Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Negro Soldier

During the terrible years of World War Two, the United States realized that if they were going to win the fight, then they would need more manpower than had ever been mustered before in their history. The government decided that despite segregation within their armed forces, they needed to do everything in their power to recruit African Americans. To achieve this end, the government hired none other than Frank Capra to head the production of a film unlike any other in history. It would be a film that would revolutionize the depiction of African Americans not only within the cinema, but in society as well. That film would be The Negro Soldier.

In hindsight, The Negro Soldier seems contrived and even manipulative in its depiction of African Americans and their contributions to American society.

You don't say...

The film is composed of two different testimonies delivered in the context of an African American church.

Don't be put off by his uniform, he has a lovely singing voice.

One Sunday morning, the minister (played by Carlton Moss, also the film’s writer) delivers a sermon directed at the African American servicemen currently in attendance. He then launches into a description of the various achievements made by African Americans throughout history: the athletes who beat Germany in the Berlin Olympic Games, Crispus Attucks being the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, the soldiers who fought and died in World War One. Moss deliberately emphasizes that African Americans were essential to the development of the United States, all the while ignoring such unpleasantries as slavery and civil rights violations. Curiously, the great African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and heroes of the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman are noticeably absent.

Carlton Moss addressing his congregation.

After Moss successfully riles the congregation up with reports of Nazis destroying French monuments to World War One African American soldiers, he is interrupted by a Mrs. Bronson who reads a letter from her recently enlisted son.

The Nazis destroying a French monument to African American soldiers.

What follows is a montage of the training undergone by African American soldiers. The son happily reports that he is treated very well and has significantly improved himself. He fails to mention how the Army is still heavily segregated. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The letter paints a picture of the Army as a massive machine full of men of every race fighting an unspeakable evil. As the letter ends, the congregation rises in song and we see soldiers marching off to war.

Mrs. Bronson reading a letter from her son.

As I said, The Negro Soldier and the world it presents where African Americans have equal rights and freedoms to white men seems contrived by today’s standards. But that’s because it actually was: The Negro Soldier was a carefully manicured illusion whose production was more fascinating than the actual film.

I know it's hard to tell from this image, but there are, in fact, several black men in this photo.

Let me start by acknowledging Thomas Cripps and David Culbert’s invaluable essay The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White as the source for the following production details. Cripps and Culbert describe how when production began on The Negro Soldier in March 1942, Frank Capra asked the Research Branch to “draw up a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ regarding the cinematic depiction of black.” The result was a list that included such things as:

-Avoid stereotypes such as the Negroes’ affinity for watermelon or pork.
-Avoid colored soldiers who are the most Negroid in appearance.
-Avoid such topics as Lincoln, emancipation, or race leaders/friends of the Negro.
-Include, but don’t play up too much, depictions of colored officers in command of troops.

My favorite part of this list is the last one concerning the depiction of “colored officers” which included the stunning side note: “The Negro masses have learned that colored men who get commissions tend to look down on the masses.” However, another request on the part of the War Department must also be noted: the deletion of a scene wherein a white nurse attends a black soldier. Even in their quest to revolutionize the depiction of African Americans in the cinema, the War Department was unwilling to challenge such a blatant racial and sexual taboo.

Of course, if both the nurse and the soldier were men, then it was apparently okay...

However, despite such difficulties, The Negro Soldier became a massive success. The film, while originally intended for black audiences, became mandatory viewing for all troops at replacement centers inside the United States. The film was still being shown as late as 1946, two years before Harry Truman’s desegregation order for the Army. Activist groups such as the NAACP and the National Negro Congress called The Negro Soldier “the best ever done” and clamored for it to receive a widespread distribution. The film was booked for church and civic functions by African Americans all over the country. In December 2011, The Negro Soldier was included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, being cited as having “showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation’s wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films.”

Notice how none of them are carrying a banjo.

But is it right to praise The Negro Soldier considering that it was obviously made as a piece of Revisionist history that manipulated African Americans into the Army where untold thousands would eventually die? Consider this: what if in an attempt to lure homosexuals back into the Armed Forces with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was done with a film entitled The Homosexual Soldier? And what if in this film, homosexuals were depicted as having been crucial and indispensable to the development of American history while sidestepping their systematic abuse, prosecution, and intolerance at the hands of bigots? Do the ends justify the means? Who knows if that question can ever be answered. But one thing is certain: The Negro Soldier got results. If viewed strictly from that perspective, then The Negro Soldier is one of the most successful films of all time.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fake Fruit Factory

Directed by Chick Strand
The United States of America

If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” ― Jean-Luc Godard

The first job that I ever had was working as a cashier at a McDonald’s located right outside of the church where my father worked. The hours were long, the pay was low, and the work was incredibly tedious. Over the years, I would switch jobs several times, working as a Starbucks barista, a telemarketer for my college, and even doing a two year stint as a custodian for an elementary school. Though the jobs would change, they all had something in common: during particularly long shifts, after a few hours my mind would effectively turn off and I would start to do my work mechanically and automatically. In essence, it was as if my body went into autopilot. The whole world would glaze over as I would sink into the specifics of my routine. Little snatches of casual conversation would become islands in a sea of monotony. Fifteen minute breaks would become miniature vacations worth their weight in gold. And after a while, you learn to stop looking at the clock. I believe that anybody who has ever worked such a tedious kind of job has had experiences like that. Until you have actually gone out and done such work yourself, it is impossible for somebody to know what it feels like.

