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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Movie Crash Course: “Birth Of A Nation”

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)

lillian-gish-in-the-birth-of-a-nation-1915-bfi-blu-ray-screenshot

Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation has quite the dual reputation. Everyone talks about its technical expertise, its stellar performances, its sheer scope and spectacle. Everyone also talks about how staggeringly and blatantly racist it is – it celebrates the Ku Klux Klan, it features actors in blackface and it drew complaints from the NAACP at the time of its release.  So I knew that watching it was going to be tough.  But I made myself keep an open mind when I watched.

And I think the open mind made everything even worse.

Parts of the plot are actually quite complex. The movie is mainly about two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, who are actually friends throughout the film. Phil Stoneman and his brother are buddies with the two oldest Cameron brothers, and during a visit south at the movie’s start, Phil takes a shine to the older Cameron sister Margaret – meanwhile Ben Cameron is taken with a picture of Phil’s only sister Elsie. While the kids are running around down south, the elder Stoneman, an abolitionist congressman, is coming under the sway of his mixed-race housekeeper.

The Civil War temporarily divides everyone – each set of brothers enlists with the Union and the Confederacy in turn, with the war claiming the younger brothers (who die in each others’ arms). Ben and Phil recognize each other again in turn, when Ben leads a charge on the Union outpost defended by Phil’s squad; when Ben is wouned, Phil gets him safely to an army hospital in the north, where he by circumstance is tended to by Elsie and makes a bid for her affections. And the feeling is apparently mutual – at some point she visits Abraham Lincoln to make a special appeal for a pardon for the confederate soldier.

So the families are friends again at war’s end, with a double romance even in the air, and the southern Camerons even applauding President Lincoln. But the elder Stoneman – depicted as being wholly under the influence of the social-aspirant housekeeper and a mixed-race schemer named Lynch – wants to go even further with race relations, and siezes his chance to enact them after Lincoln’s assassination.  And thus the next twenty minutes are a basic Breitbart alt-right stereotype of “what Reconstruction was like”, featuring scenes of newly-freed slaves running rampant in the streets, drinking in Congress, stuffing ballot boxes and shoving white people off sidewalks. A new law permitting mixed marriages encourages a black soldier to seek out the youngest Cameron girl, Flora, and say that he wants to marry her -and she completely freaks out at the idea, runs into the woods and jumps off a cliff.

Ben uses her death to rally the initial Ku Klux Klan, gathering them to find the soldier and “give him a trial” (read: lynch him) before dumping his corpse at the doorstep of the new state governor.  The governor – who happens to be Lynch – outlaws the Klan as a result, and arrests Ben Cameron, causing great consternation – and also giving him the chance to get his own hands on Elsie, who freaks out as much as Flora did at the idea of nookie with a black man. Ben is sprung from jail, and the Camerons all flee to a cabin in the woods, pursued by black militia – and the Klan somehow rallies again, riding in to both rescue Elsie from Lynch’s grasp and the rest of the Camerons from the militia.  There is a double wedding – Cameron to Stoneman in both cases – and both couples contemplate the possibilty of an eventual end to war. The end.

I’d heard about the blackface; so I was surprised to see African-American actors in several scenes. Granted, they were living out every worst stereotype about slavery and the Reconstruction South imaginable, but they were there.  Then again, they were also extras; the speaking roles were all given to people in blackface.  The speaking roles also didn’t seem like great prizes – the lot of them were either servants or soldiers, either comically buffonish or malevolently manipulative.

Actually, though, the Stoneman’s housekeeper ends up being strangely sympathetic. Her whole motivation is presented as being the desire to be a respected lady much like Elsie; she is snubbed by a visiting Congressman early in the film, and in a later scene takes great delight in forcing him to treat her with the exact forms of courtesy that he denied to her earlier in the film. It’s clear in the film that you’re supposed to think poorly of her – she is so caught up in “pretending to be a lady” in the early scene that she neglects her work, and in another scene it looks uneasily like she’s trying to seduce Stoneman into doing her will – but frankly, the desire for equal treatment can be an incredibly powerful and sympathetic goal. I found myself actually siding with her in the later scene, and thinking of her as a weird sort of Lady MacBeth type of figure, with her own ambitions coming into play to influence a man with more power.

