Saturday, March 06, 2004
When someone mentions the evil Haman, give your gragger an extra spin for me.
Friday, March 05, 2004
For your delectation, gentle reader, here are a few useless and unpublishable reviews, complete with massive spoilers.
The Dreamers: That '70s Show
The action of Bernardo Bertolucci's newest film The Dreamers takes place in 1968, when Henri Langlois was fired from the Cinematheque Francaise and the youth of Paris led Maoist riots in the streets. But the film itself feels like a throwback to artsy-fartsy X-rated erotic cinema from the early 1970s. Bertolucci was once undisputed master of the genre, though his trademark cocktail of sex, culture and Communism now seems as passe as Starsky and Hutch or All in the Family.
Still, despite its unexpected dowdiness, The Dreamers has managed to draw some controversy, with an NC-17 rating to boot. The film focuses on three characters -- twin siblings Theo (French actor Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green, acting enigmatic), and an American student named Matthew (played fearlessly by Michael Pitt). All spend considerable time in the buff, and audiences are even treated to a medium shot of Pitt's semi-erect penis. This makes for good ballyhoo, but let's face facts, gentle reader: If you haven't seen an erect penis before, you probably won't be seeing this film anytime soon, either.
Alas, in one respect the film's treatment of human sexuality is downright prudish. Bertolucci coyly hints at a same-sex attraction between Theo and Matthew, yet never moves the relationship beyond nudges and winks. (I'm informed that the novel on which this film is based -- Gilbert Adair's The Holy Innocents -- does not skimp on the male-male nookie.) Where heterosexual activity is concerned, Bertolucci can wallow in menstrual blood and full frontal nudity to his heart's content. But when it comes to homosexuality or bisexuality, his alleged courage fails him.
The classic cinema angle turns out a bit better. In one early scene, Matthew, the young American, spits in his hand and masturbates -- which is a pretty good metaphor for what Bertolucci does throughout this film with old movies. Most of The Dreamers is postmodern parody, a deliberate recreation of other, better films designed to evoke a Remembrance of Lost Cinema. Sometimes the director makes the game depressingly obvious, intercutting his own footage with excerpts from classic Hollywood (Queen Christina is featured prominently) or the French "nouvelle vague" (the rush through the Louvre in Godard's Bande a Part). At other times -- though not as often as I would have liked -- the evocation is suggested but not stated outright, as with all those German Expressionist shots of Parisian streets. For this film and its characters, there is no life without the flickering images of cinema: When Bertolucci shows the protests outside the Cinematheque, he recreates newsreel footage with some of the actual participants from 1968, thereby showing once again that time is rarely kind to old radicals.
This isn't to say that Bertolucci himself doesn't still have a few memorable, original moments up his own sleeve. A first kiss between Matthew and Isabelle ends abruptly when a candle sets her hair aflame, while the first coital act between these two leaves Matthew covered in the bloody ruins of her hymen. Isabelle is the one Frenchwoman who can't cook, and when the threesome runs out of food, Theo forages in a pile of garbage for scraps. But these moments undercut the Romantic eroticism rather than supplement it: Bertolucci wants to make it clear that although he may sympathize with Theo and Isabelle, he also sees right through them. The film's suspense thus hinges on the question of when (or whether) Matthew will see through the twosome as well.
The worst I can say about The Dreamers is that it wallows in its characters' pretensions, and the best I can say is that it exposes them to some scrutiny. These characters honestly believe that "Keaton vs. Chaplin," and "Clapton vs. Hendrix" are serious intellectual debates. They play games with each other, guessing titles of old movies, and requiring each other to pay "forfeits" when they fail. The twins' apartment is pure intellectual kitsch, all posh antique furniture and overstuffed bookshelves (with a silly concrete bust of Chairman Mao). It's no surprise when we learn that their father is a celebrated leftist poet who can't approve of the Cultural Revolution he may have helped create. When he discovers the strange sexual liaisons among his children and the young American, he is stunned and horrified, but his reaction is to write a check and vacate the premises.
