We finish out our Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist boxset with Citizen of the World containing two films that began life as hard-hitting pro-labor pieces and were both neutered to varying degrees by the outbreak of World War II. Pen Tennyson’s Proud Valley (1940) takes the heavier hit, with the ending being changed from miners seizing the means of production to “management plays an important guiding role” argument à la Metropolis. Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s documentary Native Land (1942), based on the finding’s of the Senate’s La Follette Committee investigating violence against labor organizers and organizations, pulls slightly fewer punches, with its release ending being a tacked on message from narrator Robeson about Nazis being the greater threat to freedom than bosses and the US government, but it was still suppressed for years afterward.
We continue the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist with two silent films: Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925) and Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson, 1925). Micheaux’s work is a “race film” made independently in the US, and is one of only a handful of the director’s works to survive. Likewise, the wildly experimental Borderline is the only surviving work of Macpherson and his Pool Group of British and American outsider artists working in Switzerland. Both are fascinating in their own light, but Borderline in particular exhibits film technique that are rather mind-blowing to see in the silent era.
William Greaves’ 1968 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm puts the experiment in experimental film. The documentary inside a documentary inside a third documentary, shot in public, essentially boils down to the director seeing how far he can push his cast and crew before they revolt — not violent push, but still an antagonistic one. It’s fascinating and absurd and wonderful. And I suppose it could be all fake.
We last heard from Noah Baumbach as the cowriter of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. One of our many guests on that 300th episode, Ben Jones-White, insisted that when we got around to doing Baumbach’s own feature debut he should join us, and nearly a year later we make good on that offer. Kicking and Screaming shares a lot of DNA with movies we love in and out of the Collection. It’s also the story of people a lot like I was in college. I hate them.
Our guest Ben also works with WikiTongues, an organization dedicated to documenting and saving languages all over the world. If you have the resources please support their work.
Slacker was one of our favorite films we’ve done for Lost in Criterion, but Richard Linklater’s follow-up Dazed and Confused’s marketing as a stoner comedy meant we know a lot of people who love the movie whose opinions we find suspect. Though, to be fair, a lot of people we know whose opinions should be trusted also like the movie. Anyway, we have a sprawling conversation on the dangers of nostalgia and whether or not Linklater agrees with the danger, because Pat doesn’t think he does and I can’t see how he doesn’t.
Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA provides us with a lot of talking points about Pat’s family history (and Appalachian geography’s effects on politics), the Anthropology version of the observer effect (and when keeping your subjects alive means breaking cardinal documentary rules), and what exactly constitutes a living wage (when income well above the today’s Federal minimum isn’t even enough for a guy living in a trailer on the side of a holler).
It’s uh…it’s a very good documentary.
Whit Stillman’s influence on Noah Baumbach is well documented, and from there it’s a short jump to influence on Baumbach’s friend Wes Anderson. But one thing watching Metropolitan really made me think about was Stillman’s influence on Kids in the Hall, particularly the similarities between the male leads here and almost any character played by Bruce McCulloch. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway, we continue what seems to be a series on the follies of the upper class. It also feels a bit like a more grounded rich people version of Slacker, though Linklater makes it a bit more clear which of his characters’ philosophical ramblings are meant to be laughed at.
The end of the year is always a time to look back, take stock, and redouble efforts to carry on. It’s been a year, but every year is.
Movies are powerful. The best of them take us outside ourselves and challenge us, but perhaps that’s just what I mean when I say “best”. This year we’ve seen some very good films, films I’d call timely, though in growing as a person I’ve realized that the messages I’m calling timely are always timely. We started early with a film that encouraged us to ask the right questions about revolution which also contained my one of my favorite sequences we’ve seen in any movie, one where everything has been commoditized and commercialized to such an extent that even Communism is being sold — at 15% off. We spent some powerful time in Poland dealing with Nazis and other authoritarians. And we saw films that act as propaganda for Authoritarians of a different set. We escaped with some Lubitsch and Donovan H. joined us to deconstruct Samurai films. Speaking of escape, we confronted hope and hopelessness in ways we haven’t yet with one of the best documentaries ever made, and attacked fakery and false authority in one of the best pseudo-documentaries ever made. There are lessons to be learned, positive and negative, all around us. But one felt particularly important in a world that seems mired in hatred.
In past years our winter special has been a violent film that ironically takes place on Christmas, for various definitions of irony. This year we expand our winter holiday corral and attack our own religious-centrism, gathering friends to watch a film that Disney rejected because they were certain no one would watch a movie about a Jewish mouse. Instead Don Bluth made it, and An American Tail became the highest grossing animated film in history until his next film, in turn inspiring Disney to spitefully revamp their own animation studio and kick off a Renaissance. Like most of Bluth’s work, the fact that this is a children’s film does not keep it from being dark, and does not keep it from teaching us important lessons about the state of the current world. Immigrants and refugees are fleeing oppression around the world. When they get to us, let them not find us as cats ready to pounce and oppress them anew. There are cats in America. But we can fight them, too.
In real life Abraham Lincoln was nothing if not pragmatic. He was the political disciple of Henry Clay, architect of the Missouri Compromise and the devil’s bargain that was The Compromise of 1850 which led to a few small gains on the Abolitionist front and a massive loss in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln himself was anti-slavery in as much as he was pro-white working class. One thing Young Mr. Lincoln gets very right is that Lincoln thought slavery undermined Free Labor. But like many white abolitionists of his time, while Lincoln was anti-slavery he was not pro-Black, and he argued as much in his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln’s just didn’t know what to do with non-enslaved Black people — probably send them to Africa, — but he did know that slavery was hurting white people, and so he was against it. Anyway, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is hardly historically accurate to actual events or the man’s character, but it’s still a good movie about an American hero.
In this week’s conversation I digress to talk about what I have recently learned about Karl Marx’s relationship to the early Republican Party in the US. While my research did not involve this Jacobin article, the piece is a good synopsis for those wanting to more beyond my rant.
For all the jokes about doing this until either we or the Criterion Collection itself dies I don't know that we ever realistically thought we'd be Lost in Criterion for this long. I suppose we may as well stick it out.
Wes Anderson is a favorite of the Collection and we will eventually see all of his films as part of it. He's also a favorite (or decidedly not) of many of our friends who we've invited on this week's episode to discuss his 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Long time friends Donovan Hill and Stephen Goldmeier return, as well as normally only Christmastime guests Andrew Tobias and Ben Jones-White. Our dear friend and musician Jonathan Hape sits in as well, and helps us run a slightly better set up for multi-guests in one room, though the recording does have some issues, principally an echo on multiple tracks that I wasn't able to track down. Let's pretend I added it on purpose to make the episode more whimsical.
Preston Sturges's most intellectual film, Sullivan's Travels, was an argument that non-intellectual films are ok. People love them! Not everything needs a deeper point! Still, as we mentioned last week with Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, Criterion has a tendency to serve us intellectual films, and that makes talking about a movie that doesn't want to say anything an ever unique experience for us.
Of course 1948's Unfaithfully Yours is still a very smart film. It's pitch-perfectly crafted and intensely funny even while maintaining a certain level of suspense.
Gus Van Sant originally started writing the film that would become My Own Private Idaho in the 70s, and wrote the other two films that would become My Own Private Idaho sometime before the film came out in 1991. Somehow despite the fact that it is very clear which portions of the final film come from the Shakespeare modernization script the film works cohesively -- just with wild changes in tone.