It’s clear that Griffith put a lot of work into this. The battle scenes were all carefully choreographed, and some scenes are lifted directly from contemporary paintings of certain events (which Griffith helpfully points out during the captions). Lillian Gish, as Elsie, is phenomenal.  And this film is also the birth of a lot of the conventions of film that we take for granted today – closeups, two-shots, even a score.  It’s a far cry from The Great Train Robbery, for sure.

However, it’s also clear that Griffith knew how some of the racial elements were coming across. In a disclaimer near the beginning of the film, the captions state that the film is not meant to be a depiction of any one race as a whole, and Griffith takes pains to point out the nobility of the “good” African-Americans – Ben is rescued from jail with the help of the Cameron’s servants, and in a scene showing the Camerons grieving Flora’s death, Griffith includes a shot of the two servants huddled together in tears, with the caption “none grieved more than these two”.

But those are small comfort in a film that depicts all of the freed-slave voters as ignorant, greedy, motivated entirely by their ids. They drink, they smoke.  They go barefoot in Congress.  They stuff ballot boxes. They don’t outright rape, but they act as if Griffith would have showed them doing that if the censors would have let him. And if we still don’t get it, Griffith includes a pre-amble of a caption quoting President Woodrow Wilson, stating that “white men were roused by an instinct of self-preservation” in the south, and towards the end, Griffith explains the motives of the two Union soldiers who shelter the Camerons as a case of “The former enemies of North and South united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”.  Towards the end, there’s also a scene introduced with the caption “the next year’s election”, depicting a line of white-robed Klansmen glaring threateningly at a mob of would-be black voters, who all turn and slink away. That was real fun to watch after the last election…although watching the Klansmen dump the lynching victim on a doorstep, with a sign reading “KKK” pinned to his shirt, was far worse.

….I’ve been following the career of the actor Colman Domingo for some time now, after we did a show together early on in his career. This year, he was in a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – which the filmmakers titled Birth Of A Nation, in an ironic nod to how Griffith’s film both launched the movie industry and the modern Klan in one fell swoop. They were trying to “reclaim it”, they said.  I suspect that their choice may be lost on the average moviegoer, but I’m thinking I may want to watch it as a kind of palate cleanser now.

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Movie Crash Course – “The Great Train Robbery”

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)

greattrainrobbery

Wow, look at that! A recognizeable plot!

This takes a huge leap forward from A Trip To The Moon – it’s much easier to follow the action now. There are very few scenes with more than just three people in them – and when there are, it’s easy to follow what’s supposed to be happening and who to pay attention to.  I know I keep harping on that, but this is a basic element of dramaturgy and stagecraft that was getting overlooked in the last film; not because the filmmakers were ignorant, but because film was so new that people were figuring out how it worked.

Even though it’s easier to follow, the plot here is still a little thin, however – a team of train robbers hold up first the train station, and then a train itself, making off with papers from the express car and with valuables pilfered from the passengers at gunpoint. But the station master is revived by his sweet daughter and sounds the alarm, raising a posse to give chase and recover the goods from our villains. The end.  …but this is only twelve minutes long. The Godfather it ain’t.

A few details made me chuckle.  A number of people get shot dead over the course of this film, and three of them “play dead” in exactly the same way – coming to a sudden stop, throwing arms straight up over their head, and then sinking to the ground while pirouetting.  It’s not clear whether they’re hamming it up to “sell the action”, or they’re just…hams.  My money’s on the former, though; another scene with the station master’s daughter has a similar degree of Big Acting, where she pauses in the middle of trying to wake her father to clasp her hands and raise them in prayer for a second, but the actress is a child, and I don’t see her trying to upstage anyone on purpose.

