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by Diepiriye Kuku

19 Nov 2009


See A Patch of Blue (1965), staring Sidney Poitier who by that time was already a seasoned actor. Recall that Poitier only two years earlier, he was the first Black actor to win an academy award for his role in (white) Lilies in the Field, where he played a Magic Negro for sure. One interesting sub plot in that film, which seems to underscore it’s play on race, Poitier is the only ‘American’ in the film, save for the stingy white man. It’s one of those message films. Got the message?

Yet, we gotta love A Patch of Blue. Poitier plays another Magic Negro who appears from out of nowhere just when the white protagonist is in distress (see the first five minutes of Imitation of Life, or just watch The Pelican Brief or The Legend of Baggar Vance to see more Magic Negroes). Of course, the blind girl drops her precious beads, and he’s more than willing to help her. This is where the trouble starts: the two ‘inadvertently’ touch, and this is a prelude to the ‘dangerous’ intimacy they will share. Then outs her: In the plot of the film, the magic Negro character that Poitier portrays is the first to actually acknowledge her blindness, and to not do so in the negative way in which we are introduced to her, through her angry folks at home.

We watch as the two outsiders briefly lament about how differently they see the world around them, including flashbacks of the girl describing what might have been her last vision. She describes her disfigurement as if becoming a nigger. Of course, they play around the race line, and show that she can ‘see’ difference, yet race is invisible to her despite how tall or short they are and how differently they talk. Race, this scene seems to say, is so simple that even a blind person doesn’t trip over it the way able-bodied people do.

Next the negro performs this stock character’s most distinctive magic feat: In true Magic Negro style, Poitier turns moral leader and in the process of just a short, casual conversation, he is the first person to ever reveal to the white outcaste that she’s not nearly as ugly and incapable as the world seems to tell her. He plants the seed of pride. Magic Negros are chock full of pride.

The Magic Negro character, which later morphed into the black-best-friend, is beyond reproach, totally unlike any and all ‘other’ negroes, and especially mulattos. And, equally true to form, he won’t challenge the natural, if not unjust, order of things; his raison d’être is to demonstrate that magical negro moral fortitude, despite the negro’s ‘natural’ disadvantages. In these films’ the negro’s subordinate status is portrayed as natural because racism is usually never challenged, and the white-best-friend is always color blind in stark contrast to the uncool whites. This common fantasy helps distance reality from reason by showing that social inequality is not really all that bad because negroes apparently come out unscathed; magic Negroes have none of the rage more commonly associated with mainstream stereotypes of blacks. Moreover, the characters are always dedicated, happy even, to teaching the benevolent white characters on how we persevere.

There are few clearer examples of this fantasy than the Magic Negro in the Green Mile. Despite having the power to heal and even give life, the Magic Negro accepts his death penalty and in a coup of plots, the big, black, Magic Negro absolves his white-best-friends- the benevolent prison guards, distinct from the bumbling racist sissy they demonized and threw out just to make sure we knew which whites were good.

Like I have pointed out in an earlier critique of the Green Mile, consider the closing scenes of Imitation of Life, where the white-best-friend learns after years of service that her Magic Negro maid/nanny/best-friend has a life outside her whitopian, suburban home, and has maintained ties to other Black people for years. At the maid’s funeral, we see her tragic mulatto daughter vowing never to deny her mother again, as Mahalia draws out a moving hymn in the background. The scene actually shows how the Magic Negro character got over- how she persevered. One wonders where was the Magic Negro’s soul in the Green Mile, for in spite of his circumstances relative to the white-best-friend who is shown to almost succumb to all that pressure, the Magic Negro always chooses life. Watch to see if 1965’s A Patch of Blue deviates from this formula.

by Diepiriye Kuku

10 Jun 2009


The Thanksgiving scene in the movie version of The Color Purple was a fake out, like Luther Vandross’s false ending on A House is Not a Home. The music slows to a whimper, and Luther chants ever so softly. Then, he brings it on home.

Ella Fitzgerald does the same thing on How High the Moon. In 1966’s The Stockholm Concert with Duke Ellington, Ella performs some of her grittiest skats.

“I guess I better quit while I’m ahead,” Ella lightly croons after what sounds like improv- a dynamic jam session between a stage chock full of greats. Then, the beat drops to a snare and Ella digs in with a real nasty groove.

While the drum drones, Ella is growling and trilling, riffing and ranting like a trombone, two trumpets and a sax together. One can almost imagine her shoulders squeezing and releasing like a tense metronome as the snare races. It’s funkier than the Miles Davis Quintet, and Ella even does a great Miles!

by Sean Murphy

30 Mar 2009


From Sunday’s New York Times: On March 29, 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.

I can’t recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change. With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie’s third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce. As such, the film’s first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the ‘80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the ‘90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.

The Deer Hunter’s second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country’s history, I’ve yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.