In the conflict between pretense and scrutiny, the latter surprisingly wins out. On finding that her parents have discovered her in flagrante with Matthew and her brother, Isabelle attempts suicide. The scene intercuts footage from Robert Bresson's Mouchette, a masochistic, self-effacing film that only underscores how shallow these twin siblings are. At the last moment, in a merciful reprieve, a stone shatters an apartment window, jolting the lovers awake -- and reminding me of a famous line from Last Tango in Paris: "Everything outside this room is bullshit." A final confrontation between Theo and Isabelle on the one hand, and Matthew on the other, implies that what happened inside that room might have been bullshit as well.
DVD Watch: Wisconsin Death Trip
I'm not sure what the point of James Marsh's Wisconsin Death Trip might be, unless it's that life was utterly, unremittingly miserable a century ago. The film is based on Michael Lesy's Vietnam-era compilation of insane-asylum records, newspaper accounts, and period photographs, most of which depict gruesome deaths in rural Wisconsin during the 1890s. Newspaper articles are read aloud, in a slightly bemused tone, by hobbit-emeritus Ian Holm, while insane-asylum records are eerily whispered by local Wisconsin actor John Schneider (no relation to the former Bo Duke).
Both film and book emerge as a grand pageant of murder, suicide, arson and dementia. Perhaps the attempt was to show the dark underbelly of idyllic, small-town America; perhaps writer Lesy and filmmaker Marsh wanted to prove that America has some cankerous evil in its deepest soul. But if so, the book and the film are as ridiculously cliched as the hagiographic, patriotic records of the past they oppose.
A documentary on the DVD features a self-satisfied Marsh, claiming that his film exposes the American immigrant experience as a fraud. His statement should comfort those who remained in the Old Country to endure the horrors of World War I, Nazism, Soviet domination and the EU. Since Marsh is himself a British national, one must count his ancestors among those who decided not to take the boat. I think I understand his position well enough, but I can't explain why dozens of Wisconsin-based actors would participate in a film that mindlessly derides their state and their nation.
The most intriguing aspects of Wisconsin Death Trip are its period recreations, all done on slightly overcranked, black-and-white 16mm. Marsh's images suggest more than they show, although they seem a bit too meticulously composed, too placid and perhaps even a bit smug for the lurid subject matter. The score is a Name-That-Tune compilation of slow, vaguely idyllic classical music, with an occasional burst of Norwegian hymnody to liven things up. But in the end, despite the disturbing subject matter, this "death trip" has all the bite of a Ken Burns documentary, and an equally soporific effect.
Swinging Belleville Rendez-Vous
Everyone else has already written about Triplets of Belleville, the bizarre, nearly wordless animated film from French animator Sylvain Chomet. A few bits from the opening sequence will give you an idea of Chomet's sense of humor: Fred Astaire tap-dances across a stage, then is devoured by his own tap shoes, dying with a goofy grin plastered across his face. A Josephine Baker lookalike struts onto the stage wearing nothing but bananas; the men watching her turn to chimpanzees and rip her costume apart. Finally, a giant baby takes over the entire theater, stomping and crying. Naturally, the film only gets stranger from there.
Chomet seems to take a cartoonist's delight in exaggerating deformities: His characters include overweight Americans -- most memorably, an obese Statue of Liberty which holds a hamburger platter in one hand and an enormous ice-cream cone in place of a torch -- ugly, bucktoothed Frenchmen, rat-like midgets, geometrically mafiosi, a tiny grandmother with an enormous club foot, a young, hunched-over cyclist who is groomed and fed like a horse, and a fat, stupid hound with skinny legs who does nothing but sleep and bark at trains.
Then there are the titular Triplets, withered crones who live in a decrepit apartment, eat nothing but frogs, and play avant-garde jazz with ancient household appliances. One of them wears what looks like a dead cat around her neck; another carries an inexhaustible supply of dynamite to stun frogs. These twisted hags will help Mme Souza, the club-footed grandmother, in her quest to rescue her strangely equine grandson Champion from the clutches of the French mafia. By the time they're through, the swinging sisters' dynamite will blow up Frogs of a different species, and the streets of Belleville will be bestrewn with the bodies of the wicked.