Also, this kind of acting was The Done Thing at this time, on stage especially. This was a long time before naturalistic acting; the goal wasn’t to imitate life, it was to evoke emotion. I’ve seen an actors’ instruction book from the period, which spoke of some very specific poses, gestures, and body language they were expected to assume during different scenes, depending on the circumstances; if you were trying to show fear, you had to stand one certain way, if you were pleading you stood another way. Some of the more histrionic poses may have been an offshoot of arcane acting habit that would have made perfect sense at the time – but just look ridiculous today.

The posse was silly for an entirely different reason. We meet them all at a country cabin where they’re having a lively squaredance, complete with bonnetted ladies, and at one point they yield the floor to a gentleman in a bowler hat who does a sort of tapdance while the other men all shoot at his feet. A moment later, he runs off and the others resume dancing a bit before the sherrif comes in to recruit them all for the posse.  And….scene.   I think this was just sort of an effort to add some “local color”, but that was still one out-of-nowhere shot.

….Just had a look at the roster for tomorrow.  This is probably the last of the short films for a while – tomorrow I jump right into a three-hour D. W. Griffith epic.

Movie Crash Course: “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)

So you can watch this on Youtube. One of the oldest movie fantasies in the genre is short enough for the average Youtuber to upload on their site – it’s only twelve minutes long.   I feel like that is some kind of metaphor for the rabid change in cinema technology, but I’m not sure what metaphor that is.

I do know, though, that for most of it, I had no idea what the hell was going on.

Ostensibly, it’s about a team of astronomers vowing to take a trip to the moon.  They build a rocket and head there, take a nap upon arrival and are watched over by the Big Dipper and by Saturn, and have a couple run-ins with lunar creatures before coming back to Earth and a hero’s welcome. But to me, it looked like  –

  • Group of guys with wizard hats sit in a room gesticulating a lot
  • Wizard guys bother a bunch of workmen
  • Wizard guys cimb into a giant rocket and are seen off by a team of chorus girls
  • Moon gets rocket in eye
  • Wizard guys climb out of spaceship, gesticulate a lot and then go to sleep where they are watched over by creepy ladies peeking out from stars
  • Wizard guys run around and gesticulate more
  • People in lizard masks start chasing them
  • Wizards get back into rocket and splash down on earth
  • Wizard guys make grand re-entry into town, chased by a lizard guy whom they dispatch by hitting him on head
  • Happy people play ring-around-the-rosie around a statue of a wizard

The end.  No, really.

But my confusion may simply be a function of the passage of time.  A lot of the conventions we associate with movies, especially silent movies – credits, captions, music – simply aren’t here.  Even film scholars – they’ve been able to recover the identities of only half the cast.  Georges Méliès, who also wrote and directed, played “Professor Barbenfouillis”, the main wizard-guy who proposes the expedition; but we only know the actors’ names of the other astronomers.  As for the lizards, they’re actually “Selenites”, Meilie’s term for moon-people, and are played by various acrobats on a day off from the Folies Bergère. But history has not recorded their names, nor did the film itself.

And without opening credits, I had only the onscreen action to rely on – but that wasn’t helping me either. Meilies was from a theater background, where it’s common to have a single static set; people can come and go, the ranks on stage can grow and shrink, but audiences can still follow the action (or at least figure out who to pay attention to) because they can hear people talking.  But here…I couldn’t.

More than anything else, that’s what drove home for me just how new this film was for its time – the creators were theater-trained, used to the conventions and rules of theater, and trying to apply them to a wholly new art form – and only realizing after the fact that not only was this art form new, it was different, and needed different rules. 

