Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Making of An American'

It could be the first public service announcement.

The Making of An American
Dir: Guy Hedlund
Scr: unknown
Phot: unknown
Premiere: 1920
14 min.

The Making of An American is an educational film created for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization by the Worcester Film Corporation in 1920. It promotes the learning of English by immigrants; in a larger and more subtle sense, it’s a blueprint for their aspirations. It’s a quiet little masterpiece of idealism.

Then as now, there was extreme concern by white nationalists that immigrants were going to take over and ruin the country — only then, the fear was of incomers from Italy and Poland (the film incorporates both languages in places, a reach out to its target audiences). Then as now, immigrant minorities were stigmatized both for sticking together and for demanding integration and equality. This short is a practical parable about the ideal path outlined for the (presumably legal) immigrant in American democratic process. The path to political consequence starts with the wisdom of assimilation.

First we see poor Italian Pete. He’s just off the boat, and hopelessly monolingual. His already naturalized friend Tony shows off his house to Pete — a concrete, universal aspirational goal is established. Next, Tony tries to land him a job. The supervisor addressed is never humanized; he’s simply a man at a desk with his back to the camera. “Do you know how to work an elevator?” (Ironic foreshadowing!) “Can’t he talk English?” No job for Pete.

Pete ambles down the street until he hears a man speaking his language. He is supervising day laborers digging a trench. Can Pete work here? Yes, he can. It’s about the only job he can get, and it’s not a pleasant one. “There are always jobs enough in America, but not the kind Pete expected.” Even the cartman into whose vehicle Pete shovels debris seems to be grinning derisively down at him.

Pete is trapped in a hell of his own making. “The dream of a beautiful home has vanished. The day’s toil ends in a sordid tenement, amid noise and dirt.”

Now comes the crisis. Pete can’t read the sign ‘WHEN BELL RINGS KEEP CLEAR OF THE GATE”, falls down the elevator shaft, and breaks his leg. As he limps away from the hospital, he sees a sign advertising English classes. Chastened by fortune, he enters, reluctantly.

“By easy stages, the sounds of English became familiar to the foreign ear.” The teacher coaches the class through the symbolic phrase, “I – open – the –door.” Now he’s part of something, a larger group, a similar set of adults engaged in movement toward a common goal. Pete struggles to repeat a phrase, then smiles as he masters it. He is adapting, redeveloping himself into an American.

Time passes, and Pete is wearing snazzier clothes and sporting a cigar. Things are happening for him. Pete can now communicate, take instruction, operate heavy machinery. Pete can contribute more to the economy, his value has risen. “Now it’s up to you to make good money!” says the boss.

One year later, and Pete graduates from his English course. He can read, write, and speak the language. “And at the factory Pete had at length gained the position to which his real ability entitled him.” Now Pete’s the boss, in a nifty straw hat! Now in comes a new, struggling, wolfish-looking immigrant — who can’t speak English. Pete has a flashback. Of course, he counsels the young man to do as he did.

The years pass, and Pete’s got a home, and a wife, and an arbor of grapes, an explicit symbol of earned merit, sufficiency, and peace. He is noted for his “public spirit” and is chosen to be head of the “Safety Council,” improving working conditions. He becomes a benefactor by taking his civic responsibility seriously. At a council meeting, he rises and speaks with apparent eloquence and verve. He is somebody.

“IF YOU KNOW MEN OR WOMEN WHO DON’T KNOW ENGLISH, URGE THEM TO GO TO NIGHT SCHOOL” declares the film at its finish. The benefits are straightforwardly articulated. That the path to empowerment wasn't so smooth or sometimes failed to materialize is outside its purview.

The English-language assimilation in my own family had its own pattern. The ones who came over on the boat learned English with varying degrees of success, but still thought and dreamed in Danish and German, and still spoke it to each other. (It helped that they had their own foreign-language presses, and newspapers, which perpetuated the mother tongue.) Their children, born here, zealously embraced their American identities — not that they spurned their heritage. The children of those children, my parents, knew only fragments of the immigration narrative, pieces jumbled and lost. I still fumble with the pieces, trying to put them all back together.

I leaf through my great-grandfather’s sermons, wrought in excellent penmanship, entirely in Danish. I sigh and look at my Danish-English dictionary and sigh and wonder when I will find the time to work the magic backward, to sail over the linguistic sea and relearn the mother tongue, to unlock his long-dormant thoughts.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Mark of Zorro.’

