Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Last night I watched Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché on TCM — it is one of the most creative documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’ve been having trouble focusing on television lately, and this show not only grabbed my attention but energized my brain. The film is available to rent or buy at Amazon and other outlets. I bought a copy because I want to study how the documentary was made and to be sure I have a copy for the future.

Now I know most people won’t be interested in silent movies, or even a history of silent movies, but if you are interested in the history of film, storytelling, creativity, women’s rights, memory, unearthing history, or how to make a powerful documentary, then you will be interested in Alice Guy-Blaché.

Not only is Alice Guy-Blaché as important to the early cinema as better known filmmakers like D. W. Griffith but her career began right after the Lumière brothers gave their first presentation in 1895. Most of the creative people from the silent film era are forgotten, as are the films they produced. Be Natural is about how history forgets and remembers. Be Natural is also about how we tragically ignore women. Be Natural inspires viewers by reconstructing Alice Guy-Blaché’s reputation. On another level, I also enjoyed seeing how such historical sleuthing is persued. (It’s important we save everything.)

One of my hobbies is scanning old magazines, and the value of old magazines turned up in this film. Alice Guy-Blaché’s work was often written about while she was making her movies, so old magazines offer proof of what she accomplished. Even the early historians of the cinema overlooked these sources when they were writing the first books about the silent era. They interviewed men, and many, if not most of those men conveniently forgot the contributions of women. Those early histories of the silent film often attributed male directors to Alice’s films. Just imagine how pained Alice would have been when her own husband started grabbing her credit after they divorced.

Even if you don’t care about feminism, history, or movies, you should still consider watching this documentary. Modern documentaries have become very sophisticated in recent years, especially after Ken Burns. Quality documentaries often seem to follow the same techniques with emerging filmmakers trying to add a few new creative touches.

I felt Be Natural extended documentary techniques in several ways, and I think that’s partly due to the growing success of documentaries and even YouTube. Within the documentary, they pointed out that in the early days of cinema everyone was amateurs trying to figure out how to use the new invention, the movie camera, and today, YouTube is full of amateurs trying to figure out that new medium. This causes people to experiment, inspire, and even steal from each other, so we’re seeing a perfect storm of creativity.

Cheap technology allows bold individuals to compete with industry professionals. There’s all kinds of innovations going on in documentaries today. Be Natural has Hollywood support and is a slick production, yet it tells a very personal story on two levels. Upfront is the mystery of Alice Guy-Blaché, but behind the scenes is the story of how Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon track down her story. Their historical detective work is compelling and inspirational, and they include some of the details of how it was done, which I loved. Watching this film made me wish I had a subject I loved so much as they did.

I highly recommend Be Natural. “Be Natural” is a sign that Alice Guy-Blaché posted in her studio to inspire her actors. If you know anything about silent films then you’ll know that was one way she set herself apart.

Jim

 

 

Abandon Ship (1957)

 

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2020

Last week I was lamenting I couldn’t find any shows to watch because my mind wouldn’t stick with anything for more than five minutes. Well, right after writing that I discovered a movie that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go — Abandon Ship! — a British film from 1957 originally entitled Saven Waves Away. I love movies about sinking ships, or people trapped on lifeboats or stranded on deserted islands. And Abandon Ship! is a humdinger.

I caught Abandon Ship! on Turner Classic Movies. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, rent, or to stream. If you have YouTube TV it’s still available on video on demand until 3/18, and if you have TCM Watch, it might be available there. There is a low resolution (240p) version on YouTube to watch. It’s a shame such a great flick isn’t widely available — I’d love to own a Blu-ray copy and have friends over for a two-film festival with the other classic film about shipwreck survivors, Alfred Hitchcock 1944 film, Lifeboat. That’s an old favorite of mine. But then, maybe the lack of availability for Abandon Ship! is telling me something about my taste in films.

Abandon Ship! is a gripping tale of a luxury liner striking an old mine and quickly sinking. The ship began with 1,157 passengers and crew, but only twenty-seven people survive. With only one lifeboat afloat, the captain’s launch, there’s only room for twelve to survive. Many of the survivors must cling to the side of the lifeboat in shark-infested waters. Tyrone Power plays Alec Holmes, the ship’s executive officer. Before the captain dies he tells Alec to save as many people as he can but warns he won’t be able to save them all. As the reality of their situation unfolds, Alec realizes he will have to condemn many to die, and does. The others consider his action murder even though they survive.