The Deer Hunter, The Last Night

by Sean Murphy

17 Jun 2008


In the late summer of 1982, two distinct entities from outer space infiltrated planet earth. One was a prehistoric creature with the ability to kill, then imitate its prey: it could attack its victims while remaining disguised amongst them by, in effect, becoming them. The other was an unusual looking but friendly creature, a voyager from another place with god-like powers of healing, an odd voice, and an affinity for Reese’s Pieces.

Guess which one fared better?

Of course, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the hit of ’82, and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing had the famously unfortunate timing of opening two weeks later. That many people did not see it is a shame; that many critics dismissed it is typical. To be certain, it didn’t help matters that the assembled brain trust agonized over the relatively brief, but exceptionally gory special effects. Inevitably, they aged quickly—and rather poorly. While one can appreciate the attention paid to these ostensibly “scary” scenes, they are (ironically? inexorably?) the weaker moments in the film. It being a Carpenter production, cohesion and plot are occasionally undermined in ways that seem half-assed or ham-fisted. Still, after repeated viewings it manages to work on multiple levels, and despite any nitpicking it seems impossible to improve upon. The definition of a classic, perhaps, but it is something more, something more complicated than that. It is a unique and enigmatic movie; in hindsight it is easy to understand how it evolved, over time, from a cult classic to its current status as must-own DVD material (alas, no 25th anniversary deluxe edition arrived in 2007, but the existing Collector’s Edition—from 1998—is quite satisfactory): it needed time to truly find its audience.

So, aside from bad timing and a final product that feels, at times, oddly forced despite the obvious (and well documented) care and consideration that went into it, what is it that remains so right about this movie? For starters, it is to Carpenter’s credit that he assembled such a spectacular cast: virtually all of the actors make the absolute most of their relatively limited screen time, but Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Richard Masur are in particularly fine form. As for Kurt Russell, it is amazing to recall that his role as R.J. MacReady came only a year after his testosterone-athon as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (also directed by Carpenter), making this quite the one-two punch for both men. Considerable credit must also be given to Bill Lancaster’s excellent screenplay (to read John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is both to appreciate where the spirit of this film comes from—more so than the sci-fi classic The Thing from Outer Space that it was ostensibly updating—and appreciate how much Lancaster did with relatively little, in terms of actual plot, character development and drama).

It is, as intended, Kurt Russell’s film, but special mention must be made for the near miraculous performance of Wilford Brimley—a man who is perhaps best known as the wise-cracking senior citizen from Cocoon or as the Quaker Oats guy, or recently (and, thanks to the brilliant monkeys working around the clock on youtube, amusingly), the spokesperson with a tendency to mispronounce the most unamusing word in the English language, diabetes. As Dr. Blair, Brimley’s presence provides an austere integrity and the necessarily brainy moral grounding for events that would otherwise be in constant jeopardy of degenerating into parody. His dead-serious assessment of what is going on—before anyone else has figured things out—invests the growing unease inside the camp with a gravitas that makes it painfully clear, to the viewer, what is at stake. Later, after being secluded in a storage shed, the men visit him in a scene that manages to be sad, disturbing and comical.

One scene in particular offers perhaps the best illustration of why this movie continues to resonate, and why it was not fully successful as either a slam-bam action flick or a serious drama: Blair sits alone, at his desk, running a computer simulation of the diabolically efficient way the alien is infecting his team. In less than thirty seconds, the look on his face turns from world-weary stoicism to resigned acknowledgment of the likely consequences—for the men, and the rest of the world. Interestingly (and again, ironically?) it is probable that the impetus for this particular sequence, in addition to the obvious and necessary advancement of the plot in as succinct and clear a manner as possible, was to show-off the high-tech computer programming, circa 1982. Like the over-the-top transformation scenes, it is more hilarious than harrowing to look at the extraordinarily primitive technology, today. And yet, it worked, then, and works now, because of its stark imagery: in its way, it’s ten times more terrifying to watch the simulated organism at work, one blob on a screen capturing and assimilating its prey, than it is to watch the scattered “money shots” when the creature reveals itself.

Perfection is a word that should never be used lightly, but no other word will suffice for the wonders Ennio Morricone works, scoring this film. The name Morricone is—and should be—associated with brilliance, variety and superhuman productivity, just to pick a few obvious choices. While the list of only his very best efforts is not short, his work here must be considered amongst the top tier: The Thing would be unimaginable without it. Rather than overwhelming, or distracting the action on the screen—as film scores do with distressing regularity these days—Morricone’s music exists mostly on the periphery, in the corners and inside the shadows. Its effectiveness serves an almost opposite purpose to the handful of over-the-top alien transformations: the real horror of the story lies in the tension of not knowing, the dread of isolation and the fear of being assailed by an inexplicable enemy. Morricone subtly embellishes the otherwise silent scenes, where the only sounds are the Antarctic winds, the silence and the darkness. As the paranoia increases, strings are plucked like raw nerves, while stark, almost soulless keyboard drones mirror the growing desperation: the music exists as a wind chill factor, making everything colder and more forlorn than it already is.

