A blog post you can’t refuse

Some of my favorite things about the holidays (besides all-you-can-eat dinner rolls and hanging out with my labradors) are movie marathons on TV. While I own most of the movies on the marathon lineups, they’re just so much better when you know the rest of the world is enjoying them. They become events; I guess the same kind of community that you get in a theater is felt when you can go on twitter and see that the rest of the world is also enjoying #HarryPotter. This Thanksgiving, I happened to catch the last part of The Godfather and slowed down for a few minutes to watch it. The scene in the garden grabbed my interest in particular; while I have seen bits and pieces of The Godfather for years, I’ve never really appreciated this scene for what it is. After taking this class, I found myself analyzing the scene. As an artist, I was amazed at the attention paid to scenic composition and as a bored twenty-two year old, I was impressed with the range of emotion the scene made me feel.

The scene starts with the grizzly Don Corleone entertaining his grandson in a garden. At first, he seems a little irritated with the boy as he tries to show him how to use a watering can. The child is totally oblivious to The Godfather’s frustration, which sets the tone of childhood innocence that remains throughout the scene. To entertain the child. Don Corleone puts an orange peel in his mouth. At first, this scares the kid; Don Corleone, in his rough, intimidating manner, realized that he has to become softer in order to interact with someone so innocent. His frustration dissolves as he allows Anthony to chase him around the garden with the watering can. Taken completely out of context, this is an adorable scene between a grandfather and his grandson. When we know the atrocious and intense life that Don Corleone has led, however, the innocence of Anthony takes on a much deeper meaning. While chasing Anthony around, Don Corleone slumps over of a heart attack in a dramatic, grasping scene. The child has absolutely no idea what’s going on– despite the fact that Don Corleone is now laying completely motionless on the ground, Anthony continues to spray him with the can. Eventually, Anthony runs off, and the scene dissolves into a funeral. You hear the first toll of the funeral bell while still seeing the visual of the garden in a seamless transition to the business side of death.

There’s something beyond the obvious soft side of Don Corleone that you see in his death scene. The lighting and color in the scene, for one, bring to mind the Garden of Eden of a traditional view of heaven. Despite the fact that the mafia is ruled in tones of cold black and sharp grey, Don Corleone’s end doesn’t come in the form of a bullet— it comes in the form of bright yellows and happy greens. The colors invokes the innocence the rest of the movie doesn’t– it’s as though this particular scene (which calls back images of the green homeland, Sicily) is dripping in complete innocence. Without this innocence, might Don Corleone have survived? If his grandson knew he was having a heart attack, could he have been saved? Probably, but it wouldn’t be as satisfying as Don Corleone, a dark character who we have grown to love, dying in a moment so far from the intense, threatening opening wedding scene. As the bell tolls and the scene ends, we are transported to a world of stark black business suits that contrast with the floral arrangement that covers Don Corleone’s casket. It’s a beautiful moment as we realize that Don Corleone is no longer part of this world of harsh lines and business. He is immortalized in the religious imagery that has cloaked his sinful world; as Michael becomes both the literal and figurative godfather in the baptismal scene that follows the funeral, we are again greeted with a contrast of innocence and power in a cathedral that brings to mind a grand coronation. The transition from the death scene to the funeral scene is particularly powerful to me as we see Michael picking up his father’s torch. The family is grieving when a dark, shadowy figure enters the scene and asks Michael for a word. Momentarily, we believe Michael might deny the invitation to discuss mob business at a funeral, but he instead stands up into the shadow where the entire tone of the scene becomes more like an office than a sunny day.

Don Corleone’s death scene is more than just a scene in a movie; it’s a moment where the audience can appreciate the childlike wonder that humans still have when it comes to death. In his last moment, Don Corleone was likely thinking of nothing more than how to entertain Anthony. Death struck him, in a weird existentialist way, when his guard was completely let down. He spent his entire life watching out for the enemy, but in the end was brought down by simple play. As he dies this beautiful, anticlimactic death, we briefly wonder why Michael is so concerned with the mob still despite the futility of it all. The ceremonial pomp and circumstance that surround both the funeral and the baptism are pointless when contrasted to the almost frivolous garden scene. In this moment, Francis Ford Coppola teaches us to slow down and stay in the light. The second Michael steps into the shadow, his choice is made. How can we, as people in a work-driven society, learn to stay in the light?

Of course, this all may be over-interpretation or I may just be missing the entire point. But that’s okay, because this scene made me think about my own life and the way I approach things. Isn’t that the point of good art? Almost every interpretation of anything ever could be seen as pointless. Film, in particular, is a medium that is especially open to interpretation; because there are so many layers of meaning and mediums of expression interacting with one another within the context of a film, it’s hard to pinpoint the director’s intentions in every moment. I will concede that before this semester, I thought directing must be a really easy job. You just tell the actors where to go! It can’t be that difficult. The real strength is in the writing, right? Now, I understand that there are so many ways to express concepts via film that I might never totally understand what’s going on in a well-directed scene. Before, watching movies wasn’t really something I found entertaining. But now I’m noticing little things all the time (like the fact that Francis Ford Coppola is an absolute master when it comes to composition). Filmmaking is now a talent I have much more respect for. Film is one of the greatest ways to express our fears and passions as a nation. Like I wrote in my last post, I believe that film and the study of it creates better citizens of a global society. It may be a long shot, but I think the understanding that comes with good film could solve more than a few big societal problems.

Just don’t go all Richard Nixon and invade Cambodia after watching Patton. 