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Formative Film 18: 'Love and Death'

'Wheat . . . lots of wheat . . . '

FORMATIVE FILM: An autobiography in movies

Love and Death
Dir: Woody Allen
Prod: Fred T. Gallo, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Poll
Scr: Woody Allen
Phot: Ghislain Cloquet

This was Woody Allen’s last film before he garnered spectacular mainstream success and critical acclaim with Annie Hall in 1977. Thus, it counts as the last of his purely “funny” films. In Annie Hall and after, there is always at least a hint of seriousness in his work. This can work profoundly well, as shown in Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors; in many other films, his wit is dulled, and his work slides into a deadly sense of self-regard.

That being said, if we roll back the years we find me, his most avid fan, eagerly awaiting the debut of his next comic masterpiece. I had already fallen in love with his nebbish persona in Play It Again, Sam and Sleeper.

His comic persona was certainly one I could identify with: the oddball, the smart but awkward weirdo with glasses and bad skin, trying desperate to understand a world not made for his benefit. It was carefully crafted out of Hope and Marx and Chaplin, and was the best-realized comic identity of the day. Woody Allen was a throwback to a classic comedic type — the poor soul, the perennial loser. “You’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had.” “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”

American comedy was in transition. When Allen started working in comedy, comics wore tuxes and had jokes written for them. Allen was part of the wave of self-scripted, highbrow but informal comic minds of the 1950s and 1960s. Part of his appeal was his aggression. His repressed fury at the ridiculousness of life exploded through brilliant jokes. Disguised as a nerd, he was actually a rebel we could identify with.

In this film, Woody is Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward (“. . . but I’m a MILITANT coward”) who gets sucked into the Napoleonic Wars and comes out an unlikely hero. Meanwhile, he narrates the up-and-down nature of his lifelong romance with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton). Nothing quite works out for sad-sack Boris, who in the meantime cracks wise about the absurdities around him, existential and otherwise. (“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning.”)

Love and Death is a parody of pretentious seriousness, of, specifically, intimidating Russian literature and film. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are pummeled here, so is Eisenstein (and Ingmar Bergman suffers some blows to the groin). Great cultural moments are just there to set up the punchlines. Everyone in the film is oblivious to the silliness of it all — except for Woody and us. That wonderful sense of being in on it turns us into accessories.

The biggest gift the film gave to me was a sense of exuberance and possibility. I hadn’t seen this kind of anarchic energy on film since the Marx Brothers. Allen takes the trouble to make the movie look as legit as possible — the settings are opulent, the edits are ambitious, the camerawork is innovative (when it’s not mimicking its betters). All these choices make the film stronger. It’s half in love with everything it makes fun of, and that affectionate scorn lights up the film and makes it more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, as Allen’s career progressed, his movies became as weighty, airless, and pretentious as those he earlier mocked. It’s hard to age as an artist; sometimes you get stuck.

And as far as his personal life goes, I know that he may be a despicable human being. But his work still entertains me and lifts me up, so I still go back to it, and I still write about it. The list of great artists who are terrible people is long and getting longer every day. I have to separate the creative spirit from the mess of a person it inhabits. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading Dickens, or appreciating Shakespeare, or looking at Degas, or listening to Domingo.

It would be nice of our favorite artists were heroes, and that all art was ennobling. They aren’t and it isn’t. Monsters create beauty, and beauty often lacks the power to transform either its creators or its audience. The impulse that drives it is morally neutral. Nonetheless, our need generates it, and sometimes of great value comes of it — even though its source seems as impossible one.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Sinking of the Lusitania'

On May 7, 1915, the British passenger ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a torpedo launched by a German U-boat and sank off the Irish coast. Of its 1,962 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. This traumatic event propelled the United States into World War I, and served as a benchmark of outrage that motivated everyone from statesmen to soldiers to go Over There.  

‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’
Dir: Winsor McKay
Scr: Winsor McKay
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: July 20, 1918

12 min.

In years since, the incident has become more ambiguous. The construction of the ship in 1904 was financed by the British Admiralty, it was given powerful engines and the capacity to be converted to war use. The British government has been faulted by several historians for allowing the shipment of a substantial amount of munitions— 4,200 crates of rifle ammunition, 51 tons of shrapnel shells, and more — in the Lusitania’s hold, which made it a legitimate target in German eyes caused a second explosion that doomed the ship. It is asserted by a few that that the British government connived to see the Lusitania sunk, precisely to lure the U.S. into the war.