Chomet claims his film was inspired by the comedy of Jacques Tati. Like Chomet, Tati was a cycling enthusiast (and Chomet even quotes a scene from Jour de Fete in which Tati casually pedals off a bridge, to make the connection more explicit). Yet there's one vital difference between Tati and Chomet. Tati seems to stress the freedom of cycling; one can practically feel the wind in his hair as he zips through the French countryside. Chomet, on the other hand, seems far more interested in watching cyclists inch their way laboriously up long, steep hills: These poor creatures seem chained to their machines, so that the bicycle becomes an instrument not of freedom, but of oppression.
Tati's sight gags often draw on analogies between human and animal behavior: For example, in Playtime two men scrape their feet like chickens before entering an apartment, and a group of workers carrying a plate glass window resemble circus monkeys. But Chomet takes Tati's passing comparisons one step further: His human beings not only resemble unthinking beasts; they are beasts. When one cyclist's exhausted body gives out, his face permanently contorted in an equine expression of agony, Chomet promptly has him shot, as any other used-up horse would be. (It's perhaps no coincidence that the only character who possesses any discernible psychological depth is Bruno -- the fat, stupid, spindle-legged dog.)
Triplets combines the worst antisocial tendencies of Bruno Bozzetto, Max Fleischer and classic Looney Tunes. Fortunately, because Chomet works in the stylized medium of hand-drawn animation, he can not only get away with all this sadism, but even make it work in his favor. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard at an animated feature. Still, Chomet's casual disregard for human life should not be confused with Tati's gentler comedy.
While we're on the subject of Jacques Tati, a new 70mm print of Playtime has just finished its run at the AFI Silver Theatre outside Washington DC. The restored film features six minutes of additional footage not seen in theaters since 1967 -- including more "false Hulots" and an expanded scene at the apartment complex. Tati's masterpiece is also one of the greatest films ever made; I've written more about it here. Catch it if you can.
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
I don't have a way to track the readership of this blog, so I was surprised to learn from a reader e-mail that my essay-review of Passion of the Christ had been cited on the Internet newsgroup alt.tasteless. Apparently those lines about my "inner teen" struck a chord, and I am most pleased to learn that I'm not the only guy who gets an occasional hard-on from the History Channel.
It seems to me that "alt.tasteless" would be a perfect forum to discuss Gibson's Passion, and if I've played some small part in bringing this film to its true audience of gorehounds, fruitcakes, and sick bastards, I will be content to let the whole business rest in peace.
By the way, my essays on the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and the films of Charles Burnett are now online. They are not particularly tasteless, gentle reader, but I hope you'll enjoy them anyway.
Tuesday, March 02, 2004
I am a Gay man who advocates equal status and protection under the law for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Therefore, according to radio talk-show host and occasional Weekly Standard commentator Dennis Prager, I am as much a threat to the nation as Al Qaeda itself. Perhaps I'm even worse in the eyes of the Bush administration. After all, no one has yet proposed a Constitutional amendment attacking the fundamental human rights of terrorists.
All praise, thanks and honor to Andrew Sullivan for finding this story, by the way. He claims that Prager has veered into "Jerry Falwell territory," but I don't think even Falwell has managed to go quite this far.
Meanwhile, anti-Gay discourse on the Right -- not just the Far Right, but the mainstream -- grows more poisonous by the day. Once again, a mea culpa to all my left-leaning readers: I once believed the GOP was not a party of hatred, bigotry and intolerance. I was wrong.
Update (9:30 p.m.): The arrests begin in New York. I wonder how long it will be before same-sex couples are hauled off to jail for daring to have their unions solemnized.