At the end of the film, the voiceover informs us that this film was inspired by a real event, and the man whose character Alec Holmes was based was convicted of murder but only received a minimum sentence of six months. This made me want to find out more. It turns out the story was based on the 1841 sinking of the William Brown. However, none of the details were the same. Abandon Ship! is all fiction, and so is the first film based on the same William Brown incident, Souls at Sea. It’s another hard-to-find film in a lo-rez video available on YouTube. Unfortunately, that film focuses mostly on the trial, with only a few minutes devoted to the horrors of the lifeboat. Plus it invented a whole storyline making Holmes another kind of hero.

The William Brown also inspired a third film, the 1975 TV movie, The Last Survivors, again only available on YouTube in low resolution. This version of the story is modernized, and not really a historical account. I haven’t watched all of this film, but it involves both scenes at sea and the trial.

It’s kind of amazing that one historical incident inspired three movies and none of them even attempted at being historically accurate. The key point retained is a crew member kills some survivors of a shipwreck to save others. I guess that ethical conundrum is what really fascinates us. Coincidentally, the day after the movie, I began reading a science fiction novel One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh about a man who gets to pick ten people in his small town of three thousand to survive the end of the world. In this case, Earth is the sinking ship, and a spaceship is their lifeboat. Having one person decide who lives or dies in a critical situation is an engrossing plot device.

All of this makes me wonder why these stories grabbed my attention when so many others didn’t. Do I need such extreme situations to focus my mind? Do I abandon so many other shows because their ethical issues feel too lightweight? Or do I need plots that are rarely filmed?

I also admired these stories because there was a limited number of characters trapped in an extreme situation. This is a challenge for writers. They are generally forced to make do with caricatures of types, rather than real individuals. It’s fascinating to compare the types in Abandon Ship! to Lifeboat and One in Three Hundred. For example, women get divided into three types. The useful woman (nurse, teacher, mother), the innocent demure good young woman, and the experienced aggressive older sexy woman. There’s always a working stiff guy, an intellectual (sometimes effete and sleight-of-build), and a heavy (mobster-like guy with a weapon), plus there’s always a demanding older male who expects to be the leader that no one likes. Lifeboat stood out by having a Nazi superman that challenged the all-Americans.

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

As much as I was thrilled with Abandon Ship!, it could have been even better. I would have enjoyed another 20-30 minutes of story complications, with more ethical issues. It hints at some at the end, but just barely. And it forgets several people trapped on a raft from the very beginning of the film. Were they saved? There a fuzzy out-of-focus hallucination that may have told us, but I’m not sure. I liked this movie so much I’m even thinking about watching it again before YouTube TV dismisses it from its VOD.

JWH

I’ve Lost My Addiction for TV and I Want it Back

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 8, 2020

As a life-long TV addict, I’m going through a bizarre phase where I can’t get into watching TV. I’ve started asking myself: “Why do I watch TV?” I theorize if I can figure out the specific aspects that currently make me love a rare TV story now it might help me find new shows that will hook me in the future. I don’t know if other people have this problem or not. Leave a comment if you do.

Right now the number one factor in me finishing a TV show is whether or not I’m watching it with someone else. Currently, I’m watching Star Trek: Picard on Thursdays with my friend Annie. I watch Jeopardy M-F with my wife Susan. We also watch Survivor together on Wednesday night. For ten years I watched a lot of TV with my friend Janis, but she moved to Mexico. In the year since I’ve only rarely gotten hooked on a series that I’ll watch by myself. My fallback on these restless nights is to put on a Perry Mason episode or graze on YouTube videos. But this week, I’m even having trouble finishing even ten minute YouTube video.

Every night I try three or four new shows hoping to find something I’ll want to binge-watch. And I do find things that just a couple of years ago would have glued me to the set. But for some unknown reason, I lose interest after about 5-10 minutes. That’s even when I’m thinking, “Hey, this is a good story” to myself. It’s an odd sensation to consider a show interesting but then feel “I’m tired of watching” after a few minutes.

I could do other things, but this is my TV time and I don’t want to give it up. If I have enough energy in the late evenings I do switch to reading.

The last two nights I’ve tried Taboo and Ripper Street — shows set in 19th-century England, a favorite time period of mine. Even though I marveled at the historical sets and staging, I couldn’t get into them. A few weeks back I did binge-watch 8 episodes of Sanditon. That makes me wonder if I now prefer polite society to the scum-of-the-Earth strata. I loved watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with Janis, but on my own, I can’t stick with the newer seasons of Better Call Saul.