Why Taking a Film History Class Doesn’t Make Me a Dirty Liberal Who is Wasting Taxpayer Scholarship Money

Film is important as an art form not because it is a perfect historical representation of a time period (I would argue that there aren’t any films that completely represent a time period) but because it teaches us, as historians, to see in three dimensions. It’s easy to look at the Declaration of Independence as a one-dimensional historical document– the text itself tells us important things about American society in 1776 (like that we were really fed up with King George). But what if we looked at the Declaration of Independence from a different angle? What can the medium of writing or printing, the specific word structure, and the grievances aired tell us about society as a whole? If we saw the Declaration as both a document and an artifact, could we learn more about the way the early United States was structured?

 

One of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that every moment documented in any medium represents- either intentionally or not- a specific moment and emotion trapped in time. Film is particularly successful in this way; because so many mediums of expressing meaning (motion, sound, photography, dialogue) are layered upon each other in a film, an analysis of five minutes of film could tell us more about the past than a hundred pages of documented text. The first section of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington gives surprising insight into the world of 1939. From these few minutes of film, we know that someone, at some point in 1939, felt the need to express a feeling of deep patriotism and the fact that the film was successful probably represents an overarching trend. We also know that at this point in time, African-Americans were still used in primarily derogatory roles in Hollywood from the scene with the porter. Further analysis can tell us what exactly was going on in society that might have caused things like this; the tail end of the Great Depression and the sparks of World War II gave Hollywood incentive to produce films that instilled pride in the American people. Another layer of meaning is placed in the language of film itself. The focus on the American flag, the bright lighting in Washington, and the arriving montage showing generations of Americans admiring the nation’s capitol communicate ideas that don’t need dialogue. Because film contains so many dimensions and perspectives, it serves as an incredible medium for understanding things about a society from political and economic trends to the physical movements of people at the time of filming.

 

Some people might argue that the historical use of films is restrained to the historical film genre. I believe, instead, that historical films themselves tell a lot more about the time period they were produced in than the time period they aim to represent. From Birth of a Nation to The Patriot, films that set out to portray specific historical events do so in response to an attitude set forth by society at the time. While Birth of a Nation attempts to restore the Old South’s historical glory, The Patriot aims to give the viewer a sense of America as a global, dominating force. Similarly, The Passion of the Christ gives a lot more insight to the right-wing response to modern liberalism than it does to the actual life of Jesus Christ. If we can learn to understand the relationship between the art or entertainment produced by a society and the social environment of the society as a whole, we can more effectively use works of art to connect ideas in history. Fairy tales, cave art, ancient literature, and folk songs are so long lasting not only because they are entertaining, but because they reflect common ideas held by societies. In these things, we can identify the morals and values that not only hold up specific societies at different points in history, but that also bind us as human beings.

 

Names of kings, lists of dates, locations of battles– all of these things hold up a clinical idea of history that leads schoolchildren to find the past boring and adults to ignore it. Studying the history of film, art, literature, and music creates a rich, tangible past that allows us to empathize with other human’s suffering and joy. Perhaps if everyone, not just historians, learned to view the past in a way that contained more than one dry dimension, they would have more compassion for viewpoints different than their own. It’s easy to look at the past and claim that a society was unintelligent or cruel; in this same way, it’s easy to look across the world and say the same about another currently existing culture. By analyzing a society using more than cold hard facts, we are able to understand the economic, political, and societal pressures that cause people to act in certain ways. Studying film history doesn’t just make us better historians– it makes us better citizens in a connected world. 

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

 I re-watched The Graduate after class today. I really wanted- no, needed- to hear ten different variations of “Sound of Silence” and to watch Dustin Hoffman attempt to impale the father of the bride with a giant cross. The first time I watched it, I was impressed with the modernity of it; it seemed to me that every other film from the sixties followed stale tropes and if you’d seen one, you’d seen them all. The camera work, symbolism, soundtrack, and frequency of Dustin Hoffman’s abs make it a movie I could watch over and over. I think that the most compelling part of the film, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. Throughout the film, interaction between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson is practically nonexistent; they’re hardly ever shown in the same shot, much less conversing with each other. Mrs. Robinson is the exact opposite of a motherly figure, and it’s pretty clear she’d like it to stay that way. From using her daughter’s room place of seduction to clamming up at the thought of Elaine’s birth, Mrs. Robinson uses Elaine as a marker in her life where her youth was given up to someone else and a time where she sacrificed beauty and passion (or quite literally, art) for the care of another human being. She is jealous of Elaine’s beauty and freedom– for Mrs. Robinson, the confused Benjamin is the perfect tool to feel desirable and relevant again.

Benjamin, in a weird, pre-illicit sex attempt at conversation, asks Mrs. Robinson about her husband. She won’t respond; to her, marriage is a metaphorical cage that she’s trapped in because of Elaine, who she clearly resents. Mrs. Robinson, who is nameless except for her husband’s moniker, attempts to seduce Benjamin by luring him with Elaine’s portrait. Her black dress and desperate attempts are a clear contrast to the pink, innocent backdrop of Elaine’s bedroom. Once Benjamin takes Elaine out on a date, the strip club that he takes her to causes her to burst out in tears. Benjamin finally reacts to this; because she is upset by the lewdness (right after he’s called his affair with Mrs. Robinson “disgusting”), he takes pity on her. She’s as innocent as he is in actuality– Mrs. Robinson’s advances may have given him the illusion of being mature, but Benjamin is still a young person flicking ashes among his childhood toys. In a way, he feels trapped by Mrs. Robinson’s sexuality. In the scene where he is finally rejecting the affair, his head is framed by Mrs. Robinson’s bent leg as he ponders whether or not what he’s doing is right. Despite the sad backstory to Mrs. Robinson, film isn’t necessarily sympathetic toward her. She’s seen as broken, malicious, and desperate. Mrs. Robinson is the perfect foil to Elaine; as the film ends and Ben and Elaine sit on the bus sweating and confused, we are cheering for her escape from an unhappy institution of marriage that Mrs. Robinson was unable to elude.

