Tag Archives: Racism

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Clips from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister discussing the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

CAPSULE: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Frost

FEATURING: , Rosey Grier, Don Marshall

PLOT:  An elderly, racist, but brilliant doctor on the brink of death figures out a way to keep himself alive through the world’s first head transplant; however, he did not expect to wake up from surgery attached to the body of an African American convict!

Still from The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the brazenly irrational subject matter, The Thing With Two Heads wears its heart on its sleeve and actually feels rather grounded, even with a two-headed monster on screen for most of the running time. Wacky, sure. Weird? Maybe not.

COMMENTS: Any film fan would be forgiven for being simultaneously amused and repulsed by the title and the concept of The Thing With Two Heads. It sounds ridiculous, and it very much is ridiculous: a low-budget foray into pseudo-science that contains all the hallmarks of classic exploitation fare, unfortunately including the dire production values and clunky, distracting dialogue.

That being said, at times the film is genuinely fun, no more so than during its opening portion in which we follow the adventures of a two-headed gorilla, surgically created by Maxwell Kirshner (played by Oscar-winner Ray Milland—the casting may very well be the weirdest thing about the film). Watching a gorilla tear through a lovely upper class neighborhood before ripping up a mom and pop convenience store just to get his hands on some bananas would be a highlight in any film. Strangely, even though the film looks absolutely terrible (think Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), the effects with the gorilla suit, and those during the head transplant scene, are surprisingly potent, gruesome enough to make you squirm as the direction refuses to cut away, undeterred by the budget constraints that the rest of the film suffers from.

The Thing With Two Heads is certainly a change from the norm, but once it gets rolling, seeing a mixed-race two-headed creature talking about social prejudice begins to seem standard fare. In fact, the film plays everything so straight that it is difficult to tell whether you are watching an unintentional comedy that has missed its target as a serious social statement or a satire that isn’t particularly funny. Either way, the absurdity outweighs any message contained within the film, which seems more concerned with a 30 minute dirt bike escape than anything else; and, lets face it, Mad Max this is not. By the time the final tonal misstep arrives in a film full of inconsistencies it is difficult to tell whether you have had a good time or not; but, obviously, The Thing With Two Heads isn’t forgettable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Greer is] willing to do anything to get another chance at life, so he volunteers for a weird medical experiment…. The most incredible thing in ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ is not the head transplant, however, but what happens next. Within hours after Milland’s head has been screwed on, the two-headed escapee is on a motorcycle and being chased by no less than 14 police cars. Every one of them is destroyed during the chase, a process that takes so long that seven, or even five, squad cars might have been enough.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

In the 1960s, producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel.[1]

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) posterRod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for the original Planet of The Apes (1968). The script is far more “Twilight Zone” than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast  in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to greenlight the project and to assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, whom the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).

Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction cinema at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find ‘s academic psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn in the end he was right all along. Heston’s physicality responds perfectly to Sterling’s blunt ironies.

It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Heston’s performance there amounts to a cameo, with James Franciscus filling in, albeit in a second-rate Heston imitation. Still, once past the unnecessary rehash of the first film, Beneath, in its innovative second half, proves to be the strangest, most underrated entry of the franchise. It is also the only sequel that retains the original’s flavor.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), the best of the sequels, benefits from the quirky performances of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell. Writer Paul Dehn crafted an inventive, humor-laden narrative that delighted in seventies pop culture. Dehn, a noted film critic, drew on Rod Sterling’s original script draft for the first film, as well as Boulle’s novel in which Apes and humans coexist in a modern society. Escape‘s Sterling-esque first half gives way to Dehn’s pre-apocalyptic sensibilities and pop social commentary on racism and violence.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) is Bazooka Bubble Gum Armageddon,especially in the unrated version found on home video. The slavery Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

  1. Boulle had previously written the novel “Bridge on the River Kwai” and received credit for the screenplay, but declined to show up for the Academy Award. The reason for the no-show was that Boulle did not write the script, but agreed to receive credit for the film’s back-listed writers. []

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

FLAMING STAR (1960)

Hollywood’s model of taking pop music phenomenons and placing them in film productions began with Bing Crosby and accelerated with Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, producers were usually clueless as to how to tap the stars’ prodigious talents. The model petered out in Madonna’s whisper of a film career. In between Madonna and Bing came the biggest and perhaps most disappointing of them all: . Tinseltown did attempt to tailor its vehicles to Presley, which may have been one of its big missteps. Most critics and audiences concede that Presley’s early films were the best, though many might argue that is not saying much. Presley debuted in the Civil War era Western Love Me Tender (1956) with a supporting role, while Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) all had thinly disguised biographical elements. Yet, none of these films fully captured the unbridled energy and vitality seen in just a few moments of Presley’s documentary footage of the period. G.I. Blues (1960) began a deadly slide, placing the star in dumbed-down, misogynistic family fare. Blues reached its nadir with the king of rock and roll singing to a puppet.