Thinking about that I do remember I was able to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown by myself. They were nonviolent. However, I loved Black Sails and quickly binged through four seasons, and it was very brutal. Maybe I don’t mind certain bloodthirsty characters. Maybe violence isn’t a factor at all.

What are the elements of a story that draw us in? What makes us watch a screen for hours and hours? Don’t you think it’s rather strange that we spend so much time mesmerized by our television sets? I’ve watched a lot of television in my life — more than most, but less than some. Remember that old meme about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die? Well, if that happened to me, a third of that vision will be me lying down asleep, and another huge chunk will be me sitting in front of a TV screen. Television must be very appealing since we willingly devote so much of our free time to it. But why?

I recently wrote “What Happened To Science Fiction?” trying to understand how science fiction had changed from Star Trek in 1966, to Star Trek: Picard in 2020. I realized back in 1966 what I loved about science fiction was the ideas in the story. But in 2020, what I loved about Picard was the characters. And in between most SF fans have switched from loving ideas to loving the storytelling. In other words, I felt there were at least three types of appealing qualities to science fiction (which can apply to any kind of fiction:)

  • Ideas/Information
  • Storytelling/Plot
  • Character/People

I still mostly admire fiction for ideas. I love storytelling and characters, but not as much as I love information and details. Picard is interesting because of the character Picard, but also because of Patrick Stewart. Back in 1966, I believe Star Trek acquired a lot of fans for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, etc., but I liked it for individual episodes with cool science fictional themes. Television used to be very episodic. Now a TV show often has an arc covering a whole season or even multiple seasons. Its appeal is the storytelling and plot. But pure storytelling doesn’t addict me.

We used to be mesmerized by 30 or 60-minute tales. That appeal of television was like enjoying short stories. In fact, 1950s television killed off the pulps and short story magazines. Modern TV, with binge-watching whole seasons, is like reading a novel. We now commit to ten to thirteen hours. Part of my problem might be commitment issues. It used to be committing to a 90-minute movie or 10-hour season was no big deal. Mentally, it is now.

We tend to use television to kill time, to fill up our lives. That suggests we don’t have anything better to do, but I also feel that TV is an art form we admire. That we devote so much time to TV because it is something of quality, and is worthy of our attention. It could be 10-15 minutes is all I’ve got for admiring TV at age 68. And the reason why I can watch for longer periods with other people is I consider it socializing.

I used to watch several hours of TV a day, even by myself, but in my old age, that seems to be a declining skill. Is anyone else having this problem? Since retiring I want to watch a couple hours of TV at the end of the day before going to sleep, but I’m having trouble filling those hours. Last night I tried a half-dozen YouTube videos, fifteen minutes of Ripper Street, and about five minutes of five movies from the TCM on-demand collection. I’ve always had a powerful addiction for old movies, and I went ten years without access to TCM and hungered for it terribly. I recently got TCM again when we subscribed to YouTube TV, but old movies don’t thrill me like before.

Is something wrong with me mentally? Have I just become jaded because of decades of TV consumption. Has a decade of binge-watching multi-season shows worn me out? I feel like a heroin addict who has lost the high but still wants to shoot up. I miss having a TV show I’m dying to get back to watching.

I always thought one of the benefits of old age was getting to watch TV guilt-free. I figured I’d be too decrepit to do much else and assumed my declining health years would be filled with the quiet life of books and TV. Man, I’m going to be up Schitt’s Creek if I can’t watch TV. I need to figure out exactly what turns me on about TV shows so I can find something to watch. Hundreds of scripted series are created each year. There’s bound to be more for me to watch.

I absolutely loved Black Sails because it was a prequel to Treasure Island, and the entire four seasons led up to that story I’ve loved since childhood. I wonder if there are other TV shows based on books I loved. Looking at Ranker’s “The Best TV Shows Based On Books” it’s going to be tricker than I thought. Most of them are based on books I haven’t read, and many of the ones based on books I have read aren’t shows I’ve liked. There must be another psychological element I haven’t considered.