It seems film in general isn’t very sympathetic to the trapped housewife. The Graduate reminds me of the side story in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. A sad housewife finds a young grocery boy to seduce, and several awkward encounters with her husband occur. Unlike Mrs. Robinson, however, the seductress in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape seems to care for her children. Perhaps what makes Mrs. Robinson so hard to like her obvious distaste for her own child. When she forbids Benjamin to take Elaine out, Mrs. Robinson refers to her at “that girl.” Elaine is as nameless as Mrs. Robinson; instead of being a daughter or an autonomous person, she is simply the girl who ruined Mrs. Robinson’s life. The saddest thing, to me, is Mrs. Robinson’s lack of a sexual relationship in a loving, comfortable place. When asked where Elaine was conceived, she replies “his car.” Her entire affair with Benjamin takes place in a hotel, hidden in the dark and away from polite society. Mrs. Robinson doesn’t even sleep in the same room as her husband; her house, rather than being a place of refuge, is a symbol of the institution that traps her in her own sexual frustration and stifles what she could have been– an artist, a free spirit, or a Berkeley attending academic like Elaine. 

 

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THERE’S A GIANT RADIOACTIVE BUG RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!

Imagine this: You’re a happy post-war suburbanite, taking a leisurely afternoon stroll in the neighborhood. Your children, who you’ve named Jim and Bob so that they’re clearly not mistaken for anything other than American, are walking the dog, Skippy, right behind you. Lucy, your beautiful, attentive wife, locks her arm in yours and you bask in the glory that is your accomplished American dream. You could drive around the block in your brand-new Chrysler, but you’re walking simply because you don’t have to. All the sudden, you hear a noise. It’s not really a crash, but more of a “ccccrrruuuunnrcchhh” as glass, vinyl siding, and asbestos cave in. You turn around. What is that? It’s not a bird, probably not a plane… it’s… it’s… a hundred foot tall radioactive tarantula! Oh, God! What monstrosity of science is this? I bet this is the result of a mistreated lab technician with a clear Russian accent, or nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert! You don’t have long to ponder the horrible repercussions of unbridled science; before you can scream “God bless America!” the probably equally terrified tarantula has eliminated the existence of you and your happy little family. Sounds silly, right?

Now imagine this: Another happy suburban family, another walk down Persimmon Street with Sparky the sheepdog. Light hits the trees in a way that makes them a radiant gold as kids play hop scotch. Life in America is perfect. Suddenly, you hear a sound that is familiar to you from your time in the war– the sound of a low-flying military plane. What is going on? Before you have time to question whether or not there is a military base around, everything you know is decimated in a fiery windstorm. You no longer exist, and neither does the home you worked so hard for. The ideology of your community disappears with the fire. You are nothing but ash, and all it took was a couple of seconds of science and politics gone wrong to eliminate you.

This is the true terror of the cold war; through monster and military movies, that terror was expressed in a way that allowed Americans to project their fear onto the screen for a few minutes. The idea that total destruction due to bad science was inevitable gave way to a lot of the great monster movies in the 1950’s. If it wasn’t total destruction, it was creeping conformity or death through a slow but terrifying menace. In the 1958 film “The Blob,” the monster doesn’t even have a definite form but still somehow manages to plant a sort of dread into the mind of the audience. This gelatinous invader from outer space is so foreign to us because of it’s complete lack of humanity; it’s a mindless, creeping abstraction of form that consumes everything in its path and grows larger as it does so. Monsters like the Blob represent the fear that every American knew as an abstraction of an ideology and not an actual, human force: communism. The threats of both communism and nuclear war terrified the American public; to them, nothing seemed more apocalyptic or anti-American than these two things. The 1954 thriller “Them!” combined the two ideas in a way that made for the perfect monster flick. By taking an ant-like, worker bee mentality (communism) that is usually harmless on a small scale and combining it with the horrors of science (the bomb), a force that is both unstoppable and inhuman emerges. Giant killer ants hellbent on destroying human civilization and rising to the top of the food chain both make the viewer massively squeamish (giant furry pincers, anyone?) and give the viewer an idea of what society could look like if the Soviets won the cold war. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” creates a similar atmosphere; the loss of individuality, unstoppable force, and inhuman, foreign invasion point toward a caricature of Soviet society. The abstraction of a political ideology to the point where it can only be represented by a bastardization of “science” is central to many horror films of the 50’s.

The 1940’s didn’t need the monster movie– war was scary enough, and the government felt the need to use the film industry as a mode of encouragement rather than a way to terrify the public. By the 50’s, however, the pressing fear of imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union and a complete destruction of American ideology turned society into a sort of pressure cooker of terror. When the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warfare as the world knew it changed forever. Along with it went the comfort of the American public; while World War II was so far away from the home front for Americans, nuclear bombs could be dropped without warning. There are no winners in a nuclear war, or so believed the public, and the monster will always come back to terrorize its victims for another day. With the cold war, the enemy was secretive and difficult to conceptualize. As the horror genre grew, Americans found a new way to put their fear of the unknown into concrete ideas.