Presley followed G.I. Blues with Flaming Star (1960), a progressive western, directed by that taut craftsman, . Presley desperately wanted a film career and envisioned one modeled after his film idol, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Siegel and the producers originally wanted Brando for Presley’s role of Pacer Burton. With Presley finally getting his chance at a Brandoesque role, he comes closest to the celluloid Elvis that he himself envisioned. Unfortunately, it was not what the American public wanted, and the result was a box office bomb, despite good critical reception. The public wanted Presley singing, not acting, and he only gets one song here (along with the title track). Despite the public indifference, Presley made another stab at dramatic acting in the Clifford Odets-penned Wild In The Country (1961). Miscasting aside, Presley, who was too seasoned to play a juvenile delinquent, gave a relatively good performance in a mediocre soaper. Again, the public did not respond, which signaled the star’s management team to take the reigns with Blue Hawaii (1961). This was Hollywood’s saccharine death kiss. A best-forgotten string of execrable movies followed, and it wasn’t until Presley left Hollywood that he became (briefly) vital again. With the “’68 Comeback Special” and several documentaries, Presley finally became an imposing film presence, simply by being the leading man in his own unique life. Of course, Vegas seduced the King, just as Hollywood did, but his second fall from grace was at least a more original and fascinating American parody.

Although Flaming Star is imperfect, it gets one aesthetic component of the Presley paradox: Siegel shrewdly pinpoints the desperation and conflict inherent within an ambitious artist seeking to overcome his white trash origins. Here, he transplants them to Elvis as a half-breed. There has long been an identification amongst some whites with the archaic image of Native American as savage. Rather than tailoring a vehicle to Presley’s public persona, Siegel gives the actor an identification point within an already framed narrative. Stepping into Brando territory, Presley gives a thoroughly convincing and enthusiastic performance, possibly his only one as a professional actor.

Presley and Siegel smartly and predominantly ignored the pop star’s fan base by tapping the star’s edginess and making him actually play a character in an ensemble. In the promo trailers, studio execs interpreted that “edge” as a shirtless Presley fighting a savage. The scene it’s culled from is actually brief, and renders the trailer grossly misleading. Rather, the real “edge” is Pacer nervously conversing through a door slat with unwelcome visitors, followed by his beating the hell out of two racists when they insult his mother Neddy (Delores del Rio). Siegel draws on Presley’s latent maternal fixation for the scene. (Interestingly, one of Presley’s most effective songs, amidst one too many Neil Diamond covers during his final John-Wayne-in-a-Shazam-cape phase was an intimate, maternal version of the rosary. Catering to the imagined mindset of the King’s alleged WASP fan base, Presley’s distributors usually omit it from the plethora of posthumously-released gospel compilations).

Still from Flaming Star (1960)Presley’s acting in Flaming Star is simple and not bogged down with the type of dialogue he would have been ill-suited for. While Brando would have given an excellent performance, Presley delivers a commendably natural one. As a half breed, he has divided loyalties in this tale about racism. Thankfully, Siegel and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson do not lose focus. For the first and only time, Presley has no love interest. Here the trailers, again, were misleading, making it look as if a King was romantically entangled with a genie. Actually, Roslyn (Barbara Eden) is the “britches wearin'” girlfriend of brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

The entire Burton family is caught up in divided loyalties, and racism is seen from all sides. Neddy is shunned by her Kiowa tribe for having married the white man, Sam (John McIntire). Smartly, the film opens, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with an intimate look at the family, but it’s also a reason to show off Elvis singing. This is almost essential before the bleakness sets in.

An Indian massacre follows, which will eventually take victims beyond that single incident. Although the Burtons do not excuse the brutality of the Kiowas, they also refuse to be willing victims of community resentment and demonization. Hostilities quickly make their way to Neddy, even from friends and extended family, such as Roslyn. When the town doctor refers to an injured Neddy as “that woman” Presley responds: “That woman? Don’t she got a name, like white people?” Poignantly delivered, it’s one of his best acting moments, .

