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.")

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