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The Combat Film and Propaganda: How Sahara Illustrates the Fears of a Nation

From 1941 to 1945, American culture took a dramatic shift towards patriotism as war raged on overseas. The thought of World War II conjures images not only of men fighting abroad, but of the home front; junk drives, victory gardens, rationing, and respect for the government are prevalent themes in literature and films set during this time. While the actuality of these events is unknown except to the people that lived them, much of the knowledge held by younger generations of the United States during World War II has been passed down largely through the media. Films made in the era present an America that is not afraid to sacrifice comforts and face fears to aid in the war effort. Wartime films represent a special relationship between the United States government and Hollywood. In the 1943 film Sahara, Humphrey Bogart plays the quintessential American soldier; tall, handsome, and authoritative, Bogart’s character epitomizes the kind of strength and virility that the American government thought fighting men should have. Sahara is riddled with wartime tropes straight out of the pages of the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. This film, and films like it, help create the cultural memory of World War II that Americans cling to generations later. Although it might not be a perfect, factual representation of events that occurred, Sahara presents the viewer with a patriotic challenge: will you, the American on the home front, sacrifice what you hold dear to help the men who have given up their freedom and comfort to protect yours?

During World War II, the newly formed Office of War Information, or OWI, gained enormous control over the content released by Hollywood. Recognizing the increasing cultural influence of the movies and hoping to harness the power of propaganda, the Roosevelt administration began strengthening the relationship between the film industry and the government with the creation of the OWI, the nation’s official propaganda machine.1 In June 1942, the office released the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, a comprehensive document stating the agency’s goals and standards for wartime film.2 By directly controlling Hollywood’s cultural output, the OWI was able to create a lens through which the American public viewed not only the war itself, but their role in the war as citizens of the United States. The first page of the code states, “Unless every American clearly understands how much he has at stake, the nation cannot gear itself to the all-out effort necessary for victory.”3 Through films like Sahara, the OWI created a concept of what it means to be an American or an ally; by carefully structuring a character’s actions, language, and morality, filmmakers proved to be effective and important partners of the administration. The creation of a combat genre that followed the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry’s strict guidelines resulted in films that, while not directly representative of the home front or front lines of World War II, shows the intimate relationship between the OWI and American cultural output.

The opening scene of Sahara lends no doubt that the main character, Sergeant Joe Gunn (played by an ever-gritty Humphrey Bogart), is the epitome of masculine energy and American loyalty. As the radio spits out American lingo and the vast, foreign desert swirls unforgivingly, Gunn leads a group of all-American boys, named Jimmy and “Waco,” on a mission. The use of a recognizable city name as a nickname for a character presents an image of a man with a very strong sense of place– “Waco” is identified by his roots in the United States even before he is identified by his given name. In the scene, the trio attempt to repair “Lulubelle,” or the tank they have been riding in. Gunn seems to have developed a strong attachment to the tank; in several instances, he compares the tank to a woman, saying that “no dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor will sound to us once she gets rolling.” While other characters talk about the women they have back home, Bogart’s character seems to have only the tank, which quickly becomes a symbol of Gunn’s deep devotion to the military.T his gives Gunn a brash, cold quality that makes it difficult for him to distinguish between logical and honorable. One scene allows Bogart to play out his gruff character while also retaining some humanity– while he seriously considers leaving a stranded Italian to die in the sun, British characters who are portrayed as softer persuade him allow the man to join the tank.4 He grudgingly concedes and later offers both the Italian and German prisoners water, illustrating the idea that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” must be established “even in Germany, Italy, and Japan.”5 Ultimately, Gunn is a good guy, although he needs the persuasion of kindhearted foreigners before he makes a caring decision.

These traits in particular make Gunn a poster child for the hero described by the Manual. The Manual claims that the United States was built “upon the devotion of men who have always been, and are today, willing to die for their country.”6 Because Gunn has no family back home, he is easily the bravest of the bunch. Willing to die for his country, his attitude is contagious and creates an atmosphere of honor and loyalty between the Americans, British, French, and Sudanese allies. Bogart’s character serves as a meeting point between each nationality, showcasing the idea that the allies are varying nationalities converging upon a shared vision of a “new world.” The clearly displayed leadership abilities of Gunn allow the film to show that “American commanders have allied troops and naval units under them in certain theatres of war.”7 By showing the willingness of the British commander to release his command to Gunn, the film illustrates not only that Gunn and his tank are strong leaders, but that the Allied forces must trust and defend each other unselfishly. By initially offering the French and British men cigarettes, Gunn creates a relationship of dependency among them troops that culminates with the men sharing stories of loved ones back home and ultimately sacrificing their lives to defend common values. Between his thick accent, name taken straight out of a comic book, and militarized attitude, Joe Gunn represents the type of American soldier the government hoped would inspire both soldiers abroad and workers on the home front to work for the war effort.

While Sahara portrays Americans and their allies as strong, caring, and honorable, the film takes a markedly different approach to portraying the Axis. The German in particular is conniving, rude, uncooperative, racist, and snide. The film makes it a point to illustrate the racism of the Nazis by having the German object to being touched by the Sudanese soldier. This is ironic considering the status of race relations in the United States in 1943; while the film used the Sudanese character to create a Manual-inspired aura of cooperation between the races, the German’s reaction is not too far off from how many Americans would have reacted in the same situation. The German is meant to encompass the absolute worst characteristics of humanity, and in doing so manages to become the antithesis of a patriotic American. Even his dramatic death, being smothered in the sand by an “inferior race” rather than killed by an enemy bullet, brings to mind the idea that he is a man drowning in his own ignorance and cruelty. The German in the film is given a more symbolic role and a less personal role. Caricatures of brutal enemies are the creation of “Hollywood’s war,” which did not always accurately describe the complexity of the enemy. As Thomas Doherty quotes a veteran: “When I see Japs once again portrayed as comic opera characters, thick skulled and insanely egotistical, I am inclined to walk out [of the theater].”8The role of the German definitely fits the OWI’s expectations, but ensures that the entirety of the German people, not just committed Nazis, are faceless and evil.