Flaming Star was shot on a modest budget, which is occasionally obvious (as in the day for night scenes). Siegel, as usual, is in his element with outdoor settings, regardless of funding constraints. Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but while that film was grandiose (perhaps too much so), Flaming Star tells its smartly paced story in a far briefer running time, leaving no room for unnecessary distractions.

ROGER CORMAN’S THE INTRUDER (1962)

The Intruder (1962) is a film that , star William Shatner , writer Charles Beaumont (who penned numerous Twilight Zone episodes) and a cast of relative unknowns can put atop their resumes. Predictably, Corman’s most progressive endeavor was his only commercial flop. The Intruder can also lay a considerable claim to being Corman’s best film. Shot in 1961, during the very early stages of the civil rights movement, The Intruder was extraordinarily risky, so much so,  that AIP, Corman’s studio, would not touch it. Corman and his brother Gene produced by refinancing his home. A few gutsy critics lavished admiration and praise, and, after Cannes banned it, a few smaller overseas festivals gave it awards. Alas, awards do not count as a return on investment, and a desperate Corman and his initial distributor Pathé made the drive-in rounds with four different titles in a vain effort to recoup costs. Whether under the moniker Shame, The Stranger, or I Hate Your Guts, it was a hopeless cause. Pathé eventually backed out and Corman distributed the film itself, securing the loss of his own investment.

The filming was no less tumultuous. Corman could have shot the film on back lot, but wanted Southern realism. While the leads were Hollywood actors, the crowds were made-up of townspeople, many of whom were as bigoted as the characters they played. Corman produced a watered down, alternative script for locals to read. Even with the script’s subdued version, the production was filled with tensions.

For the part of the sociopathic bigot, Corman picked the unknown newcomer William Shatner. Shanter later said he would have paid Corman for the part and despite being a Canadian Jew, Shatner embodies Cramer like an evangelical snake oil salesman.

For the incitement-to-hatred crowd scenes, Corman shot all of the long shots with Shatner silently delivering his fascistic speech (adding dialogue in post-production) so the crowd had no idea what he was saying. The closeups, shot after much of the crowd had dispersed, were filmed with Shatner actually delivering his lines. Corman saved the cross burning scene until last, after which director, cast, and production crew immediately drove North, getting out of Dodge.

Still from The Intruder (1962)The Intruder has a refreshingly complex script. Two familiar character actors here have surprisingly three dimensional roles: Frank Maxwell as Tom McDaniel sides with integration, but only in loyalty to the law, not from moral conviction. Leo Gordon was typically known as a stock western heavy. Here, he plays the rowdy and uncouth Sam Griffin,driving his wife straight into the arms of  extrovert charmer Cramer. When the infidelity is discovered, Griffin does not retaliate, or seek revenge. Rather he advises Cramer to leave town. We do not expect this out of Griffin. Nor do we expect this crass vulgarian (or so he seems at first) to be the only local intuitive enough to see Cramer for what he is. Additionally, Griffin shoulders some of the blame for is wife’s unfaithfulness. This is Gordon’s best role and one of the few times he was given a part worthy of his skills.

Other character roles are fleshed out well by actors such as Robert Emhardt and Joey Greene. The writing is complex enough to invite comparisons to the /Burt Kennedy collaborations.

Shatner turns in a great, commanding star performance (no, I am not kidding). Like the script itself, Shatner’s Cramer is fast-paced and smart. He utterly convinces, making one wish he had more roles like this. Beaumont adapted the script from his own novel and actually surpasses his source material.

It is easy to look back and point accusatory fingers long after mores have changed, but Corman and company had the guts to go face-to-face with racial issues in their contemporary climate. It took him 40 years to break even with this film. That he was that far ahead of his peers is true horror.

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.

Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith’s onetime assistant, , might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could  compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning’s standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.

While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning’s liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.

Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.

Still from Seven Chances (1925)Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film’s artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.

A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton’s girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton’s marital efforts—that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist’s inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film’s timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stone-faced Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.

The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.

Note: This was one of Keaton’s least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton’s producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.

* Next week: The Cameraman (1928) and Film (1965)

SHANTY TRAMP (1967)

Elmer Gantry (1960) with a dose of The Intruder (1962) on a 75 cent budget.”

There is the one-sentence synopsis for Shanty Tramp (1967), written and directed by Joseph P. Mawra. Mawra was a lesser-known director of numerous grindhouse films (such as 1964-1965’s Olga trilogy, produced by Glen or Glenda‘s George Weiss). Movies from this sadosexual school of filmmaking were often referred to as “roughies,” and here the lighting alone justifies that moniker.