I also loved watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I think it’s because it’s about a time period I remember. I recall the 1970s too, but The Deuce isn’t that appealing. I’ve been meaning to try some of the shows set in the recent past. I’m looking forward to watching Mrs. America on Hulu, about the second wave feminists. Maybe biographical historical shows set during my lifetime is a noteworthy factor. That might be why I like The Crown so much. And it might explain why I also enjoyed documentaries on Miles Davis and John Coltrane recently.

And thinking about it though, the setting has to be more than just contemporary history. There are lots of shows set in the recent past that don’t work. Evidently, history needs a connection.

Genre shows have also petered out for me. Shows built on mystery or romance no longer work, and even though I still love reading science fiction, TV science fiction has no appeal anymore. Without Annie, I wouldn’t be watching Star Trek. She also got me to stick with The Game of Thrones.

All I know, is every once in a while I do find a show that absolutely addicts me. I just wish I knew what drug it contained that’s addictive.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Angels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 25, 2019

This month I’ve watched two films about angels: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to be an atheist who enjoys movies about angels. Angels are a weird conceptual race of beings that constantly mutates for our fictional needs. In the old days, angels were not human or ever human and existed on another celestial sphere with God. They were God’s messengers in the Old Testament. Humans keep making up stories about angels changing them each time. In the forty years between The Bishop’s Wife and Wings of Desire, what the angels represent are starkly different.

Cary Grant plays Dudley in 1947. Bruno Ganz plays Damiel in 1987. By the way, Bruno Ganz died this year, so it was sad seeing Wings of Desire again. I believe this is the fourth or fifth time seeing The Bishop’s Wife.

With last night’s viewing, I started questioning Dudley’s role in the story. In modern times we think of angels as guardians. Dudley appears to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in answer to his prayer for help. Henry is troubled because he wants to build a cathedral and his primary doner wants to pull the plug unless Henry makes the cathedral a monument to her dead husband. Henry believes he’s doing divine work by building an edifice to God’s magnificent and doesn’t want it tarnished by such egotism.

But Dudley doesn’t seem interested in the cathedral. He’s interested in Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s Wife. Last night, I began to wonder just how honest Dudley is in this film. He claims angels are the reason why people do good, implying they work behind us like puppeteers. But he also deceives humans. He arranges for Henry to get stuck to a chair so he can take Julia out. He tells Debby, Henry and Julia little girl, she can throw snowballs when she can’t, he makes boys magically show up for choir practice when they’ve obviously chosen to be elsewhere, and in the end, destroys Henry’s plans for the cathedral. Everywhere Dudley goes in this film, he pulls angelic wool over people’s eyes. Yes, they become happier, but they are still being deceived.

In the end, Dudley goes away and erases all memory of his visit. What has he changed? Will the happiness he arranged for Julia, Debby, and the old Professor continue in their life. Will Henry devote more time to Julia even though he’s been given another big job? Will Sylvestor the cab driver have as much fun with Julia and Henry as he did with Julia and Dudley?

Most of The Bishop’s Wife is depended on the charm of Cary Grant. Every last woman in this picture glows when Cary Grant is in the scene. We assume they feel the presence of an angel, but it appears they are all fawning over a hot guy.

For my last two viewings of The Bishop’s Wife, I’ve wished that David Niven played Dudley and Cary Grant played Henry. The casting was too obvious. They should have reversed the roles and made Grant and Niven act against type. The charm of the angel shouldn’t have been confused with physical beauty.

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film if you don’t think about it too much. Basically, Hollywood puts two outstandingly beautiful humans together for us to watch. They added some Christmas decorations and an angel but in a philosophically iffy way. It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel merely shows George Baily how much good he accomplished in his life. I’m not sure we’re shown any human doing good in The Bishop’s Wife. Julie wants a husband that pays attention to her, the Old Professor wants to write his book. Henry wants to build a cathedral. None of the humans want to sacrifice for others, and the story implies we need an angel to give us what we want.

In Wings of Desire, the angels are all around us humans. We can’t see or hear them, except sometimes young children can. The angels are immortal and have been on Earth forever. They merely watch. In a way, the angels witness reality, and maybe even give it meaning by their observations. The angels feel great empathy for us and listen to our thoughts. And when they detect a particularly troubled human put a hand on the human’s shoulder. This seems to bring a slight sense of comfort, but that’s all. The angels don’t work magic. They just care.

Damiel eventually falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. Marion has friends but can’t connect with them. However, this love story comes at the end of a long film, so most of the movie is about listening to people’s inner thoughts. Watching the movie makes us like the angels, we watch and listen, in other words, we get to be angels too. Wings of Desire is a very slow philosophical film. The film doesn’t work unless you have the empathy to feel for the suffering of the human characters.