Monday, March 01, 2004
Most documentaries never turn a profit, so conservatives and free marketeers don't bother with them. They figure they have better things to do, and they're probably right. But as the Best Documentary Oscar for Errol Morris's The Fog of War has proven, the "documentary feature" -- especially as shown on television -- has become perhaps the most important vehicle for transmitting leftist ideology among the chattering classes. Because conservatives have yet to mount any resistance within this particular genre, it skews farther and more reliably to the Far Left than anything else.
Take The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Please.
I saw this documentary last night at the OffScreen Film Festival, hosted and funded by the University of Virginia. That makes what I'm discussing another example of Tax Dollars at Work. And oh, how I wish it were not.
I'll call Revolution a "film" out of habit, even though the project was shot on digital video (with a generous grant from the Irish Film Board). The subject is a three-day uprising that nearly unseated Venezuelan "president" Hugo Chavez Frias in April of 2002. The crew had been shadowing Chavez for months prior to this coup, and their narration portrays the man in the most glowing, hagiographic terms possible. Like a mantra, the filmmakers repeat their statement that Chavez was "democratically elected," even though he barely won a small plurality in his first election, and this shortly after attempting a military coup of his own. By the time the military staged a coup against him, a majority of Venezuelans had grown weary of his incessant social engineering, and he was reduced to blocking various popular referenda against him. Now, nearly two years afterward, over two-thirds of the country is thoroughly fed up with Chavez's police-state repression, consolidation of personal power, and obvious veneration of Fidel Castro. The people want to oust their president now, but unfortunately Chavez's cronies can change the rules for a referendum faster than his opponents can comply. And the misery continues.
Taking a cue from Chavez, who instructs his ministers to tout his accomplishments on television and radio, the filmmakers repeatedly claim that the Venezuelan government is making strides toward equality and social justice. They don't show us any evidence of economic progress -- indeed, if their images of Caracas are any indication, the Venezuelan economy is worse off than ever. Foreign investment in the country has declined since his election, the country's poor are poorer, and over four billion dollars have gone missing from the national treasury. Meanwhile, Chavez uses his nation's vast oil revenue to finance Marxist guerilla movements throughout the region and prop up Castro's faltering regime. Were it not for Venezuelan oil, Castro would be unable to pay doctors and other white-collar professionals in his workers' paradise. The 2003 coup that ousted Bolivian ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was funded with profits from Venezuelan oil. According to FrontPage magazine, Chavez may even have donated a portion of his country's revenue to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Whenever we actually see Chavez in action, or when in unguarded moments he speaks directly to the crew, this film takes on the air of another, better-known documentary from three decades ago: Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada. Like Amin, Chavez seems infatuated by the possibility of mass-media fame and fortune. He hosts "Alo Presidente," a program on state-run television in which ordinary Venezuelans phone in and discuss their personal problems. (It's sort of like Dan Ackroyd's "Ask Jimmy Carter" sketch on SNL, only deadly serious.) He wears a red beret and military fatigues, deliberately invoking the image of Che Guevara. He sings popular songs, karaoke-style, at political rallies. He decries "neo-liberals" who espouse the virtues of unregulated markets, and claims that free marketeers will destroy the world. He believes that he is Venezuela, sometimes to the point where he appears mentally unhinged, even megalomaniacal. All in all, this pudgy, sweaty despot reminds us of another hungry tyrant from tropical climes, who in the name of Marxist revolution wrecked his country's fragile economy -- and who, not coincidentally, also offered aid and comfort to Arab terrorist groups.
Directors Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain aren't as observant as Schroeder, but they're much luckier: When the coup erupts under their noses, they have a fly-on-the-wall perspective within Chavez's presidential palace. Their lightweight digital equipment enables them to capture these events as they happen: We see Chavez's cabinet -- aging left-wing Europeans who speak Spanish with thick foreign accents -- chattering on their cell-phones, holding emergency meetings and trying to get their precious television station back on the air. One unidentified military leader cheerfully predicts that "the people won't stand for this," and that the city of Caracas will become a massive bloodbath. But once Chavez and his cabinet are forced out of the presidential palace, the filmmakers follow the next group that assumes power -- and presents them as the puppets of private media. Again, they fail to mention that the opposition was led by the labor unions, military, and the oil industry -- which signals that just about any Venezuelan with a job and/or personal wealth had at least one reason to hate the autocrat Chavez.