After watching Shanty Tramp, you’ll never think of the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” quite the same way. The film opens with a worm’s eye-view of the Shanty Tramp herself (Lee Holland, in her only film role), barely squeezed into a tight white dress and pumps from hell as she shakes, jiggles, and marches her tramp way into a tent revival, choreographed to a gospel tune.

The little incubus-Eve is bound and determined to distract Preacher Man and every other male with red blood, which includes Daniel, a young African American male whose Ma warns him about the wiles of evil Shanty Tramps.

There’s a gleam in Shanty Tramp’s eyes when she spies the tithing basket. There’s a gleam in Preacher Man’s eyes when he spies Shanty Tramp’s popping cleavage. They promise to rendezvous later for a “spiritual lesson,” but Shanty Tramps get easily distracted.

The local rock-n-roll bar is man meat magnet for our heroine. Shanty Tramp grinds. Shanty Tramp flirts. Shanty Tramp gets fought over and the winner is… Savage, the leader of a biker gang! “Come on big man! You promised me a fin! I wanna see it!” She tells Savage. “Shut up and put out, babe!” Put out she does, and darn it, Savage actually lives up to his name and frolics rough.

Meanwhile Daniel’s Ma is still warning her son: “Tain’t good for black folk to be out at night! You get that Shanty Tramp outta your mind! ” “Oh come on Ma!” “Them whites in this town, they’re the same ones who strung up your Pa!”

Still from Shanty Tramp (1967)Daniel’s not listening. He’s hearing the call of that succubus Shanty Tramp. The wise words of Ma can only fall on deaf ears when Shanty Tramp does her mating call. Daniel’s just in time to hear Savage yodel, “You teasing’ little bitch!” Poor Shanty Tramp has lost her top. It’s the exploitation version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) with Daniel and Savage substituting for  and , They crash into a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Daniel proves the better man and our heroine rewards him with some interracial action. Unfortunately, Shanty’s drunken Pa stumbles in to see Shanty and Daniel sharing a sweaty cigarette.

The redneck villagers, torch in hands, are in full pursuit of the black monster while his Ma has to pay the ultimate sacrifice for her little Cain. Shanty’s Pa gets sober enough to realize his little girl was engaging in consensual interracial sex. Pa grabs the old testament whip and … off with her top again!

Thrown in patricide, exploding cars, racial revenge, and bed-hopping that goes full circle back to Preacher Man, who don’t mind sloppy seconds so long as he gets to save a soul from the Devil’s lair. The sacrifices poor Preacher Man has to make doin’ the Lawd’s work!

Enjoy it with friends, but after shuffling your guests out the door, a tub full of Calgon is strongly advised to take you away from all that Shanty Tramp residue.

CAPSULE: SUBLIME (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Tony Krantz

FEATURING: Tom Cavanagh, Kathleen York, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs

PLOT: The day after his 40th birthday, George Grieves enters Mt. Abaddon Hospital for a

Still from Sublime (2007)

routine colonoscopy.  Waking after the procedure it rapidly becomes apparent that something has gone seriously wrong.  George and his only ally, a nurse called Zoe, attempt to discover the truth in an increasingly nightmarish hospital of horrors.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It really isn’t weird enough.  Certainly there are periods of scary oddness, but none that haven’t been depicted before in other, better films.  I hesitate to call the plot twist a “twist” as any regular weird film fan will see it coming over the hill a mile away, waving its hands to attract your attention (Zoe the stripper-gram nurse, I’m looking at you love!)  It has some serious and troubling points to make about fear, prejudice, white middle class guilt and health care systems in general, but it makes them in a long-winded, repetitive way.

COMMENTS: I practically leapt at the chance to review this film, having heard nothing about it, and being fond of “weird hospital” movies. About half way in I began to regret my decision, and this was the first film that I nearly pulled out of reviewing.  This is not because it’s a bad movie—though it is long-winded and really could have used the editor’s hand clipping away twenty minutes or so—but because the uncomfortable issues the movie raises hit close to home.

I’ve grown up in the occasionally stony but generally reliable bosom of the British National Health Service and felt I should perhaps have watched this with my wife who, as an American, has now experienced heath care on both sides of the Atlantic.  Procedures occurred in Sublime which seemed odd to me, even taking into account the national differences.  I mean, that was an awful lot of laxative!  Are American colons so different?

Protagonist George is an upper middle class, able-bodied (at least initially), straight, white male and his attitudes, prejudices and fears were in many respects different from mine.  But even if the specifics are different, fear, prejudice and guilt are common to everyone.  When Continue reading CAPSULE: SUBLIME (2007)