And last but certainly not least: The Thing provides one of the best endings of any movie, ever. To use the word perfect, again, would seem silly, but there is no getting around it: the ending is perfect. Indeed, it’s even better than perfect, considering the pressure Carpenter must have felt to inject the type of horseshit heroic conclusion American audiences usually require. Carpenter’s decision to go with the ambivalent ending (which, actually, is truly heroic as opposed to some manufactured deus ex machina sequel-ready sendoff) very likely killed his chance at commercial viability. Carpenter knew this and did it anyway, saving both the movie’s integrity and his soul in the process. The fact that The Thing has attracted video sales ever since is wonderfully poetic justice, and confirms that you can occasionally scoff at the big studio machine and come out okay. Bottom line: Spielberg’s alien may have won the box office battle, but everyone knows that his maudlin Peter Pan wouldn’t have stood a chance at Outpost 31.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2007


Is it possible for a writer to be too prescient? Could they be so in tune with the turning tide inside a stalwart of cultural existence that their insight goes from being clever to creepy? Such is the case with one Paddy Chayefsky and his take on the manipulation of the news media called Network. Thirty years ago, critics were agog at the notion that something as sacred as the evening news would or ever could be turned into a platform for demagogic rants, unimportant tabloid scandal, and agenda-based crusading.

Sadly, this brilliant scribe, responsible for The Hospital, Marty, and The Catered Affair, didn’t live to see his scenario come frighteningly true. We now live in a time when information has been usurped by infotainment and 24-hour cable stations offer rant time for the demagogic, exploit every scandal to untold tabloid proportions, and let their left or right freak flags fly brilliantly. You may indeed question whether we have actually come to the point where acts of political crime and social terrorism are run as part of basic prime-time programming. The answer? Ever watch TLC, or Court TV?

When longtime UBS anchorman Howard Beale learns that he will be “forcibly” retired, he makes a shocking statement on that night’s news. One week to the day, he will commit suicide on national television. Naturally, the stunt gets him fired, but the public seems intrigued. Over the better judgment of News Division President Max Schumacher, Beale is left on the air. The next day, he explains his actions with a simple phrase. After years of telling the people the “truth,” he just “ran out of bullshit.” The expletive gets him yanked again, but the climb in the ratings gets the attention of entertainment programmer Diana Christensen.

She sees the possibility of turning Beale into a prophet, a mad monk of the medium spouting off about the ills of society. While simultaneously developing a prime-time show centering on a group of renegade radicals, Christensen approaches corporate bigwig Frank Hackett with a proposal. She will take over the nightly news and turn it into a hit show. Of course, Schumacher refuses, but success breeds strange bedfellows and Beale’s late-night revelation of his new “calling” creates an instant national phenomenon. Suddenly, UBS is not just some podunk pariah. It is now a viable and visible network. However, as with all prophecy, doom and gloom are not far behind and destruction will meet all those who pretend to play God—even if it’s just on TV or in the corridors of corporate power.

When it was first released in 1976, Network was nothing short of a satiric revelation. It hinted at the horrors that could come if TV turned its back on the public interest and instead pursued the all-mighty dollar. It dug deep into the crawling corporatization of the media and argued against allowing multinational interests to filter into and through the fourth estate. It spit on the First Amendment, flirted with outright controversy, and made outrageousness and ridiculousness seem prophetic but improbable. With Walter Cronkite seated behind the CBS chair, trusted like no one else in Bicentennial America, there were no Howard Beales waiting in the wings for their insignificant sound bite of fame.

In 2007, however, Network plays like a blueprint for a myriad of modern pundits. To today’s viewer, Beale becomes a crazy combination of Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, and Geraldo Rivera. Where once the news was a sanctuary of ethical considerations and investigative insight, it has now become a chatty-Cathy coffee-klatch commiserating over the communal back fence, arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong (or left), and how much sex, drugs, and residual rock-and-roll was involved.

As a movie, Network is nearly perfect, one of those cinematic statements that its participants can wear with special, inexhaustible pride. It was a breathtaking final testament to Peter Finch’s acting acumen, a reminder that William Holden wasn’t a longstanding member of the Hollywood hierarchy for nothing, and a realization of Faye Dunaway’s incredible bravery. Everyone in the cast, from corporate raider patsy Robert Duvall to Ned Beatty’s capitalist-as-biblical-serpent Arthur Jensen, radiates a kind of performance flawlessness that one just doesn’t find in most modern movies.

