Dear Belcourt Theatre,
I hate you.
Your VISIONS OF THE SOUTH series is eating up every available moment of my spare time. Should I write a Film Talk blog or go watch THE PHENIX CITY STORY? Sorry, Film Talk.
Should I put out my weekly podcast or delay it for THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT? Productivity is overrated.
Against any opponent, you win. Because of you, I am losing sleep, dates, and spare time. Your new series is so masterfully-assembled that it compels me, draws me in like a Confederate veteran to the banjo-strummed notes of “Dixie.” I must attend.
. . .
Oh, I can’t stay mad at you, Belcourt!
As you can tell, I’ve had a pretty productive week in movie-going. The only new film in my crown is the indie, neo-new-wave, black and white, semi-musical GUY & MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH; and I can’t decide how I feel about it (certainly not enough to write a helpful review). The eight other films I’ve screened since my last post all belong to the Belcourt Theatre’s phenomenal VISIONS OF THE SOUTH SERIES. Those films are WILD RIVER, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, STEAMBOAT ‘ROUND THE BEND, STARS IN MY CROWN, THE PHENIX CITY STORY, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, and FACE IN THE CROWD. The series is surely a watershed moment in Belcourt’s estimable history, and I am quite the addict. In fact, I am putting a rush on this article so I have time to screen TOMORROW at the Belcourt in an hour. (UPDATE: I failed. Make that nine films now screened.)
Most of the films in the series thus far were produced in the 1950s. You can’t make a 50s Southern film without dealing with the topic of racism. In most of the cases, the white filmmakers meant well, exposing societies prejudices (some, like John Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT in comfortable historic hindsight). But we also get a sense of the artists’ own prejudices. In every film that dealt with racism, it was the strong white hero who lifted his hand to the downtrodden black people. Never do we see strong black characters resolving their problems themselves. These characters are mere plot devices, existing only to illustrate the goodness and bravery of the white heroes. In the case of STARS IN MY CROWN, preacher Josiah Grey (Joel McCrea) staves off a lynch-thirsty KKK mob by reading the will of Uncle Famous, the accused black man (Juano Hernandez). In a very touching scene, the KKK are shamed by Uncle Famous’ words. He wills to many in the crowd his most-prized possessions, including his valuable mica-mining rights to the very man trying to steal them. But when the crowd disperses, we see that the pages were blank. Thus, it was the ingenuity of the white preacher, not the words of the black man, that defused the mob. In film after film, the black characters are spared shame, impoverishment, or death only by the grace of a white man’s benevolence. (A man in all cases. 50s sexism is another matter.)
After we screened THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, my friend reminded me that I can’t hold films of the past by today’s ethical standards. I suppose I both agree and disagree. I think we can appreciate what the films were trying to do through the lens of the times in which they were made. Doing so only deepens our understanding. Perhaps the filmmakers were truly getting away with the absolute maximum progressiveness their society allowed. And we can still hold in high esteem movies with flawed ethics. THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is now one of my favorite films, despite scenes such as the white sheriff protecting his black prisoner from yet-another lynch-thirsty mob through the barrel of a gun. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize through the scope of our current understanding. Should we give a free pass to BIRTH OF A NATION or TRIUMPH OF THE WILL because the directors didn’t know better?
You might argue that nothing has really changed except the position of our blinders. We’re so in tune with our times that we can easily pick apart the flawed ethics of the past; but when it comes to modern cinema, we haven’t built up the moral hindsight. This series of films is making me want to think harder about modern cinema, and to open a dialogue about it with people from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds. When we watch an episode of MAD MEN, we smirk every time someone makes a quip about cigarettes not causing cancer or when a woman is marginalized in the workplace. We’re in the know. The injustice is obvious. But it wasn’t obvious at the time. At least not to those in power. What hidden injustices of today will a future tv show lampoon? What are our blind spots? How do we go about fixing them?
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series — which moves into the 60s, 70s and beyond — to see how later generations of Southern films dealt with the issues of race. And I’m especially interested to see how racism is handled by the black filmmakers Oscar Micheaux (BODY AND SOUL) and Raymond St. Jacques (BOOK OF NUMBERS).
This is all making it sound like I don’t like the films in the VISIONS OF THE SOUTH SERIES. That’s not the case. In fact, I’ve been pretty amazed by nearly every film — the only exception being the tedious comedy/drama GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, a blot on Anthony Mann’s otherwise stellar directing career. The film tries to be five genres at once. The cast (headed by Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, and Buddy Hackett) are all amazing. So are the shots. But nothing can save the picture from its aspirations of weight and importance. I’m a little surprised it made the cut.
I’ve seen two of the three Elia Kazan films in the series — WILD RIVER and A FACE IN THE CROWD. (Sadly, I missed BABY DOLL.) WILD RIVER is a gorgeous Technicolor epic about a Tennessee Valley Authority agent trying to convince an old women to sell her land that will be flooded for the coming dam. Tradition versus progress. You would expect the film to proudly stand in the camp of tradition. But as Belcourt programmer Jason Shawhan pointed out to me after the screening, the film empathizes with the old ways but still understands progress is necessary. You could almost call it “progress porn” when the symphonic score plays a majestic sweep during the movie’s parting shot of the finished dam.
A FACE IN THE CROWD was a highlight of the series for me. Andy Griffith plays a cantankerous drifter who talks his way out of a county jail into fame as a prime-time television show host. He leaves bits of his values and humanity along the way, eventually becoming a soulless monster. There’s a scene at the end which has been indelibly inked into my film-going consciousness: that of Andy Griffith performing to his empty high-rise apartment as his lackey triggers canned applause from a laugh-machine. The film is an important testament to power’s corrupting influence, especially fascinating in the light of Kazan HUAC testimony just a few years before.
The other two major highlights for me were John Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT and Phil Karlson’s THE PHENIX CITY STORY. THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT tells the story of a small town sheriff in turn-of-the-century Kentucky. Doing the right thing may very well cost him the election. The movie skillfully patches several Irving S. Cobb short stories into one cohesive story line. The townsfolk feel like organs and appendages of the town as a living organism. THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is quaint, stately, masterful, and easily my favorite film in the series.
THE PHENIX CITY STORY is a hard-edged docu-drama about vice and corruption in a small Alabama town. Think of the most bleak, dire, and violent 50s film you’ve seen, and multiply it all by 2. A local lawyer runs for Attorney General of Alabama in order to clean up mob corruption. The film ponders our willingness to stand against injustice when the stakes are incredibly high. THE PHENIX CITY STORY was way ahead of its time and still feels cutting edge today.
Stay tuned for more coverage as VISIONS OF THE SOUTH rolls on.
Tony Youngblood is a film and music snob and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favoritefilms include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.