Wings of Desire is a much more spiritual film than The Bishop’s Wife. However, it’s much harder to watch. I love The Bishop’s Wife because of nostalgia, but as a spiritual message, it is lacking. It leaves me unconsciously wishing I was Cary Grant scoring with Loretta Young. It makes me wish there was magic to solve any bothersome problem that might come up in life. The Bishop’s Wife feel-good nature comes from making us want to live out a Hollywood fantasy. It’s now making me question the value of a guardian angel. We should be better people from an inner drive and not an outer influence. Magic is corrupting. But then, we don’t see the evil of magic.

JWH

 

What A Difference 23 Years Make

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 31, 2019

Society is constantly changing and evolving, and so does the popular culture it produces. Starting in 1959, and into the early 1960s, there were a number of court cases that profoundly changed pop-culture by removing various censorship laws. It allowed movies to portray graphic sex and violence, and include nudity and profanity. This was especially noticeable in movie westerns. Westerns in the 1950s seem very different from those in the 1970s, and we can see the transitioning in the 1960s. Millennials and later generations probably have no idea what pop-culture was like before their time, and just accept today’s movies as a norm. If you live long enough, you can see that movies change.

My favorite westerns generally come from the 1940s and 1950s. The other night I watched The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando which had a much different view of the old west. In many ways it was more realistic – we see people going to outhouses, using profanity, having sex, showing a bit of nudity, wearing dirty raggedy clothes, and so on. The characters seem more like real people and have complex problems and psychologies. Too often in older westerns, characters wore not only clean clothes which they changed often, but ones that look like they came from fashion designers. Most folks in the historical west wore the same clothes for many days, seldom bathed, and usually owned a tiny wardrobe. Just compare the two versions of True Grit.

Living conditions in The Missouri Breaks seemed repulsive to me, and it lacked heroes and heroines. It’s not a feel-good western, like Shane (1953).  Who wouldn’t want to be Shane (Alan Ladd), who would want to be Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando)? Of course, Brando’s over-the-top performance does weird-out the overall vibe of The Missouri Breaks, but then such characterizations have become more common as we approach the present day. The recent Joker movie is one example.

If we compare the west of Shane with The Missouri Breaks does it even feel like the same historical era? Is it really the same genre? There are violent people in both films because the essence of westerns is violence. You’d think I should be comparing the two characters the audience wants to see die in the end, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Robert E. Lee Clayton. Both films feature ranchers who hire gunmen (Palance and Brando) but the issue of who the good guys are is confused. In Shane, the good guys are hardworking homesteaders, and in The Missouri Breaks, they are horse thieves, train robbers, and maybe murderers. If we are for law and order, then David Braxton (John McLiam) the rancher and Robert E. Lee Clayton should be our heroes. They’re not.

Remember in Shane, Shane is a gunman just like Jack Wilson, but he’s trying to change, and live under law and order. Shane is the homesteaders’ gunman, but he’s the hero of the picture because he fights the rancher who bullies the homesteaders. Shane sides with law and order. Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by the rancher to kill rustlers and murderers and appears to be for law and order. The trouble is Clayton takes psychotic pleasure in his job.

What happened in those 23 years from 1953 to 1976 that remade westerns? Shane is a killer, but one we side with. In The Missouri Breaks, we side with Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who is a horse thief, train robber, and probably killer too. (We never know who kills the rancher’s foreman.) Of course, in westerns, the audience always sides with a killer, because westerns nearly always resolve conflicts with a killing. Before the 1960s we sided with the white hats against the black hats, but it seems sometimes in the 1960s, everyone started wearing gray hats.

Shane, the Alan Ladd character, knows killing is bad. He wants to avoid killing, but in the end, he is pushed into it to save the people he loves. The audience admires him. But Robert E. Lee Clayton, the Marlon Brando character, delights in killing and justifies his behavior by killing horse thieves, train robbers, and murderers, people we should be against, but we despise Robert E. Lee Clayton and rejoice when he is killed. And in the last fifty years, we’ve seen both the hero/anti-hero and bad guys kill more and more people in westerns. Brando’s bizarre performance was only a bellwether.

Tom Logan, the Jack Nicholson character, is an anti-hero. Yet, even when anti-heroes are as charming as Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), should we really like and admire them? It is true that the old west criminals were more colorful than dull hardworking people who actually built the west.