The role of the Italian prisoner of war in the film starkly contrasts with that of the German. The Italian, who is given the name Giuseppe, plays to Gunn’s humane side when he pleads while showing pictures of his family to be saved from a painful death in the desert. From the initial moment the character is introduced the audience understands that Giuseppe is not evil or malicious like the German; instead, he is a victim of circumstances that needs the paternal care of the more liberated Allied forces. Several instances show his loyalty to Gunn and his men once joining the tank. He explains his circumstances and his fear of Mussolini, refuses to aid the German in betrayal, and serves as an example of a simple mechanic who ended up on the wrong side of the war. Giuseppe’s situation is best described by his final soliloquy, spoken just before the German kills him in rage: “Italians are not like Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, and not the soul…. I’d rather spend my whole life living in this dirty hole than to stand and fight for things I do not believe, against men I do not hate. And for your Hitler, it’s because of men like him that God, my God, created hell!”9 The character is seen as clearly different from the Allies- compared the Frenchman, who also describes the suffering in his homeland, the Italian seems helpless- but he ultimately redeems himself by dying for the Allied cause. The representation of the Allies as being in the moral right and this moral right being recognized (except for by the hopelessly evil German) illustrates a convergence of the Manual, the personal feelings of the studio, and the hope of the American people that this war was worth it. Giuseppe’s emotion-packed monologues give a face to the people overseas that Americans at home are wishing could be free as well. Although there certainly were Italians loyal to Mussolini, Giuseppe’s disloyalty reassures the viewer that even Mussolini’s own people disagree with his moral position.

The film’s dramatic final battle begins when Gunn delivers an impassioned speech to the Allied forces. When confronted with the idea that standing against the Germans akin to throwing life away, Gunn responds by describing previous hopeless stands the Allies had taken: “Maybe they were all nuts. But there’s one thing they did do. They delayed the enemy and kept on delaying him until we got strong enough to hit the enemy harder than he was hitting us. I ain’t no general, but it seems to me that’s one way to win.” By giving this speech, Gunn tells more to the American people than a thousand propaganda films could: Help the war effort. Acknowledge the suffering of your men abroad. Never lose hope when things become dark. Understand that you are on the side of good, and that good must always take a stand against evil. True Americans value honor and morality over even their own lives. Sahara’s dry, desperate setting and diverse cast of characters bring to mind the struggle for good to prevail in a desert of immoral evil. It is no great wonder that with films like Sahara, America’s cultural memory of World War II evokes passion and patriotism more so than any war after it.

 

1Koppes, Clayton and Gregory Black, “What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945.”, The Journal of American History  4, no. 1 (June 1977): 87.

2 Ibid., 91.

4 Zoltan Korda, Sahara (1943).

5Government Information manual for the motion picture industry.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8Thomas Patrick Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 8.

9 Sahara

What is Indiana Jones Trying to Do?

There’s no denying that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is really, really racist.

Look at these weird foreigners. They eat monkey brains! They steal little children to force them to be workers for their cult of Kali! If you’re not good, they’ll rip your heart out… because, clearly, this is how people in North India act. Racism and sexism aren’t just present in Temple of Doom; orientalism of “weird” cultures and alienation of indigenous peoples occurs through all three (or four, if you count aliens as indigenous peoples, which I don’t) Indiana Jones movies. With so much blatant racism and a clearly Anglo-centric worldview, why is the Indiana Jones franchise so popular? Better yet, why do I love it so much?

 

Part of the reason is that, admittedly, I’m not above ignoring inconvenient realities in order to enjoy myself for a bit. Another part of the reason is that without obvious, screaming racism and sexism, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be what it’s mean to be; a rebirth of the adventure serials from the early part of the century, and a depiction of a 1930’s worldview. The Indiana Jones films are interesting because besides being fantastic adventure stories, the films allow the viewer to relive what is sometimes thought of as sort of a “golden age,” a time when the American dream was alive and an average professor could fight Nazis while recovering ancient artifacts sneaking onto blimps (sorry, Dr. Welky, but I don’t think it’s going to happen). The first film in the franchise was made in 1981, in the wake of the seventies and in the midst of the rapidly changing eighties. At this point, American morale was starting to raise but wasn’t quite there yet. America, to many, seemed like it was weakening. People yearned for the “good old days,” and the media reflected this. This is the same time period that brought us the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series and A Christmas Story. Why shouldn’t nostalgia be injected into an adventure movie? Viewers wanted to see a time when Americans, living in a nation healing from the Great Depression, were a vital force in the world and knew the difference between good and evil. If this film were actually made in 1938, there’s no way that Indy would be shown fighting off Nazis; in the world recreated by Spielberg, however, Indy’s intuition led him to know that the Nazi were worth fighting even if the American Government wasn’t sure yet. By re-creating the adventure serial, maybe Americans could think back to a day when illegal archaeology was okay and the hero always won. An interesting quote (which I admittedly pulled out of Wikipedia) reflects how I feel about the art style and feel of Indiana Jones:  ‘Roger Ebert praised the scene depicting Indiana as a Boy Scout with the Cross of Coronado; he compared it to the “style of illustration that appeared in the boys’ adventure magazines of the 1940s”, saying that Spielberg ‘must have been paging through his old issues of Boys’ Life magazine… the feeling that you can stumble over astounding adventures just by going on a hike with your Scout troop. Spielberg lights the scene in the strong, basic colors of old pulp magazines.’”

