt blend long shots with medium close ups, as well as images of the actors and images of landscape, are quite inventive. Their eye for composition, as illustrated in the shot above, also cannot be undervalued. [B-]

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2012): The director who inspired a thousand shitty Halloween costumes returns with this touching, hilarious, and deftly realized fantasy about two twelve-year-olds who fall desperately in love and set out to start a new life together in the woods of their island town. Full disclosure: I’ve had my fair share of qualms with Anderson in the past. Though I have admiration for Bottle Rocket and consider Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums two of my very favorite films, his output from The Life Aquatic to The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt, to me, less like a director moving forward with his craft and more like a director content to rest on his creative laurels. Richard Brody has since come to the defense of Anderson’s oeuvre, essentially stating that to love one Anderson film, one must love all Anderson films. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I understand the sentiment: Anderson’s filmography is one of stylistic unification, a veritable tapestry of moods and colors that are truly unique to him. So ingrained in his style are his films that the style has become inseparable from the text, which strikes me as both remarkable and infuriating.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom feels to me a culmination of years of work, a true step forward in the sense of what Brody calls the “intensification of [his] characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation.” It may very well be his best film, and I think that’s thanks in large part to his subjects: The aforementioned star-crossed lovers. Anderson’s films have all featured adults as their main characters (or young adults, in the case of Max Fisher), but they often suffer from an arrested development that renders them childlike. In Moonrise Kingodm, his two main characters are, in fact, children, which I suppose made them easier to sympathize with. But make no mistake: These are acutely Andersonian characters—in fact, they’re highly reminiscent of Richie and Margo Tenenbaum, and I imagine the short-lived excursion to the Natural History Museum detailed in their film played out quite similarly to the one Sam and Suzy embark on in this film.

Like all Anderson films, their visual and literal text are imbued with cinematic history. Watching his films is like playing a game of Cinephile Bingo. In this film, there are touches of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (particularly in the scenes set on a the beach), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Something I noticed this time around: Anderson’s famous pans and tracking shots are usually attributed to Orson Welles, but aside from the film’s opening sequence—an exhilarating overture that magnificently sets the tone for what will follow—not much else felt particularly Wellesian. Instead, I sensed a great deal of Brian de Palma in the way he used his camera. Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I couldn’t see past it. [A]

I Have Always Been a Dreamer

I Have Always Been a Dreamer (Sabine Gruffat, U.S., 2012): Sabine Gruffat‘s visual essay examines the cycle of urbanization, using Detroit and Dubai as examples if its lowest and highest points, respectively. Video essays are an interesting from in that they’re entirely subjective. While many documentaries strive for objectivity—an ultimately impossible endeavor given the conscious efforts of a filmmaker to show certain images—film essays function as the exact opposite: They encourage and require the personal touch of the director and don’t possess any sort of formal or conceptual “rules.”

Gruffat illustrates this by eliminating talking head interviews and experimenting with synch sound. She’ll often show images of herself talking with an interviewee, and rather present what he or she said, simply relay the information as she interpreted it. The result is a highly personal, daringly original survey of two cities that share more in common than meets the eye. For me, the most interesting aspects of Gruffat’s film were the way she juxtaposed each city’s financial wealth with its cultural wealth. Dubai has the benefit of billions of dollars on its side but appears to be culturally bankrupt. There’s a deep infatuation with all things American—its materialism and its consumerism, primarily—but any true form of expression on behalf of its residents is stymied at every turn, such as a photographer who makes good money taking commercial photos of resorts and apartment buildings but keeps his highly political and highly disobedient art prints a secret in order to maintain his business. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the city’s funds are more or less nonexistent but its citizens enjoy certain freedoms those in Dubai do not, such as one person’s efforts to run an arthouse movie theater in an abandoned high school.

Gruffat intertwines the political and the personal in often profound ways, but never quite takes the steps to make any assured proclamations herself—never quite takes full advantage of the film essay style. She shares a unique relationship with each city and I wish she had explored that further. [B+]