Something happened to the westerns in the 1960s. Before that the good people were nicer, but so were the bad people. Sure, the bad guys of the old west were mean, and psycho killers too, but they weren’t as disturbing as modern bad guys. Between the westerns of the 1950s and the 1970s, we see the bodies counts rise in each film, and we see more depraved violence. The profanity, nudity, and sex are the upfront obvious differences, but I also think there is a shift in how westerns present killing. Intentionally modern westerns of the 1970s like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Judge Roy Bean, etc. worked hard to redefine the western in terms of artistic storytelling but also in presenting old west history with a different psychological perspective. In some ways, this shift became most visible with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When did good guys v. bad guys become neurotics v. psychos? When did westerns go from gunfights to serials killers and mass shooters? In the Old West, the most famous gunfight (O.K. Corral) three men died. In modern westerns, the body counts are so high that most viewers stop counting.

Sure, TV cowboys of the 1950s did a lot more killing than their movie counterparts. By one estimate, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke killed between 138 men and 7 women to 303 people over a 20-year period. However, if we consider each episode a separate story, the violence is far less.

Maybe I like the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s because I find the death of the bad guy at the end of the film a satisfying resolution to the story. Watching modern westerns feel more like we’re Romans at the Colosseum, desiring non-stop killing. We’re not there for the story, but for the slaughter. Films like the Hateful 8 are designed to feed our need for gunplay porn. If people watch sex porn because they’re not getting laid and want to vicarious pretend having sex, then why do we enjoy so many killings in movies today? Is it because we’re not getting to kill all the people we want and vicariously find release in the pretend killings?

I believe body counts began to escalate in the westerns of the 1960s, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and ending with The Wild Bunch (1969). I still loved these westerns, especially as a kid, and even when I felt they were becoming silly in their efforts to top themselves with gimmicky plots, explosions, and ways of killing people. However, as I’m getting older, I question my fondness for such killathon westerns. I admit I love TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld, but I’m also wondering about myself too.

Westerns 1

These days I’d much rather rewatch Winchester ’73, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory, Rawhide, Angel and the Badman, Shane, Three Godfathers, Tall in the Saddle, and movies like them. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or turning back the clock to enjoy movies when there were fewer killings per film. I was taught in school that the ancient Greeks didn’t allow violence on stage in their plays. All violence had to happen off-stage. I’m not ready to go that far. I do like the realism of modern westerns. The sex, nudity, and profanity are fine. I’ve just got to wonder about the kill-porn addiction we’ve acquired.

Angel_badman

We have become a nation that worships guns. Notice how often we see people posing with guns, and how often we see them in pop culture. The interesting thing about westerns is we see a historical era where people lived by the gun but were moving toward a gun-free civilization. Westerns represent a time just before all the cowboys would hang up their guns. (Watch the wonderful Angel and the Badman.) We’re now living in a time where everyone wants to strap on a gun. Is this the undoing of civilization?

Isn’t it rather ironic that in the old west, Republicans were the advocates for gun control? They were for laws, regulations, order, progress, cities, and civilization back in the 19th century. Doesn’t it seem they want to bring back the wild west now? Aren’t old westerns really propaganda for gun control? In some ways, new westerns seem to counter the philosophy of old westerns.

But then we have one last problem. Were any westerns ever like the historical west? Or, are westerns really the pop culture snapshots of the people and times in which they were made? If that’s so, we live in some pretty strange times if we judge ourselves by the movies we see in the theaters today.

JWH

If You Love Collecting Anything, You’ll Love Bathtubs Over Broadway

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 19, 2019

Steve Young was a comedy writer for the David Letterman Show. One of Young’s extra duties was finding oddball records that Dave could make fun of on the show. Because of this Young discovered an extremely rare kind of LP – musicals produced for corporate sales conventions. At first, these songs were the butt of jokes on the Letterman show but soon Young fell in love with the songs, lyrics, performances, and eventually the performers. Young began to passionately collect these records for himself. The history of his collecting, and how it led him to discover the history of the industrial musical is told in the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, currently playing on Netflix and for rent at Amazon. It has a 100% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Last night I had friends over to watch a movie. I tried to get them to see Bathtubs Over Broadway. I’ve tried for weeks to get any of my movie watching buddies to see it with me. My friend Linda saw it at a film festival in Denver and told me it was wonderful. We ended up watching The Bookshop instead, hoping it would be one of those feel-good indy English flicks, but it wasn’t. So after Mike and Betsy left, I stayed up late watching Bathtubs Over Broadway by myself.