Film gave directors a lot of freedom too, though. Melies got interested in film because of its special-affects capability – he would do all sorts of weird experiments with his camera to see what it would do to the filmed image; running it backwards, at different speeds, and such.  His experiment with “what would happen if I stopped and started filming mid-way” was his favorite, and lead to him being able to have the wizards “magically” turn poles into chairs, an umbrella “magically” turn into a mushroom, and the like.  Special effects was his forte in theater too, though, so he can probably be forgiven for overlooking the more mundane parts of dramaturgy.

 

 

Movie Crash Course

So, it’s like this.

I like movies, but I have not had a good habit of seeing them.  When I was growing up I didn’t have access to video stores or second-run movie houses, and when I got here to New York I had a decade where I was stuck in rehearsal halls myself.  And so there is an embarrassingly long list of movies – both classics and modern – that if you mention them, I would hesitate and stammer that “actually, uh, I haven’t seen that.”

And then today I had a flat-out awful day, and instead of zoning out online when I got home, something made me call up The Sting on Netflix.  Within about twenty minutes I had forgotten all about the people who’d yelled at me at work and the subway battles I’d faced and was sucked into 1936 Chicago.  And I felt so much better.

So. In the interest of a) finding a much more productive thing to do with my down time, and b) educating myself a little more about film in general, I’m embarking on a quest.

I found an online list of essential movies, and I’ve just spent two hours filling up my Netflix queue.  (I didn’t know Netflix had an upper limit!)  I will watch them all in order (or, as close to order as Netflix will let me get).  Even if I am already reasonably sure I’m going to hate it – I’m not a big Western fan, but I’m still gonna sit through The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, for instance – if it’s on the list, I’mma watch it.  Even if I know for absolutely sure I’m gonna hate it (I’m looking at you, NIghtmare on Elm Street) I’ll watch it.  I’m even going to watch the one movie I swore up and down I would never watch – Un Chien Andolou  (but I still reserve the right to watch that bit with the eyeball through my fingers because seriously). 

This is going to take me a couple years, though. This could be interesting.

Operation Chocolat Goes Trendy

Okay, the fact that I’ve even heard of this is a nigh-miracle.  I’m usually the last person to catch on to anything hip – I discover bands ten years after everyone else, I hear about books and movies well after others do, I’m pretty much the last to know about trends.

But apparently the internets is going bugnuts over a hot beverage trend – combining mulled wine and hot chocolate.

Frankly, it sounds weird at first blush – kind of like a half-assed entry from Iron Chef or Chopped where a contestant had two ingredients left over and just threw them together. But after reading a lively discussion about it elsewhere online, I found myself looking thoughtfully over at my cabinet.  – I have the makings of hot chocolate, I thought. – I have the bittersweet chocolate…I have the milk…and I have a lacing of  Shiraz left over.  …And I’ve had a crappy day.

Now, this isn’t as simple as spiking your Nestle’s.  No, this is the kind of hot chocolate that you have to heat up milk on the stove and stir in chips and whisk it.  And there were a score of recipes, all calling for different approaches to heating the wine – some with spices, some without, some separate from the milk, some together at the last minute.  The one I used actually called for melting the chocolate into the wine first, heating them both together into a sort of ganache-y thing, and then adding the milk.

…Honestly, I don’t taste the wine. It could be because I’m using super-high-end chocolate and kinda-plebian wine (Guittard for the chocolate, Two-Buck Chuck for the wine), but – the most I taste is a faint sort of fruity whisper, which is easy to mistake for a note in the flavor of the chocolate.  On another note, though, I’m sipping this at the rate I usually have hot chocolate – which is at a somewhat faster clip than I drink wine.  And I’m about halfway through the mug and am starting to feel a little…fuzzy.

My family are all wine nerds, especially my brother when hosting family events. I think I may have to introduce him to this custom.

Catching Up

Yeah, so fine, I already blew it with the “have a different hot chocolate every day.”  I’ve also not been writing in here much.