 

So, the purpose of Indiana Jones goes beyond pure racism– is this still okay? I think this could be argued in a lot of ways, just like any controversial film. Is CSI wrong for depicting detectives as magical crime solvers in a way that hurt a lot of real CSI labs? Should Pocahontas be removed from the shelves? Perhaps the difference here is that Spielberg and Lucas seem to be channeling a bygone era, where Pocahontas aims to tell viewers exactly what Native Americans are like. The average viewer, however, might not know that Indiana Jones is supposed to be modeled after adventure B-movies, and could take the films at face value. It’s also difficult to decide what is and isn’t offensive for a member of a group to which you don’t belong; while I can argue all day that Indiana Jones’ racism and orientalism provides a historical setting rather than reflects Lucas’ and Spielberg’s actual views, my Indian boyfriend will probably never think that Temple of Doom is acceptable, family-friendly entertainment. To him, the Indians in the films are used like props, reminiscent of the use of blacks in early cinema. I’m not proposing any direct answer to this question. Personally, I’m still conflicted when it comes to films like this because the line is so blurry. At what point does a caricature of a southerner or an American become less entertaining and more offensive to me? I’ve still got a lot of pondering to do, but for now, I’ll leave the worst of the Indy films, Temple of Doom, out of my DVD player and stick to watching Nazi sympathizers shrivel up from drinking from the wrong holy grail. 

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A Møøse once bit my sister

My dad is a true product of the seventies. He doesn’t like electronic music. He doesn’t trust the government. He wishes vinyl were still a thing, and he absolutely refuses to get a Facebook account. Most of all, my dad has a very seventies sense of humor. He’s completely bizarre. Every time I watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail or Used Cars, I’m reminded of him. Not because he would watch these movies with me as a child- as I’ve mentioned before, my dad isn’t a huge movie person- but because the characters in the film represent a type of humor that I see in my dad more than any other person. I could never put my finger on exactly what it was, but I saw it mirrored in The Fatal Glass of Beer in class last week. The short film reflected, to me, a type of humor I usually see in seventies films like Airplane or Monty Python. It’s a humor I also see in certain instances of “country” humor, like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” or humorous country songs. What’s the common factor here? Is it the parody aspect (whether that be a movie parody or the parody of a stereotype) or is it the bizarro factor? Are these things combined to create the kind of humor I find the funniest? The idea of parody is important because we allow ourselves to laugh at something we may hold dear or are very familiar with. I think, however, that the root similarity between thirties and seventies comedy lies in the confused and desperate moral of the nation in each era.

Now, take a look at The Fatal Glass of Beer. What is this short even about? We have a Canadian (complete with every stereotype in the book) father mourning his prodigal son, who was tempted by the alluring call of the city. The short is a parody of prohibitionists, melodramas, and frontier life. Small details in the short add to the absurdity of the piece. The dulcimer (which the father conveniently keeps in his shack, along with an electric fan) represents the melodrama of the “frontier way,” in which sorrow is best expressed through a terrible song and shared with others, performed while committing the terrible dulcimer faux pas of playing with your mittens on. Of course, he manages to individually pluck strings even with the mittens on, giving an even stronger impression that the story we are being told is framed in a completely unrealistic universe. From the funny-turned-strange storyline to the pointless repetition (it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!) to the clearly fake elk projection, The Fatal Glass of Beer leaves the viewer with a sense that they are in a world they do not understand but are somehow experiencing. Watching the film feels like riding a roller coaster blind; you think you had fun, but you have no idea what just happened.

Surely The Fatal Glass of Beer would have made more sense to a viewer in the 1930’s. The ending, in particular, might have resonated with Depression-era audiences more than a happy ending would. Just as there is no “happy ending” in the wake of financial disaster, The Fatal Glass of Beer does not try to give viewers the moral and emotional satisfaction of a son returned to his upright parents. Instead, the son is cast out, and the father, wrought with desperation, laments the fact that his son did not keep the money he stole to end up in jail. This surprise ending relieves the viewer of the pressure to conform to the “perfect” expectations that the cinema often impose. This short works particularly well as a parody because the audience secretly wants the morally upstanding, teetotaler father to have a desperate streak in him. The audience wants to see themselves reflected, and the goody-two-shoes families of the twenties didn’t reflect how the average person felt about their situation. By making fun of the “perfect ending,” the film sends the message that in times like this, it is normal to put aside morals for survival.

In a way, I think the comedy of the seventies echoes this. The seventies weren’t a whole lot of fun; between bad presidents, economic crisis, and social change, the nation’s morale was at an extreme low. Without faith in the government or the future, it’s pretty easy to see how a nation’s comedic tendencies would veer toward the absurd. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see the logic of villagers as they try to condemn a woman for being a witch, deciding that she was guilty because witches and wood both burn, wood and ducks both float, and the woman weighed the same as a duck. The rhetoric of the villagers teeters in between logic and idiocy, making connections based on word-play rather than reasoning. The whole situation is reminiscent of the style of Groucho Marx; unforgiving and brash, this style of comedy echoes a time period where the viewer does not believe things will get much better. Airplane mixes cultural humor with smart societal criticisms; everything from alcoholism (“I’ve got a drinking problem.”) to pedophilia (“Have you ever been inside a Turkish prison, Joey?”) is poked fun at. The characters in both films are inherently flawed in ways that films often portray to be unforgivable. They aren’t just messy or chronically late; they are murderers, pedophiles, selfish, and ignorant. Comedy in times of upheaval or national conflict gives the viewer a way to confide their confusion and fears within the context of the theater. Hollywood’s refusal to always give a happy ending during these times reflected the mood of the nation. Parody and bizarre comedy do more than make the viewer laugh through means of familiarity or the lack thereof. They change the way we think about society; without imperfect examples of humanity or an understanding of the feeling of confusion the nation felt, film would not have been a medium in which viewers could leave their downfalls and shortcomings at the door and relate to others.

Yes, I Still Think Will Hays is Boring.