Others, it would seem, had stronger reasons to demand his ouster. By the time of the coup Chavez had a private army at his disposal, the "Bolivarian Circles." According to this documentary, they're merely a civic group, not unlike a tenants' association, which lobbies for better conditions in the neighborhood. (Of course it is, dearies ... and a "re-education facility" is just another vo-tech.) We know that Chavez's policemen, and perhaps some of his personal thugs, fired on opposition demonstrations just prior to the coup; the filmmakers show graphic footage of bleeding bodies and corpses. The filmmakers insist that Chavez was blameless, and I suspect they protest too much: Apparently because "one in four Venezuelans own a handgun," the violence could have come from anyone, and in any case probably came from the opposition. But handguns are not the preferred tool of long-range snipers, and most automatic rifles with scopes belong to persons with military connections. To date, despite public outcry, no one has been arrested for these shootings.
Since this documentary was produced for state-run European media, it's probably no surprise that filmmakers Bartley and O'Briain consider the word "private" -- as in "private media," or "private enterprise" -- a negative epithet. They claim that the nefarious forces of "private media" instigated the coup against Chavez on behalf of wealthy plutocrats, financial conglomerates and the CIA. To illustrate their point, the filmmakers display footage from Venezuela's private television networks, in which pundits and provocateurs suggest that Chavez might be insane, that he's suspiciously close to the dictator of Cuba, that he's wrecking the country, and that he ought to step down. The revolution will not be televised, the filmmakers imply, because the media are utterly beholden to counterrevolutionary interests. That this film was televised internationally -- as "Chavez: Inside the Coup" -- is just one of its many delicious ironies (as is the way it substantiates the opposition's claims).
For the grand finale, Chavez's palace guard turns against the new government and reinstalls the old regime. But Bartley and O'Briain are still around, and they film the red-beret guards as they march, rifles in hand, to arrest leaders of the coup. One wonders if this footage was shot during the actual coup, or if it was restaged after the fact. Either way, the guards seem aware that the world is watching -- and they probably sense that, if the attitudes of the crew are any indication, the world -- or at least the European world -- approves their action.
We watch helplessly as old Eurotrash reinfiltrates the presidential palace. Jubilant cabinet leaders invite media and staffers to join them in an impromptu meeting, saying that "we are all Ministers now." Chavez returns to the palace, and to power, in a helicopter: Through the filmmakers' entranced eyes, he seems to descend messianically from a white beam of light in the night sky. It is a marvelously dramatic moment, which the compulsively theatrical Chavez doesn't hesitate to exploit. His final speech pleading for calm is delivered almost with a wink at the documentary camera; we can tell that Chavez is going to make political hay of this coup, and really crack down on piddling concerns like human rights from now on. Chavez might crown himself dictator for life, or he may simply consolidate his power to the point that organized opposition to his rule is no longer possible. Death squads cannot be far behind.
Bartley and O'Briain praise the president's restraint in not closing down "private" media outlets prior to the coup and for not carrying out mass executions afterward. Their film fails to mention that prior to the coup some opposition papers had received government threats, and one was shut down after a bomb exploded in its main office. They also neglect another inconvenient fact: Since the coup, Chavez has cracked down on opposition media with a vengeance, and threatened dissenters (even the 3.6 million people who signed the petition to recall him last month) with government reprisals.
Although Chavez blames the United States for the three-day coup (a conclusion the filmmakers also believe), the entire fiasco looks like a local, populist uprising. But I found myself wondering why the United States couldn't have helped out a little. We've had some experience in these matters, after all; surely we ought to have done something to keep this from ending so quickly and tragically. We might at least have told the leaders not to entrap themselves in the presidential palace, where Chavez's guard could turn on them. We might have told them not to invalidate the country's constitution right away, while everyone was afraid the coup would turn to a dictatorship. Or we could have helped with the planning, so that leaders would at least follow general procedure correctly. Instead, we left the coup -- and the Venezuelan populace -- twisting slowly in the wind.