Largely because I’ve gotten to realize that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew at my day job.  Partly because I’m in an extended audition for a better position, but…partly because I can just be too damn conscientious.  It’s a holdover from the stage manager days – where I was responsible for absolutely everything, and if there was no one else to take on some task, the solution was to roll up my own sleeves and do it myself.  It’s the kind of thing that makes me a great stage manager and a reliable employee and team player – but it’s also the kind of thing that leads to me being overworked and underpaid, and wrung-out exhausted at the end of the day, way too exhausted to write here.

This kind of overwork is actually why I started stepping away from stage management – and noticing that I wasn’t writing well any more was what prompted me to make the move then as well. I had been working a 9-5 job in the day, and then going directly from work to my rehearsal or performance.  Each show usually had a two-month commitment, with a day off each week built in – but I would string things up going from one gig to the next with only a couple weeks off in between, to the point that I basically was working eighteen-hour days for two and a half straight years.  Towards the end of that stretch I was getting strangely moody and forgetful, to the point that I googled the signs of depression and early-onset dementia a couple times.

But I wasn’t depressed, and I wasn’t losing my memory. I was just exhausted.

There are some signs of hope, though. I’ve been brave enough to insist louder and louder to my bosses that something has to give soon – either the job lessens up, or I get paid more, or I get moved to another position.  I’m not quite at Norma Rae here, but it’s worth a talk – and while in the past the thought of such a talk would have made me break out in hives, I’m starting to get grumpy enough to go through with it.

 

And then there’s the new roommate. A was lovely, but she was just as overworked as I was.  That was her breaking point – the commute to her office from here was just too much, so she found another place literally next door to a subway station, and only has a 20-minute commute now. (Luckyyyyyy!)  I absolutely understand her move – I could tell that her research fellowship was starting to wear her out and the 40-minute commute home at the end of it was just wringing her out.  This would be even better for her.

The new roommate, however, works from home. Sam works in software developing, and has been working out of the office in the living room. He’s also just a few years out of college, and has a raft of college friends who also settled here in New York as well – and they’re all still in a lively, explore-the-city  mode. A bunch of them came by last night for a holiday party, and I ended up leading everyone on an expedition to see the light displays in Dyker Heights – and then they lead me on a pilgrimage to a Thai place in Bay Ridge for dinner. I was completely wiped out today, but their enthusiasm and curiosity was infectious, to the point that I’m thinking of other exploring we could do.

And it also reminded me that that kind of curiosity is a state I want to get back to – and that will require taking better care of myself, and that means getting some of my time back or getting a better price for it.

Operation Chocolat – Pungent Spice Chocolate

(For the whole rest of the winter, I’m going to be working through a cookbook devoted to 60 different kinds of hot chocolate. Because why not.)

So, lemme state first that this kind of recipe takes work.  This is no envelope of Swiss Miss or anything, here – this involves heating milk on the stove, steeping things in it, stirring chopped chocolate into the milk and waiting some more.  And that is assuming it hasn’t boiled over or spilled or foamed up all over the stove, and it also is assuming that you have time for this.  This isn’t hot chocolate for the quick hour you have after coming in from work and changing before running out to your book club.

But that’s kind of the point.  This is meant to be slowed down over and savored.  I have still rushed this recipe (see: book club), but I managed to get it done in time to linger a bit.  Calling a cab to the club instead of going by subway will save me time. (It’s freakin’ cold, I was already planning on a cab.)

I went fairly simple first – a basic recipe, with cinnamon and cloves spiking the milk before you stir in the chocolate. There’s a lot of chocolate in this, too – a quarter pound, whisked into the steamy milk on the stove. It’s made the drink super-thick – like there’s someone gently kissing me with each sip.

But I cut corners with the cinnamon and cloves, I think, as I don’t really taste them.  The recipe said to let them simmer in the milk for ten minutes before adding the chocolate, and I halved that to five in my haste.  I can smell them, faintly – just a whisper of them there.  Enough to suggest that if I’d been more patient, waited a bit more, I’d have tasted them more.

An intriguing lesson for next time.