Don't mind us...we're just living what corporate America tells us is the American Dream.

Such a thing is virtually impossible to replicate in a fictional film. True, a director can get his actors to get all sweaty and greased up and do location shooting at a factory. Director Michael Cimino used this technique to transform Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken into steel workers in The Deerhunter (1978). But on a subconscious level, we all knew that once the shot was over, De Niro and Walken would retire to hot showers and a rest in their trailers.

Well...maybe not so much for Robert De Niro...the guy took his work kinda seriously.

Documentary filmmakers are somewhat more successful in capturing such experiences. Memories of the Maysles’ Salesman (1969) comes to mind. However, the inherent problem with the traditional documentary format is that they serve to witness a subject completely objectively. Discounting instances of documentaries designed to promote a political agenda, the documentary is designed to be a silent spectator. We can see people work monotonous jobs, but we can’t truly experience it.

After all, who wouldn't want to experience the life of a door-to-door Bible salesman?

So enters the role of the experimental filmmaker. Unfettered by traditional rules of cinematic orthodoxy, the experimental filmmaker can create works of art that are capable of transmitting atmospheres and emotions that fiction films and documentaries cannot. For proof, one would need to look no further than Chick Strand’s illuminating film Fake Fruit Factory (1986).

Another day, another fistful of pesos.

Bringing an “ethnographer’s eye” to the realm of documentary filmmaking, Strand creates a fascinating portrayal of Mexican women who toil to create decorative papier-mâché produce for a small handicraft company. Though barely 22 minutes in length, Fake Fruit Factory is the closest that I have ever seen a film come to truly capturing the atmosphere of mind-numbing, blue collar monotony.

It turns out not everything is made in China.

Made during a four year period of wandering between 1981 and 1985, Fake Fruit Factory watches as these poor Mexican women spend their days kneading plaster, painting fake watermelons, and watching their children. The women are employed by an American who casually jokes with them only to be mercilessly scorned and laughed at behind his back. Idle chat fills the air, usually about sex. We catch random figments of their various conversations:

-”Let’s do it again or else we’ll have to start from scratch.
-”Patti is pregnant. The boss did it.”
-”They never cut them right.
-”In sex?
-”Are they good?...Two times?
-”Their wives work and they sleep all day.

At one point, the women are granted a brief reprieve when the boss takes them all to a pool where they bring their children and flirt with the men.

Surprisingly, they aren't quoting a song by The Beatles.

But it doesn’t last. Before long, they are back to hanging small pieces of fake fruit to dry in the sun. At the end of the film, a subtitle informs us that two weeks after the last pieces of footage were shot, the American boss skipped town with a blond blackjack dealer and his Mexican wife became wealthy after taking control of the factory. But I doubt that the women working under her really care. Different boss...same job...every single day.

I'm sure I could make a joke about scarcity of food in Mexico with this image...but I'm too classy for that.

So how does this film truly capture what it is like to work a mind-numbing job day-in and day-out? It does so by breaking almost all of the rules established by the majority of filmmakers who attempt to transcend the cinematic medium and capture a glimpse of real life. First, it is shot almost entirely in close-ups, focusing particularly on their hands and faces. The use of close-ups breaks the traditional role of the audience as mere spectators. We constantly squint and adjust our eyes to try and comprehend what we are seeing, transforming the act of viewing Fake Fruit Factory from being passive to active.


Second, it frequently uses edits to carve up scenes into smaller pieces. Traditionally, edits create a distancing effect as they jar the audience from one image to another. In addition, the use of editing in and of itself denotes a subjective, and therefore biased, hand in the construction of a film, as they are used to focus our attention on scenes, locations, actions, and lines that (traditionally) serve to promote and further the film’s narrative. But when Strand combines her close-up shots with the liberal use of edits, we see a fragmented world that simultaneously captures real life and ignores it to create a symbolic one that encapsulates all members of the working class. It is both truth and lie, twisting our perception of the workers’ reality into something that we can truly experience alongside of them. This is how Fake Fruit Factory perfectly captures the zen of the 9-to-5 grind.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