Once Chavez had returned to power and the lights came up, the audience applauded enthusiastically. I, on the other hand, emitted a loud hiss. A petty despot had returned to torture and enslave his people, and everyone around me seemed content to consider this sorry state of affairs a happy ending. To put this another way: If you've ever seen Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, it should chill you to realize -- as surely you will -- that for the tens of thousands of ordinary Germans shown on that screen, a bad situation is about to get a whole lot worse. Now imagine you've just seen this film with an audience that applauds Hitler, as if the Nazi takeover were a good thing. Under those circumstances, wouldn't you hiss? For that matter, wouldn't you have a moral obligation at the very least to hiss?
I don't know if my own protest managed to do any good, but at least I upset a few people around me. Two leftists pronounced me "misinformed and closed-minded," and a few more stated that I "obviously had something against Chavez." Perhaps they were right: Of the people I hold enmity against, thugs, thieves, terrorists and murderers pretty much top the list. So I asked a college student what he thought. "Well," he said with lowered eyes, "the movie was obviously biased in favor of Chavez, but then again, you know, another thing like the news would be unfairly biased against him, I guess." Another student responded, "It's valuable in that it offers a diversity of opinion."
State-run European television shills for Communist despots, old-guard leftists indoctrinate another generation of blase college kids, and the suffering in Venezuela gets worse and worse. But at least there's a diversity of opinion -- except within our audience, it would seem. What's more, I just learned that an international television festival in Banff, Canada, has pronounced this piece of Communist agitprop the best television program of last year.
Sunday, February 29, 2004
Charles Burnett may be the best filmmaker you've never heard of.
His output over the past thirty years includes five theatrical features, including three widely acknowledged classics of independent Black cinema; Nightjohn, a telefilm that Terrence Rafferty of the New Yorker claimed was "the best American movie of 1996"; "When It Rains," a fifteen-minute short which Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum listed on the latest BFI Sight and Sound poll of ten greatest films; and three unconventional documentaries for public television (including the only segment of Martin Scorsese's The Blues directed by an African American).
That Burnett was chosen to direct an episode of The Blues can't have been an accident. Of all contemporary American directors, Burnett is far and away the most musical. His soundtracks are assembled with loving care, and frequently assume a central position in the film itself. In "When It Rains" (1995), an African American landlord threatens to evict a single mother and daughter who cannot pay their rent, yet relents when a local community leader/poet offers him a vintage blues album. Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), a minor telefilm for "The Wonderful World of Disney" on the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, places so much emphasis on "movement songs" that it very nearly becomes a musical. (Despite its flaws, and they are legion, Selma is the only civil-rights film I know that accurately depicts the process by which the act of singing informs and creates activist communities.)
Burnett's first film, A Killer of Sheep (1977), uses neorealist techniques to portray everyday life in the Watts ghetto, yet even here he can't resist the allure of blues and soul music. To underscore the film's closing images, in which a herd of lambs flock into a slaughterhouse, he uses the jazz standard "Unforgettable." But instead of Nat King Cole's well-known, mellow rendition, which in this context would be facile irony, Burnett opts for Dinah Washington's soulful, hard-bitten performance. Against the graphic scenes of butchery, the song plays like a primal scream.
Movie buffs will recognize Burnett's closing image in Killer of Sheep as the opening shot of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Both scenes seem to convey a similar message, namely that the evil, impersonal market forces of capitalism drive human beings to their doom much as sheep are driven to the slaughter. Usually, this sort of left-wing prosyletizing falls with a heavy thud: In addition to Chaplin's misguided ode to the proletarian nobleman (an ideological contradiction that the Little Tramp could never resolve), we can cite such noteworthy message movies as John Ford's borderline-maudlin Grapes of Wrath, Sergei Eisenstein's ham-fisted silent October, and Martin Ritt's deeply condescending Norma Rae. But all these films ultimately take the stance that benevolent left-wing authorities know what's best for the working class, and that members of the working must submit to the orders of their superiors if they want to improve their sorry lot. Burnett's class critique in Killer of Sheep avoids that basic pitfall, because he not only listens to the working-class subjects of his films, but allows them to dictate the direction and velocity of his class critique.
