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Month: March 2018

Emperor Jones, The (1933)

Emperor Jones, The (1933)

“It takes a silver bullet to kill Brutus Jones.”

Synopsis:
When Pullman porter Rufus Jones (Paul Robeson) accidentally kills a friend (Frank Wilson) in a craps game, he’s sent to a prison chain gang, but manages to escape to a Caribbean Island, where he’s bought by a white trader (Dudley Digges) and eventually comes to rule the island — for awhile.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “curious adaptation of Eugene O’Neill[‘s] play” — inspired by the United States’ occupation of Haiti and the rise to power of repressive President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam — suggests “that one of [Jones’] crimes is that he comes to regard himself as better than his people, but in fact this character is shown to be better than the rest,” given that “of the blacks in the film, Jones is the only one with dignity or intelligence”, and he “certainly doesn’t fit in with the blacks in Harlem or the equally uncivilized natives.” He adds that “it’s good seeing a defiant black man on the screen, particularly in 1933, and one wonders how white audiences of the day reacted to Jones — or, more likely, Robeson — standing up to a white guard and outsmarting the others”. (According to an unsubstantiated claim on Wikipedia, “particularly in the South, the response [to the film’s release] was virulent: more than forty lynchings erupted in its opening week across the South where it wasn’t showing yet.”) Peary notes that “this is one of Robeson’s few opportunities to play a black man whose role isn’t to improve the lot of whites” but “it’s probable Jones is punished at the end because he overstepped his bounds when he didn’t kowtow to whites.”

It’s truly challenging to know how to respond this film, which paradoxically broke new ground by starring an African-American in a strong leading role while simultaneously presenting countless problematic elements — including ample use of the “n” word and stereotypical presentation of most blacks as either religious naifs, clueless natives, or wily hucksters. Jeffrey C. Stewart‘s “academicky” but insightful commentary on the Criterion DVD release helps contextualize the story as one of internalized colonialism, with whitewashed Jones eager to take an imperial stance rather than work with and for “his people” (especially ironic given Robeson’s notorious Communist leanings in real life), and is recommended. This curious tale of ambition run amok remains troublesome on multiple levels, but Robeson’s commanding performance is well worth a watch, and film fanatics will want to at least be familiar with this pre-Code oddity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and art direction


Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance.

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Coming Home (1978)

Coming Home (1978)

“We don’t have to go to Vietnam to find reasons to kill ourselves.”

Synopsis:
The wife (Jane Fonda) of a marine heading overseas to fight in the Vietnam War volunteers with her new friend (Penelope Milford) at a local vet hospital, where she meets and falls in love with a paraplegic (Jon Voight) — but what will happen to their romance once Dern returns home?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Hal Ashby-directed “breakthrough anti-Vietnam War film” also “makes a persuasive plea for more sensitive treatment of returning vets… whether they are physically injured, thoroughly disillusioned by their experiences, or having difficulty with readjustment to wives, the rhythm of civilian life, and a country filled with war protestors”. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names this film Best Picture in place of The Deer Hunter, writing that Coming Home “deals with issues that are still timely, such as our government and military’s insensitivity and indifference toward… vets with physical and/or psychological problems”. In GFTFF, he notes that the “Oscar-winning script” is “powerful, yet sensitive to all the major characters, including Dern” — indeed, the complexity of their relationship (he’s far from a one-dimensional “hawkish career marine”) is key to our engagement with the story: while it’s impossible not to root for Fonda and Voight’s romance, we also feel genuinely terrible for Dern when “he learns about Fonda’s infidelity”. Indeed, in Alternate Oscars, Peary adds that “startingly, we end up with more sympathy for Dern — his pain breaks your heart — than for anyone else. Unlike Voight, whose anger was tempered by Fonda’s understanding, Dern hurts too much to wait patiently for Fonda to heal him”.

In GFTFF, Peary writes that “Fonda won an Oscar with her appealing performance, playing one of her naive women who bravely step into unknown territory and become politicized” — but he adds that “Voight is even better in his Oscar-winning performance”, playing “his character with amazing intelligence, sensitivity, restraint, and lack of pretension”. In Alternate Oscars, he writes that Voight’s “role was hard to play for several reasons. Luke [Voight] is in a wheelchair yet must come across as physically fit and sexually desirable. He must display hostility and rage, yet still seem reasonable and not scare viewers into thinking he shouldn’t be welcomed back into society. He must elicit audience sympathy for all disabled vets by complaining about his own treatment, yet not display self-pity” (the latter takes time, but we can see his transformation through the arc of the storyline). Peary adds that he “turns out to be one of the nicest, most admirable, most desirable of movie heroes”.

There are many memorable scenes in Coming Home, including “one of the cinema’s most famous erotic scenes”, in which Voight “and Fonda make love in bed”, and “Voight speaking to a high school about the amoral war” — but other moments stand out as well. Near the beginning of her volunteer work, for instance, Fonda attempts to communicate with a black veteran without realizing he needs his voice box plugged in; when she begins to feed him, she drops his first mouthful of food, and then they engage in an awkward back-and-forth over whether she’ll give this piece to him or not — it’s a version of two people attempting to walk by each other and getting the direction wrong each time. Robert Carradine as Milford’s emotionally damaged brother is also memorable, showing how trauma manifests in mysterious ways; his suicide scene is deeply disturbing. Coming Home isn’t a film one can watch easily, but it’s well-worth viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Sally (nominated by Peary as one oof the Best Actresses of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Jon Voight as Luke (selected by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Haskell Wexler’s fine cinematography and good use of natural locales

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring post-war classic.

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In the Year of the Pig (1968)

In the Year of the Pig (1968)

“The one I fly is known as birth control.”

Synopsis:
After years of colonial governance by the French, North Vietnamese soldiers fight back against an American military presence that supports the corrupt South Vietnamese government.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Emile de Antonio’s sober documentary account of what was happening in Vietnam, and how the war had escalated to such a point, was required viewing among war protestors in 1969 and the early seventies”. He makes note of the lack of narration as well as the highly deliberate editing “showing us our higher-ups in government… making speeches about our policy in Vietnam and then showing footage that contradicts what they said”. Much of what’s here may feel or look familiar to modern viewers who’ve seen other documentaries about the war, such as Hearts and Minds (1974) or the recent docu-series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017); unique to this film are “interviews with Wayne Morse and Ernest B. Gruening, the only senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that really escalated the war”, as well as other individuals (primarily white males) solicited to share their talking-head thoughts.

To a certain extent, In the Year of the Pig is a documentary very much of-its-time: it had a certain power in 1969 when we were still deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, and decisions discussed on-screen related to current life-or-death outcomes. However, Peary argues that while the “film has an undeniable fascination… too much serendipity is evident in the choice of footage and interview subjects”. He notes his frustration that “we never feel we’re getting a full story about any aspect of the war”, and shares that “even in 1969 [he] thought the film was weak”, given de Antonio’s clear bias in favor of the North Vietnamese. I disagree: it was de Antonio’s prerogative as a creative montagist to pull together clips that supported his argument, and his documentary — while certainly not comprehensive — prompts us to interpret the conflict in a unique and provocative way.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, heartbreaking images and scenes






Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a seminal anti-war film.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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