I, an Actress

Directed by George Kuchar
The United States of America

The term “camp” gets thrown around a lot these days. Many times, it is used to refer to things that are over-the-top, cheesy, or just plain silly. Visions of Adam West dancing the Batusi and reaching for bottles of Bat-Shark-Repellant immediately spring to mind. But what does it truly mean to be “camp?” The first time that the term appeared in 1909, it was defined as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behaviour.” But that explanation doesn’t seem quite to fit what has come to be identified as “camp.” After all, those words could all be used to describe the acting techniques of Japanese Kabuki actors or performers of Chinese Opera. And yet, those art forms do not fit what has generally become accepted as “camp,” at least in the American cultural mind-frame where the term first arose. So, perhaps it is best to revisit the explanation given by one of the very first people who defined the idea in a modern context: Susan Sontag. She described it as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Sontag went on in her essay Notes on “Camp” to emphasis the aesthetic’s focus on “artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess.” With this definition, conceiving the idea of “camp” becomes easier with certain filmmakers beginning to melt into focus. Memories of Edith Massey crying out for the Egg Man in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) and Faye Dunaway screeching about wire hangers in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) swim into view.

Sweet, delicious camp...just like mama used to make!

But where exactly can we place the first development of Sontag’s “camp” in cinema? For the answer to that question, one need look no further than an apartment in the Bronx in the early 1950s. Within that apartment lived George and Mike Kuchar, a pair of twins who made over 200 films in a career that spanned several decades. Beginning their lives as filmmakers before they were even teenagers, the twins made no-budget movies on 8 mm film stock. They were tributes to Hollywood excess, featuring improvised costumes, sets, and props. They frequently focused on shocking and graphic material. In one instance, George Kuchar was punished for making a film that had a transvestite in it. George explained his casting decision to his mother by saying that she “didn’t realize how hard it is for a 12-year-old director to get real girls in his movies.”

Stills from The Naked and the Nude (1957) the earliest surviving complete film by the Kuchar Brothers.

Within these films, the Kuchar’s developed what would come to be seen as the “camp” sensibility. Their incessant cheapness and proclivity for exaggeration slowly evolved into a kind of aesthetic. As Deborah Allison explained in an essay for Senses of Cinema, “Amongst a visual cornucopia of effusively lurid costumes, props and lighting, [their film’s] blatant phoniness feeds into an aesthetic where the “artificial” exists on the same plane as the “real.” Most critics point to George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) as their ultimate masterpiece.

A scene from Hold Me While I'm Naked.

However, I’d like to draw attention to another one of George’s films that I feel is ultimately more valuable in its depiction of their contributions to “camp.” That film is I, an Actress (1977). Made while George Kuchar was working at the San Francisco Art Institute, I, an Actress was the result of a collaboration that he made with his students. One of his students, Barbara Lapsley, had desires to become an actress. As such, she requested to star in a short film that she could use to launch her new-found career. So one day, with ten minutes of class left, Kuchar arranged for Lapsley to feature in a classic Hollywood screen test. He gave Lapsley a script from a ludicrous melodramatic monologue, positioned her against a wall next to a draped post with a wig on top that would serve as her lover, and started the camera. The film then records the next ten minutes in real-time without any breaks. Lapsley starts out trying her best to act out the inconceivably hammy script with some semblance of dignity.

Lapsley's first attempt.

However, after only a few lines, George interrupts her and starts to give her off-screen directions.

A demonstration of the "George Kuchar Acting Method."

He tells her to be more passionate. Eventually, he walks into the frame and starts to give her explicit directions. He mimes how she should grope her breasts as she confesses to her “lover.” As they proceed, he starts interrupting her more and more often. Eventually, she can barely go one line before he interrupts her with more directions.

George Kuchar rubbing his breasts in order to show Lapsley how to properly sex it up.

George’s antics are absolutely hysterical. The only thing more entertaining than George is watching Lapsley try and make sense of his directions without cracking up and laughing. Watching her clench a cigarette in her teeth and sneering, “When I cheat it’s not for sex, it’s for revenge” is simply sublime.

“When I cheat it’s not for sex, it’s for revenge”

Soon, George gets her on the ground, flailing about in front of the post. Barely able to control her laughing, she yells, “aren’t you used to women on their knees, Harold, or are you only used to women on their backs?” And yet, it still isn’t enough for George. They get more and more frantic and over-the-top until everybody in the room, including the crew, are in fits of laughter.

Truly an Oscar-worthy performance.

It may seem strange to consider such an odd film which was clearly only an exercise for a class an essential part of cinematic history. Here’s the thing, though...this film serves as a kind of documentary of the Kuchar creative process. It was through these very antics that the aesthetic quality of “camp” truly evolved. In I, an Actress, we see the creation of “camp” before our very eyes: the exploitation of farcical melodrama. The aesthetic’s trademark self-awareness becomes more glaringly apparent than ever before with its creator in full view of the audience. “Camp” may be silly, over-the-top, and ridiculous. But through the efforts of the Kuchor Brothers in such films as I, an Actress, it is impossible to dismiss “camp” as unoriginal. Derivative? Yes. But “camp” transformed into something much more: a commentary, a celebration, and a cocktease of Hollywood conventions.