 When the 1930’s began, talkies were stumbling out of their awkward toddler phase (think Lights of New York) and finally growing up. For some, the films grew up a little too fast. While Will Hays’ 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” gave some direction toward the film industry regarding vulgarity, the onset of sound created an entire new plane to be censored. Poor, Presbyterian Will was caught in the middle; between keeping the film producers happy, pleasing the religious right, and keeping the government out of the film business, Hays had a tough job on his hands. What he really wanted is to consolidate film censorship within the industry. Each state had its own censorship board with different rules, and these rules made it hard for one particular cut of a film to be able to be screened everywhere. With an industry-wide censorship board, the power would be out of the hands of the state boards and censorship would be standardized. The 1930 Production Code, headed by Martin Quigley and Father Lord, attempted to create a universe in which it was okay to show evil as long as good triumphed. The Code wasn’t enforced until 1934, when the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen, required that all films released must be submitted in order to receive the MPPDA seal of approval and be allowed to be shown. This new censorship didn’t necessarily make films boring. Now, filmmakers had to find creative ways to suggest things not allowed to be shown in the aftermath of the newly enforced Code.

Hollywood wanted respectability. This was the main motivating factor for adopting the Code– that, and keeping the government out of the film industry. In light of the scandals of the 1920’s and the dropped attendance brought on by the Great Depression, the film industry needed a way to become more palatable to the average viewer. The Code gave Hollywood a way to say “Hey! Look! We’re trying to be classy!” while giving the viewer an increasingly active imagination. It was in this time that the gangster movie and the musical flourished. The gangster movie, in particular, showed a triumph of good over evil at the end. The fast and selfish life of the gangster was always avenged by the good guy, usually a cop or detective. The gritty underworlds portrayed by the gangster movies and the musicals reflected depression-era pains. Clawing your way to the top, singing about money while actually being broke, desperately working for a lost dream; these scenes showed an America that was struggling, with the character aligned with the right moral side succeeding. The sadness and desperation of the depression gave way to these gritty characters but also to a completely different style of comedy.

Surprisingly, the comedy of the 1930’s did not necessarily reflect the happy, beautiful world dreamed up by the PCA. While the 20’s was filled with Charlie Chaplin telling the audience that things would get better, the 30’s gave way to comedy that assumed confusion, pain, and distrust in the audience. “The Fatal Glass of Beer” is an interesting example of 1930’s comedy. While it is totally bizarre, it also gives a typical moral message– a young boy goes to the city, tastes a fatal drink, goes to jail, and comes back home to his Ma and Pa. The strangeness in the piece lies in the ending. While the film shows Ma and Pa about to happily accept their boy and his newfound morals back into their home, the viewer is presented with a version of Pa that is unexpected. Pa asks if his son has kept any of the money that he went to jail for stealing. When the son answers “No,” Pa throws him out. Ma and Pa, in the desperate face of the depression, have seemingly lost their morals as well. I’m No Angel, filmed in 1934, features a woman who is the opposite of the Victorian flower; while she seduces men on stage, others working alongside her pickpocket patrons. In the world of the Depression, morals seem to be lost until the end of the film. Sarcastic, dark comedy gave a way a nation to express itself in the face of a painful economic crisis.

While the content of 1930’s film became racier, the PCA ensured that filmmakers had to find creative ways around direct references to vulgarity. This lent to an artistic style that allowed the audience to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. The MPPDA stamped films into the 1960’s, when the film industry gave way to a rating system. Throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, thousands of films were approved by the PCA. Because of this, our cultural memory of America has been altered. The censorship that began in the 1930’s forced upon us an image of an America where good always triumphs over evil, the world is clean and happy, and couples stay chaste. It is because of Will Hays that we view the first half of the century with such rose-colored glasses. Had film been allowed to more accurately portray reality, our memory of the world might not be so beautiful.

What’s So Great About Star Wars?

I can’t remember the first time I heard about Star Wars or encountered a Star Wars reference. As a version of A New Hope adapted to a children’s storybook format was read to me in preschool, I already knew who Luke’s father was despite having never seen the movies. Even my mother, who is a leader of the “this movie is so stupid” movement, can recognize Darth Vader or Princess Leia. Star Wars has completely immersed itself into our cultural consciousness. So what’s so great about it? It can be argued that the later success of Star Wars is partially due to Lucas’ obsessive re-releasing and intensive marketing, but that doesn’t explain the initial appeal. The storyline, while well-loved and inspirational, isn’t spectacularly complex or full of societal critique. I had never watched a Star Wars movie when I was twelve, and I never could see what all the fuss was about. Once I saw the original trilogy, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movies. The acting wasn’t that great, I think Carrie Fisher looks kind of funny, and the constant re-releases are irritating, but I still fully enjoyed it. There’s something about Star Wars that allowed me to be suspended from reality in a whole new way.

 

A quick Google search reveals the massive extended universe based around the Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of many more trilogies that have inspired as much nitpicking and arguing as Star Wars. Did Han shoot first? What language do Rodians speak? How many children did Luke and his future Jedi wife, Mara, have? Star Wars has inspired a universe in which millions of people have collectively created a past, present, and future. A canon was decided on by writers and producers under the head of Lucas, and thousands of different story lines for individual characters have sprouted from that. For some people, the Star Wars universe is as real as reality is. What makes it so believable? First, the idea that the film occurred “a long, long time ago” rather than on a future Earth gives us a sense of possibility. Something that happened in the history of a galaxy far, far away could have actually occurred. George Lucas might be a carbonite-frozen representative of Tatooine, sent to Earth to keep the heritage of the galaxy alive. There are plenty of myths circulating how Lucas came up with the idea for Star Wars. My favorite claims that he was in a coma and dreamt the entire thing from start to finish. It could be a message from God! That’s right; Lucas is an oracle.