I do admit the title sounds awful, but to all my friends who wouldn’t watch this movie with me – HA! You don’t know what you missed.

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I thought Bathtubs Over Broadway was a heartwarming documentary about becoming a pop culture collector. But then I have a slight collecting habit myself. I love tracking down old science fiction anthologies, so I know the excitement of finding a rare item.

Steve Young said before he started collecting the industrial musicals he had no friends in his life other than family at home at coworkers at work. Once he started sleuthing these LPs he befriended other collectors – weird guys like himself. I also know the importance of finding someone else who shares an obscure interest in a microscope aspect of reality.

What’s most inspiring about Bathtubs Over Broadway was the length Steve would go to find these rare LPs. The heyday of industrial musicals was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and Young discovered some of the composers and performers were still alive. At first, he contacted them hoping they’d have more records he could collect, but ended up making wonderful friends and learning a unique aspect of American history.

Bathtubs Over Broadway might sound kitschy and camp, and it is, but it’s also uplifting, moving, inspiring, educational, and enlightening.

Don’t let the title mislead you into missing it.

p.s.

In case you want to know more, Steve Young and Sport Murphy wrote a whole book on industrial musicals – Everything Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. Follow this link to hear songs, see videos, and read more history after watching Bathtubs Over Broadway.

Everythings Coming Up Profits

JWH

The Elegance of Quiet Science Fiction Films

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 29, 2019

Advantageous (2015) is the kind of quiet science fiction film I love. It was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote it with Jacqueline Kim, the star of the film. Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix and I have no memory of it ever coming to the theater (even though it has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes rating). I watched this movie with my friend Annie. She thought the show was only okay, but I loved it. But then my favorite science film is Gattaca. I prefer quiet science fiction movies without chases, explosions, and dazzling special effects. Annie prefers more action.

Advantageous is set in the near future where AI are taking jobs from people. Advantageous is about Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) who is the spokesperson for a rejuvenation corporation who is being fired for looking too old. Gwen is desperate to get another job to keep paying for the expensive schooling for Jules (Samantha Kim), her daughter. In this future, the unspoken belief is its better to give jobs to men because if too many of them were unemployed it would cause civil unrest. Gwen feels Jules can only have a future if she has an elite education, and she’s willing to do anything give her daughter a future.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but let’s just say that Advantageous explores a number of popular current science fiction themes in written science fiction. The film is set in an unnamed city with a breathtaking skyline of ornate skyscrapers that are occasionally hit by terrorist explosions. The citizens of this future passively ignore these attacks as a powerful government deals with them without alarm. We are shown other flaws in this tomorrowland just as quietly. This is a utopian world that is beginning to reveal hairline cracks.

One requirement of enjoying quiet science fiction films is reading between subtle lines. It helps to be well-versed in written science fiction. Gwen is given a decision to make, a “Cold Equations” or “Think Like a Dinosaur” decision. If you don’t know these classic science fiction short stories you might not appreciate the impacts of her choice. The ideas in Advantageous have been explored in great detail in written science fiction. That makes me wonder if movie-only Sci-Fi fans will pick up on the finer points of this story.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film than me:

Ms. Phang, who wrote the script with Ms. Kim, throws a lot into her movie — ideas about maternity, identity and technologies of the female body swirl alongside nods to the French New Wave — without always connecting the pieces. Eventually, a picture emerges that at times suggests a strange if alluring mash-up of “Stella Dallas” and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Phang has a way with spooky moods and interiors, and as a performer, Ms. Kim makes a fine accompanist, though she’s tamped down too much. It’s a kick to see how effectively Ms. Phang has created the future on a shoestring even if she hasn’t yet figured out how to turn all her smart ideas into a fully realized feature.

I thought Advantageous was fully realized. It set up all the science fictional speculation and then dealt with them in a satisfying way. It just didn’t cover everything explicitly, but quietly implied what we needed to know. Maybe that’s why this movie is an unknown gem. Too many filmgoers want action and obviousness. I watched the film last night and I’m already wanting to see it again. I’m sure there are little delights I’ve missed. Quiet films are perfect for meditation, they keep unfolding with additional viewing and contemplation.

JWH