In her program notes for the recent UCLA restoration of Killer of Sheep, Sally Hubbard unearths a revealing anecdote:
Looking back at his UCLA years, Burnett describes himself as a young radical who wanted to make a film on the black revolution and the overthrow of the American government. Then, one day, he went to his usual barbershop in Watts and told the older men there of his plan. Burnett was surprised to find them laughing at him. The men explained that they didn't want to overthrow the government -- they were proud to be Americans. All they wanted was to make a decent living for their families and to maintain some dignity in their own lives. This encounter changed Burnett's thinking about his film completely.
I'm reminded of Tim Story's recent Barbershop, which is as close to the inside of an African American barbershop as most people not directly connected to African American communities will probably ever get. At one point in the film, Cedric the Entertainer exclaims, "Fuck Jesse Jackson!" -- a line I suspect you will never hear from Spike Lee. The film's inclusion of that remark stirred up controversy, especially within the lily-White media and the old-guard "Black power" establishment. Nonetheless, it was an honest articulation of Black working-class pride and individualism, directed against political elites who had in many ways shut themselves off from the people they claimed to represent.
Regardless of the race of their clientele, community barbershops are good places for left-wing agitators to meet and hear the people whose interests they pretend to advance. In Burnett's case, these people mounted such a powerful critique of his own bohemian-revolutionary stance that he changed the basic structure of his film in response. This makes Burnett that rarest of creatures -- a leftist with humility -- and it made his first film a masterpiece.
Still, the best introduction to Burnett's oeuvre may well be "Warming by the Devil's Fire," from the PBS miniseries The Blues. In it, an eleven-year-old boy from Los Angeles is sent to live in Mississippi for a summer with his uncle, a minister, so that he can "get saved." But the wrong uncle meets him at the station, and the boy spends a few heady weeks meeting his uncle's girlfriends, going to juke joints, and listening to blues albums. "Warming" intercuts documentary footage with fictionalized narrative, in an attempt to explain what people within African-American communities thought of this phenomenon known as "The Blues." According to Burnett, their reactions to blues were far more ambivalent than the reactions of white elites; many African Americans of the time wanted to be known for respectable Sunday-morning church hymns, not Saturday-night party music. Unusual and challenging as "Warming" is, it's much less demanding than his theatrical features, because it presents its cultural milieu through explanation instead of immersion. Although I happen to prefer the latter approach, for those unfamiliar with Burnett's perspective "Warming" is as accessible as he gets.
Burnett was born in Mississippi himself, and grew up in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. So it's not surprising to learn that most of his films are tied to memories of the Deep South. Even when his setting is L.A., his major characters are often displaced Southerners, struggling with the problems and traditions they thought they had left behind. The pull of region is most powerfully seen in Burnett's third theatrical feature: To Sleep with Anger (1990), brings the Deep South milieu of "Warming" into the Los Angeles ghetto, mostly through the dubious character of "Harry Mention." As played by Danny Glover (in what may well be the best performance of his career), Harry is less a demon than a trickster figure. He seems surrounded by magic, folklore and tradition, and his presence imbues the film's quotidian domestic drama with a strong sense of the uncanny if not quite the supernatural. Burnett doesn't hold his audience's hand in Anger as he does in "Warming," which means that viewers unfamiliar with the film's Southern customs will find themselves lost in its unusual textures, vexed at its unconventional bluesy rhythms, and baffled by the elliptical narrative. Although Anger met with understandably poor box office, it did win the National Film Critics' Circle award for Best Screenplay in 1990, and took home four Independent Spirit Awards. It is an uncommonly rich film, and those lucky enough to have seen it hail it as a major contribution to American cinema.