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I think what really makes Star Wars unique is the fact that the universe which it takes place in is so worn. We meet Luke Skywalker on a dirty, tired moisture farm in Tatooine. He’s having dinner on plastic plates, getting cheated by salesmen, griping about his chores, and beating away at broken droids with tools that look like they’d probably break any delicate technology. Mos Eisley’s buildings are dirty and the town itself is rough around the edges. The Tusken Raiders are using outdated technology and wearing rags. We meet Han Solo, badass smuggler extraordinaire, when he is attempting to weasel his way out of a bad deal. His ship “doesn’t look like much,” and comparatively, the viewer understands why. The Millennium Falcon looks like it will break down any day now. The sleek, clean Imperial ships seem no match for the tired Falcon. The dirt and grime in the everyday world contrasts well with the sterile, institutional Imperial world. The contrast creates an idea that the Rebels are ragtag, the underdogs, while the powerful Empire can afford to pay a stormtrooper to personally clean Grand Moff Tarkin’s over starched uniform. Image

 

When I watch Star Wars, I see a universe I could actually live in. Previous science fiction movies tended to feature a shiny, clean future. This future seems so distant from the world that exists in 2013. It makes more sense to me that Han Solo wears a white shirt and some basic brown pants, but the clean, perfect uniforms in Star Trek bother me. People love the glamour of a rough world. From the gangster movie onward, a dirty, scruffy existence has a certain type of romance associated with it. There are so many types of professions displayed in Star Wars as well. Not everyone is a spaceship captain; some people are moisture farmers, bartenders, smugglers, bounty hunters or weird old hermits that have apparently been watching a seventeen year old boy since he was a baby. Star Wars isn’t just a set of movies. It’s an idea, a universe, that has been developed within the grimy, imaginative sandbox Lucas created.  

Silent Film: Quietly Changing the World

For someone who was supposedly such a great inventor, Edison has a lot of bad press circulating him. I feel like every time I open up a book about the early 1900’s (which isn’t often, but still) there’s some “fun fact” about what a gigantic jerk Edison was. Edison stole the design for the lightbulb! Edison tested the electric chair on an elephant! Edison peed on the White House lawn and then blamed it on Tesla!

 

The third one probably didn’t happen, but I can imagine it after all I’ve heard about him. I learned another fun fact the other day: Edison attempted to monopolize the early motion picture industry, effectively putting independent producers out of business and standardizing equipment to Edison’s own. He then proceeded to sue the tar out of anyone who attempted to make a motion picture with his cameras. By forming the Motion Picture Patents company (called “The Trust”), Edison managed to piss off yet another group of would-be innovators. Although the standardization of film equipment helped theaters and filmmakers, the formation of the Trust resulted in a huge crop of formulaic and quickly made films. Admittedly, this fact is less fun than the elephant one. Sorry about that.

 

Enter Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was an immigrant who used European film cameras in an attempt to break the Trust. The cameras were crappy, and Laemmle didn’t like that. So, he bought one of Edison’s cameras and started making films on the black market. Edison soon catches on; Laemmle is sued by the Trust 289 times. The Trust knew they were being broken by a couple of guys with black-market cameras, and they tried to fight back the only way they knew. But the results were simple; the Trust’s formulaic, cash cow films were being replaced by independent films that adopted the star system and were generally filmed in the middle of nowhere. That’s right: Hollywood, the iconic capital of weird boob jobs and huge sunglasses, was created by an immigrant with a dream to make great film and a generation of actors and producers willing to travel across the country to a tiny, scenic town in California to escape big business. How romantic does it get?

 

So now we have Hollywood, Laemmle’s newly opened Universal Studios, and a bunch of independents relying on a newly-formed star system rather than a plug-and-sell formula built for entertaining the masses. As it turns out, the masses loved it. Stars gave people an icon to hold fast to as a representation of all they hoped they could achieve. American films were no longer the equivalent of cheap Harlequin novels; they had depth, plot, and could even be considered art. Hollywood grew larger working with the government during WWI and entering a market of middle-class people who now saw movies as more than cheap entertainment. The 1920’s brought an era of city-versus-country messages, with swirling flappers and moral tales of the downfalls of booze filling the screen. As scandals grew in the early twenties, outrage began to blame Hollywood for the downfall of America’s morality. The industry knew that it had to have a new face, and Will Hays was the one they chose to represent them.

 

Now, Will Hays was not the kind of guy you’d see running around your cocktail party with a lampshade on his head doing Mickey Mouse impressions. In fact, he’s the complete opposite– a total bore who manages to censor all of the fun out of Hollywood. I don’t really blame him; without some sort of self-censorship, the industry likely would have been heavily censored by the government themselves at this early stage. The introduction of Will Hays is an interesting reflection of the “roaring 20’s” stereotype that permeates our historical memory. We often remember society in the twenties as being a tumultuous mess of alcohol, loose women, and few worries. What we don’t remember is the fact that most people were a lot more concerned with going to church, working hard to provide for their families, and being decent, law abiding citizens. My great-grandpa was probably a lot like Will Hays, and my great-grandmother probably did not appreciate the Fatty Arbuckle scandal or intense romantic scenes on-screen. They would have attended movies to be entertained within their comfort zone.

 

Even though Hollywood was growing as a glamourous cultural powerhouse, everyday people still wanted to be entertained in ways that spoke to them directly. From the country-versus-city themes that mocked the loose morals of the big towns to Charlie Chaplin’s hopeful depression-era messages of happiness through hardship, the lower and middle classes looked up to the movies as a way to have their fears, hopes, and ambitions expressed. While controversy about the responsibility of film as a media and scandal brought heavy censorship to the film industry, basic messages remained powerful enough to attract filmgoers throughout the rest of the silent era.