Sunday, November 8, 2009

Message Cinema I

By Eric Jessen 11/8/09

Rifle through your collection of movie books, past “A” for Agee, “F” for Farber and Ferguson, and “K” for Kael, all the way down to “S” for Sarris. Thumb past Confessions of a Cultist and pull out Directors and Directions. (Once known as “The Bible,” this quintessential guide famously categorizes directors from the “Pantheon” to “Make Way for the Clowns!”) Flip past, (for now), the “Pantheon,” the “Far Side of Paradise,” “Expressive Esoterica,” “Fringe Benefits,” and “Strained Seriousness.” Flip all the way down to the wasteland of the “Miscellany.” Who of all directors, in such company as Hubert Cornfield, John Brahm and Stuart Heisler, directors with such credits as Plunder Road, Hot Rods from Hell and The Biscuit Eater, would author Andrew Sarris call “the most extreme example of message cinema?” Who else, no matter what company, but Stanley Kramer?
With such gems as The Defiant Ones, which dared to remind us that black people and white people can get along, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which officially married the two races (with permission from their parents of course), Stanley Kramer's movie world became the one to learn from. In a Kramer movie a message was never easier to understand, and even better for the audience, delivered in a more entertaining way. So why then is Kramer in Sarris' doghouse? He deserves at least “Fringe Benefits,” or considering that that group includes Bunuel, Eisenstein, Antonioni, Polanski and Pabst, maybe instead, “Lightly Likable.” I wonder if when Directors and Directions was written, just after Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released, some of the worst of Kramer left a bad taste in Sarris' mouth. Katharine Hepburn's incessant tear-jerking, and Spencer Tracy's bemoaning goodbye speech that seems to never end, is enough to turn your stomach.
But that shouldn't taint Kramer's career. He's made plenty of movies to look back fondly on. Sarris couldn't have forgotten.......Well, now that I think about it, just about every Kramer movie goes overboard. Inherit the Wind may also have been on Sarris' mind. And maybe Judgment at Nuremberg too. Few could handle, (other than the Academy), Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg's bludgeon of history with crude miscasting and sensationalized overacting.
Okay, so Kramer lacked subtlety, but what's a good message movie without a little heavy-handedness? Can you even call it a “message movie” if it lacks overwrought, overblown dramatization of historically or socially relevant events? (Frost/Nixon and Ron Howard's frantic cutting comes to mind.) Can you even call it a “message movie” if it lacks box-office shrewd casting? (Everyone in the business knows an audience doesn't listen to a message unless it comes from a star.) Can it possibly be a good message movie if the audience isn't completely sure where the movie stands, which are the good guys and which are the bad?

(For further reading on Message Cinema, continue to "Message Cinema II.")

Message Cinema II

By Eric Jessen 11/8/09

So a Kramer movie might be a little overly simplistic, but what's so great about these “Pantheon” directors? What makes them so special? Subtle and nuanced, but boring as hell, I would guess. Let's pull back out Sarris' obviously pretentious Directors and Directions. Who's in this “Pantheon?” Welles, Renoir, Murnau, Ophuls – too artsy. Lang, Keaton, Hitchcock, Hawks – merely genre hacks. Ah, how about John Ford? I know he's made a message movie or two – with prize worthy subtlety and creativity, I bet. There's The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and then later The Searchers. You might call those message movies. Well, Young Mr. Lincoln is more of a “hero movie,” so that's out. And we must avoid holding the now horribly stale Grapes of Wrath against Ford, so that's also out.
That leaves The Searchers and Stagecoach. You could call both genre films. Stagecoach was the western genre's savior while it was in transition from silent to sound. And although it was not highly praised when it was released, many modern movie junkies argue The Searchers is the greatest of all westerns. (I prefer The Wild Bunch, to let you know I'm in the Kael rather than Sarris camp.) It jumped into the Sight and Sound and AFI list mix after directors like Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone, once movie junkies themselves, noted The Searchers as greatly influencing them. But for the sake of this discussion let's consider the two, “message movies.” Under the many message movie categories such as women's rights, drugs, and sex, The Searchers would fall under the race category and Stagecoach, the class category. (Let it be known, I despise categorizing movies, but because I am thoroughly ensconced in a Sarris mode, I can't help but continue.)
As so called race movies go, The Searchers is definitely among the most interesting and unique. As opposed to any of the Kramer movies and Stagecoach, you might find yourself wanting to watch The Searchers a second or even a third time, not because it's particularly entertaining, but because it has an added element of mystery. With The Searchers there are still questions left to ask. But it's important to note, they are questions we're eager to mull over, as opposed to ones that annoy us throughout. While watching “Guess” I was constantly irritated wondering, why if Joey and the Doctor's love is so strong, do they need their parents permission? And why is it so darn important that Joey's parents decide by the end of the night? What comes to mind is that these seemingly arbitrary constraints are necessary not for the sake of clarifying a message, but for the sake of suspense and to perfectly lead into Tracy's monologue. During that final speech, so not to ruin the moment, when Joey learns her fiancĂ© was ready to back out of their marriage if her parents disapproved, her only response is to say, “Well, that's funny.”
As opposed to “Guess,” in The Searchers there is always enough gray area to heighten our interest, but not so much that we are left bewildered. It's never clear until the very end whether John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is good or bad, racist or not. Ethan is a big wild bully, shooting out the eyes of a Comanche corpse, and scalping Scar, but we get the sense as he looks fondly at the horizon, as he lifts Debbie above his head then carries her in his arms, and how he holds on to his Confederate ideals, that Ethan is also a hopeless romantic. All of that considered, The Searchers deserves the probably overused but still much sought after adjectives, “subtle” and “nuanced.”
But what about Stagecoach? Those two adjectives don't immediately come to mind. Stagecoach seems on second, third or however many viewings in the Kramer vein. Ford makes it fairly easy on us. The drunk, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), and the criminal, Ringo (John Wayne), of the lower class are to be admired. The pregnant wife of a Cavalryman (Louise Platt) and the gambler (John Carradine) are misguided in their snickering at the prostitute. And as always, the banker, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), is a fat, sniveling backstabbing thief. We know from the start it's a class movie, and we know immediately who Ford favors. So it's not a champion of subtle message-making, but it does make significant strides. With the help of its actors who settle into their roles perfectly, and the great stunt work of Yakima Canutt who jumps from horse to horse then lets a row of horses and the coach trample him, Stagecoach is an especially likable and enjoyable movie. And Ford, who I would say is deserving of “Pantheon” status, makes it work naturally.
So I guess the point here is that message movies are not hard to come by, especially ones as bloated as Kramer's. But good message movies are: message movies that make their point without shoving it down our throat. And as much as I would like to put down Andrew Sarris' auteur theory and his rigid categorizing, with Kramer and Ford he was definitely on to something. It's easy for any viewer, even if they watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for two minutes and Stagecoach for one, to tell the difference between a Ford and a Kramer movie, or a Cornfield and a Bergman, or a Brahm and a Lubitsch.
It's a shame that message movies from the directors at the “Pantheon” or “Far Side of Paradise” level seem to take a back seat to those in the Kramer message-mongering mold. It is for that reason, “message movie” remains an insult in my word bank.