Burnett's theatrical films prior to Anger -- Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother's Wedding (1983) -- have bracingly low budgets, casts of nonprofessional actors, and location footage from the Watts ghetto. More important, these films represent Burnett's first attempt to break away from what he saw as the demeaning excesses of "blaxploitation" flicks. It's impossible to imagine later filmmakers like Spike Lee without these pioneering efforts. Yet Burnett's films seem more humane, and certainly more emotionally honest, than Lee's sensationalistic work. Lee often focuses on hot-button political issues -- race riots, drug abuse, interracial sex, Louis Farrakhan -- and his characters tend to be alienated from themselves and each other. Burnett is less overtly political, focusing on the minutiae of lower- and middle-class African-American life, and examining relationships between characters with compassion but not sentimentality.
Yet paradoxically, Burnett's films come across as more socially radical than Lee's, if only because his characters never seem to act as fully autonomous individuals. Instead, they are linked to each other through common heritage and memory -- a point of irreducible identity that Henry Louis Gates has referred to as "the kitchen,". According to Gates, the "kitchen" is a point on the nape of the neck where kinky hair is too short to be ironed flat, hence the sense of irreducible identity. (I'm not sure I believe in an irreducible anything where human character is concerned, but Burnett has made the most compelling argument for the "kitchen" that I've yet encountered.) The most extreme examples of this primal connection occur in To Sleep with Anger, where the trickster Harry Mention draws his life force from an ailing Black patriarch, and nothing short of a mother's blood sacrifice can restore the family to wholeness.
Burnett's work offers other instances of "kitchen" connections as well: The opening scene of Killer of Sheep shows two parents punishing their elder son for declining to fight on his younger brother's behalf; the parents inform their wayward child that the basic family bond must not under any circumstances be sundered. The eleven-year-old protagonist of "Warming by the Devil's Fire" hears disembodied Black voices inside a local church, and the echoes of community break his attempt at spiritual solitude. Even Selma, Lord, Selma benefits from this sense of mystical connection, and its inside portrayal of a close-knit African-American community in the Deep South is in keeping with the subject matter of his other films.
Burnett's greatest commercial success may also be his most remarkable effort to date: Nightjohn, a 1996 telefilm produced for the Disney Channel, is an emotionally devastating tale of plantation life that neither overstates nor soft-pedals the horror of slavery. As a young slave girl named Sarny who learns to read, Allison Jones delivers a pitch-perfect performance, proving that no one handles child actors and nonprofessionals with greater sensitivity than Burnett. The film stresses the cohesion of the slave community, and depicts the relationships that sustain slaves through a difficult, often terrifying existence. No less impressive, though, is Burnett's treatment of the white "masters," whose position of power is radically insecure, and who -- in contrast to the cooperative slave society -- consistently undercut each other through financial and personal double-dealing. As a plantation owner who slowly loses control of his property, then his family, Beau Bridges delivers a heartbreaking performance all the more impressive because it belongs, in essence, to the bad guy. (You may have guessed that, in keeping with Burnett's other films, Nightjohn offers another subtle attack on capitalism from the radical left, abjuring the idea of personal and economic individualism in favor of communal interdependence.)
Nightjohn landed Burnett a few directing jobs for television, including Oprah Winfrey's miniseries The Wedding, but none of these projects offered him creative freedom. And alas, with the exception of "Warming by the Devil's Fire," Selma, Lord, Selma, and a mediocre mid-'90s cop drama called The Glass Shield, none of Burnett's films are available on DVD. Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding have been purchased by Milestone Films, which promises that these early works (especially My Brother's Wedding) will be re-released to theaters at an unspecified later date. No such promise has been offered for the short film "When It Rains," also in the Milestone archive. Although Nightjohn and To Sleep With Anger were released on video some years ago, they're no longer in print.
Charles Burnett's films are difficult to find, and they won't be coming soon to a theater near you. Still, if you're willing to seek out these gems, you'll discover they're well worth your time and trouble.
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