But at the time, it was a genuine shock. It colored a Preparedness militancy movement that was encouraged by the popular press. It swayed the American public, which went from a majority for neutrality in 1914 to one for declaring war only three years later, on April 6, 1917. American idealism was engaged. This was the war to end all wars, which would make the world safe for democracy.

It touched people, one of whom as the cartoonist and pioneer animator Winsor McCay. He was already well-known as the creator of iconic characters such as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Gertie the Dinosaur.” He, with his assistants John Fitzsimmons and Apthorp ‘Ap’ Adams began the laborious hand-work of drawing and photographing the 25,000 images that make up this 12-minute narrative, advertised as “Winsor McCay’s penpicture of the blackest crime of all history”.

As the first dramatic animated film, it’s a hauntingly sublime account of the facts as they were known at the time. Simultaneously, it’s inevitably a piece of propaganda, “a historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity.”

As we have seen before in McCay’s films, he is very open and inclusive about his process, the sheer magnitude of which at the least makes it memorable. The painstaking work of drawing one animation cel after another must have been excruciating. (For some shots, McCay figured out how to make a set of repeated-cycle background drawings against which he would draw objects in movement.) We see McCay at his desk, as a “Mr. Beach” gives the details of the sinking. We see his office, with stacks of paper and six assistants (none of whom are Fitzsimmons or Adams). McCay’s ambitious attempt to render full animation as a kind of documentary is treated almost as a stunt or magic trick.

The film proper begins, and we see the Lusitania’s four funnels and the distinctive, rakish set to the bow. It steams past the Statue of Liberty as a curtain is drawn across the scene.

A title reads: “Germany, which had already benumbed the world with its wholesale killing, then sent its instrument of crime to perform a more treacherous and cowardly offense.” Against ironically beautiful renderings of sea and sky, the submarine looms into view had-on, then we see it surface in profile. It is so well-drafted it almost looks rotoscoped

We watch the intersecting trajectories of the liner and the submarine. Two fish do a double take, then swim out of the way as the torpedo approaches the ship’s hull. We see the explosion, the scattering of debris, gouts of smoke churning up into the sky. It’s all very compelling. The smoke finally obscures the screen . . .

Then we are given a list of “men of world wide prominence” who were killed – writer Elbert Hubbard, playwright Charles Klein, tycoon Alfred G. Vanderbuilt, producer Charles Frohman. The smoke lifts again . . . “Germany, once a great and powerful nation, had done a dastardly deed in a dastardly way.” A woman in the waves, as in the background overloaded lifeboats descend. A swamped boat floats into view.

The “second torpedo” explosion is shown, making the Germans’ actions seem all more despicable. The ship heels over to starboard and begins to sink by the bow. Suddenly, hair-raisingly we can see small figures leaping, falling into the water, and it’s visceral like 9/11, and I can smell what Ground Zero smelled like a week after that attack. Then it becomes easier to imagine the feelings that prompted McCay to make this picture.

The morbid fascination that disasters inspire is at work here, in the masochistic fascination with the agonies of death and destruction, the insistence on martyrhood, the only way to make sense of it. “No warning was given – no mercy was shown,” says the title. “The babe that clung to his mother’s breast cried out to the world – TO AVENGE the most violent cruelty that was ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and innocent people.”

Throughout, McCay’s style is dark and severe. The looming hulls, the smoke that has a life of its own, everything in the film has a sinister cast, miles away from McCay’s usual sunny fantasies. Just to drive the message home, we see finally a mother and baby sink to their deaths beneath the waves. The title blares, “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! – AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

Unfortunately, it took McCay more than three years to complete the 12-minute project. The U.S. was well into the war by the time the film debuted on July 20, 1918; the conflict would end on November 11.

Historical hindsight is what it is; emotional arguments are the strongest. Whatever else it was, the sinking of the Lusitania was a tragedy. In terms of film, it pushed the boundaries of what could be done, and what could be pictured, outward. In the words of McCay biographer John Canemaker, “. . . the film was a milestone in the demonstration of the alternatives available to the creative animation filmmaker.”

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.