Monday, October 18, 2010

Through a Lens Darkly: When the First is Not Necessarily the Best

In the underrated film, The Savages, Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman play a brother and sister pair who are faced with the challenge of sending their deteriorating father to an assisted living facility. During a group therapy session, in which the group leader instructs everyone to find something from their parent's past that will ignite nostalgia and help them remember their past lives, the two decide to throw a classic movie night at the senior home. The film they pick is a classic, no doubt, but the reaction that the audience generates is less so nostalgic, more disgusted and horrified. The film is question is The Jazz Singer, which holds the honor of being the first full length talking picture in cinematic history.

It is also the story of one man who derives happiness and freedom from performing in blackface as part of a house band.

Though the two siblings are well intentioned and mean no ill harm in their selection of the film, it makes for an awkward and quite embarrassing confrontation with the African-American orderlies on their way out of the auditorium.

Why did I include this vignette, exactly? Well, try this on for size; while The Jazz Singer is undoubtedly a landmark in the history of motion pictures, today, it is severely dated, and borderline racist(Did I mention the blackface?!). In fact, the DVD cover above right, released just a few years ago, cannot even show the image of Al Jolson, but to those who are familiar with the film, we know exactly what is taking place beyond the shadow. Just because it changed the history of film, does that make it a great film?

Every ten years, the American Film Institute (AFI) will compile a list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, and in the past ten years, the AFI has given the film, The Birth of a Nation, a spot on its list. Birth is included because of its exciting special effects, which for its time, must have been something many filmmakers tried to apply to their movies, but failed at doing to. Birth is also a piece of propaganda that glamorizes the Klu Klux Klan, and now serves as a tool for indoctrinating new KKK members. To think that something so reprehensible could still carry clout and popularity in the world of film is appalling, but alas, we have to at least attempt to appreciate its importance.

An example I refer to quite often is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Disney Vault released this puppy as a kick start for both its Platinum and Diamond Collections, which showcase Disney's most prestigious films. It is ranked #1 on the AFI's list of Top Ten Animated Films of all time, and, like The Jazz Singer, it is a milestone, known throughout film history as the first full length Animated film. Though Hollywood expected it to fail, Walt Disney delivered a unique and at the time, unprecedented American movie, and you need only look at the number of small girls in Snow White gowns at Halloween to comprehend the gravity of its success.

Here is when the gloves come off, and I quit the obligatory praising: I hate Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I think it is a dull film with a weak, anti-feminist heroine who dotes on a sexist notion that the key to her freedom is through a man saving her. She is bland, hopelessly in love, and trusts her surroundings far too much for someone her age. A prince just saunters on by her castle, and, no questions asked, Snow White is smitten, and she decides that she loves Mister. Breaking and Entering with all of her delicate sing songy heart.

Am I cynical? Possibly, but take what I just mentioned and apply it to modern cinema. A film with a female protagonist as passive as Snow White can, and does, send feminist scholars and decent human beings alike into a rabid frenzy. Consider the message it gives to young girls: that you should have people do things for you, that the man of your dreams is a good natured stalker, and your place in the home is to clean and cook for your friends and family. It's horse shit, we know this, but still, it is quite prevalent in films of past and present.

However, to play devil's advocate, you can appreciate Snow White for being the first of its kind. And to be fair, it reflected the types of movies that were made for entertainment in the late 1930's. To a family who just got out of the Great Depression, a light hearted musical cartoon with cute critters and silly little men sounds aces better than a drab reminder of the horrible period of history they just emerged from.

Yes, stories that were as complex as they are today would cost studios fortunes to produce, and not to mention, the subject matter would be way over the heads of everyday middle class Americans in the early 20th Century. Something like Inception would probably flop due to lack of technology, while the wonderfully surreal Blue Velvet would land its director in prison for pornography and degradation charges. Something like Snow White was difficult enough to pull off, so an extra element of complexity would only cause disarray.

But back to my original point. When the two films I discussed were originally released, their messages reflected a respective period of time for America. A time when minstrel shows were common place and African-Americans were still unequal. A period when women were expected to dote on their husbands and get boring housework done while the boys go off and play. Thankfully, times change, and the messages we saw then shifted as Civil Rights and the Woman's Liberation Movement kicked into gear. It is entirely acceptable to watch The Jazz Singer and marvel at how much of a trailblazer it was at its time, but when we start to accept its core values and dismiss the crucial elements of the story, that is, I think, when our devotion to the film grows askew and should be severed.

If you wanted to show your child Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs today, I would not call you a bad parent or crucify you on the spot. However, what your child takes from the movie and the messages you feed them at a young age will most certainly alter and affect their way of thinking. Though I will not entirely poo-pooh the thought of owning the film, I would suggest looking at different, more multi-dimensional films for children, ones that are marvelous without pandering too heavily to small children, and will, at the same time, hold the parent's interest. I may not be a parent, but I know that good kids movies do exist, and that the messages they hold on to resonate much stronger than that of a dated Disney cartoon.

To sum things up, cinema is advancing rapidly, as are the quality of films and the amount of things that are both plausible and acceptable in movies. Innovation is crucial to how films are made and produced, and when a film showcases a technological feat, such as sound, or effects, or animation, it most definitely deserves high praise. In plenty of cases, we can enjoy films in spite of their dated morals and messages, and in many other cases, we cannot. To the geriatric patients in The Savages, something like The Jazz Singer brings them back to their childhoods. On the flip side, the African-American patrons see a different film, one that mocks, lampoons, and parades an unacceptable form of racism. Personally, I can look at the films mentioned above and dissect them, and with each layer, pull apart many different stories. Though in the end, their stories remain just that, stories, which I cannot agree with, but will nonetheless analyze. It is likely that another film could have come along and taken each respective place as the first whatever, but with history being as it is, we can only stop and observe, no matter how bitter the aftertaste.

No comments:

Post a Comment