Certainly credit must be given to American auteur Sidney Lumet. He discovered the heart and soul of Chayefsky’s surrealistic statement and infused the entire project with a kind of knowing authenticity that made it even more powerful. For a director whose legendary output is impressive, to say the least (he is responsible for many masterful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, just to name a few), Network stands as one of his greatest triumphs. Its compact completeness and sense of plausible implausibility draws laughs out of lunacy, sorrow out of selfish egotism.

True, this is really a writer’s film. There are no action scenes to highlight a filmmaker’s flair or narrative gimmicks (like mental impairment or physical flaws) to show the actors’ obvious bravado. No, what Chayefsky created was a poetry of purpose, a lyrical lassoing of the insanity derived from the post-Watergate world of TV news. He was singing a sentimental, silly dirge to a dying giant and his stanzas as speeches are some of the best-crafted screenwriting ever attempted. There are several standout spoken set pieces, not just the instances where Beale goes ballistic for his nightly news tirades. When the obviously insane newsman tells his audience to go to the windows and yell out that seminal statement of stagnant citizenry, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” the words leading up to the chant are far more effective than the catchphrase itself.

Similarly, Ms. Christensen uses a bargaining deal for some James Bond films as seduction, foreplay, and pillow talk during a frantic sex scene. Holden delivers a devastating denouement about broken relationships as he says farewell to his accidental mistress, while Ned Beatty delivers the movie’s main theme—how the upcoming “new world order” will be papered in multinational conglomerate stock options, not U.N. peacekeeping initiatives or CARE packages—like a preacher gone potty.

In fact, one of the most amazing things that you see when you watch Network some 30 years later, aside from how right on its predictions about television were, is how hopeful it seemed. When Beale’s fire-and-brimstone act comes back to bite the UBS executives in their aspirations, the actions discussed to “eradicate” their crisis are unapologetically absurd—at least, that’s how Chayefsky sees it. He is writing from a position of shuttered optimism. He knows things are bad, but he can’t imagine they’d ever get to the point were murder might solve programming problems. He argues that the people wouldn’t cotton to such craven cruelty and they especially wouldn’t tolerate it being shown on national television.

Perhaps it’s better then that Chayefsky left this planet when he did. He missed Morton Downey Jr. and his gladiatorial gross-out as chat show. He didn’t see Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer pull a .45-caliber Magnum out of a manila envelope and put the business end in his mouth, committing suicide in front of a live press conference crowd. He didn’t get to see Jerry Springer or Richard Bey, or bask in the bloated glow of misguided media moguls Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. One could easily see the author writing sequels to his critical cautionary tale, adding more and more mania to the multi-channeled glass teat until, spent and defeated, he realized that the boob tube would always win.

If anyone keeps this all grounded though, it’s Lumet. His Oscar nomination for directing was well deserved, as he manages to make the contemptible seem common and the mind-boggling appear minor. He uses actual locations to keep situations authentic and never lets his actors overstay their importance. That is why Finch is so fine as Beale. His is a character that could easily be played for overblown comedy or uninspired pathos and Lumet lets neither occur. Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the same way. She is an ice queen, a bossy bitch with a Cheshire-cat grin masking the backstabbing knife in her hand. She could have been a caricature, but Lumet lets her be bad for pure badness’s sake.

As Schumacher, Holden is the fulcrum upon which the entire enterprise balances. He is reason looking in on madness, the ethical broaching the source of station squalor and scandal. If we don’t feel for him, understand his personal plight, and accept his occasional lapses (why an affair, and with whom?), we will never believe the movie’s over-the-top tenets. They will feel like sketch comedy, not stinging satire. Lumet is indeed the reason Network triumphs. He knows the game inside and out, and never once lets it fall beyond the boundaries of believability. He knows that, if it’s not real, it’s preposterous—and nothing kills comedy faster than indecipherability.

Though most may not like to admit it, the world of TV is a reflection of what we watch. Programs are not invented on the off chance that we will watch them. Our viewing habits have been studied and consulted over, represented on graphs, and argued over in marketing meetings. Every few years, a film comes along condemning such practices. In the ‘80s, it was Broadcast News (or if you are a little more forward-thinking, Videodrome). The ‘90s had The Insider and the minor Wag the Dog. But in the ‘70s, it was Network and the reverberations from that seismic smack in the cathode ray have been felt all throughout the industry, even as the airwaves turned coaxial and then digital.

While its pronouncements might seem dated and many of its references as ancient as the history on which they were based, this is still a masterpiece of a movie, a great big flailing middle finger to a cultural icon that didn’t heed its warning. In a post-millennial maze of reality shows, prime- time confessionals, and stunt-oriented idiocy, TV has totally lost its way—and we as the audience have let it. Argue about its position as a vast wasteland, but the truth is far more painful. As a mirror to our own internal tendencies, Network is more foreboding than every before. If Chayefsky saw us arriving at this point so many years before, what does the future hold?

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