Masculin Feminin (1966): The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

“Times had changed. It was the age of James Bond and Vietnam.”

The film opens with a casual conversation between two young people: the young man, Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud), bugs the girl, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), sitting across the way. Then, this conversation between young people in a cafe gets rudely interrupted by a marital spat that ends in a gunshot. Surely these are Godard’s proclivities at work.

One could say form follows function. Masculin Feminin is another reminder of how literary his cinema is. We often think of his films for their visual aesthetic thanks to the likes of Raoul Coutard (or Willy Kurant here). There’s no denying this, but they are always so pregnant with ideas and thoughts, some fully formed others feel like they were scribbled out on a notepad (because they were). It’s a task to be inundated with it all as he willfully challenges any level of perspicuity.

However, whether you venerate or loathe Godard, his cinema is a tapestry woven together from all his influences. It feels like dialectical cinema where everything is a symposium of love, arts, and politics as young people converse with explosive intertitles blasting away between scenes. But that doesn’t mean everything is a logical progression. Godard gives himself license to follow every passing whim.

Other times it’s uncomfortably direct. Leaud as his avatar starts interrogating Madeleine as she powders her face, but he gets away with it, since he’s always idealistic and a bit of a romantic. He asks her, “What’s the center of the world?” When pressed, he thinks it’s “Love” and she would have said “Me.”

Eventually, he spends more time with her and gets to know her roommates too, and he finds a new job polling the public. Leaud “polls” Ms. 19 giving her a line of probing, deeply personal questions. Later, he has a whole conversation about mashed potatoes and a father discovering how the earth orbits around the sun.

Godard is always in conversation with the films that inform him, but with Masculin Feminin we see a much broader acknowledgment and exploration of the contemporary culture. Madeleine’s meteoric rise as a Ye-Ye singer finds her on the charts in Japan only surpassed by The Beatles, Frances Gall, and Bob Dylan. Not bad!

That’s also not to say Godard gives up being in dialogue with films as well, including his own, which had become part of the cultural conversation in their own right.  Bridgitte  Bardot (from Contempt) shows up receiving notes from her director. Madeleine playfully chastises her beau, “You’re not Pierro Le Fou. He stole cars for his woman!”

Later, they sit in a darkened theater together watching a perturbing arthouse movie:

“We went to the movies often. The screen would light up, and we’d feel a thrill. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. The images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t the total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.”

If this doesn’t sum up the aspirations of the youth in front of the camera staring up at the screen within the screen, it must hold true for the young batch of filmmakers who Godard himself came up with. It’s a perplexing bit of dialogue and one of the most apparently self-reflexive and personal annotations within the entire picture.

As is, all of Godard’s male heroes and stand-ins feel dense although Leaud is always miraculously able to pull off some boyish prank or a bit of mischief and still maintain some semblance of relatable humanity.

Otherwise, how could girls ever put up with these guys much less love them? All the young women are pestered to no end and rendered endearing for all they must endure. I think of Ms. 19 and Elisabeth (Marlene Joubert) in particular. We pity them.

What do we do with the totality of this picture? From experience, you usually run into issues when you try and find the narrative arc or a conventional form to follow. Because Godard’s films boast so much in ideas, asides, and digressions. There’s so much to be parsed through and digested.

It’s easier to follow impressions, a train of thought here, or a standalone scene there that left some sort of tangible impact. In the social tumult and the moral morass of the 1960s, it’s almost as if within the collage of the film, we’ll find some substantive meaning. Then, again maybe not.

Leaud walks down the street with a girl and pops into a cafe for a moment only to come back out. He continues to walk and says, “Kill a man and you’re a murderer. Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror. Kill everyone and you’re a God.”

She responds, “I don’t believe in God.” Frankly, I don’t blame her, and if that’s the world’s conception of who God is, I wouldn’t want that God either. Still, we all try and answer existential questions with something, be it politics, pop songs, or fleeting teenage romance.

I read Godard’s film was restricted to adult viewers, but he probably thought he was doing a public service announcement for the youth generations in his own individual attempt to put a voice to the times. Whatever your thoughts on Godard or Coca Cola and Marx, alongside British Swinging London time capsules, Masculin Feminin helps capture this particular moment of ’60s European culture in a bottle.

It feels increasingly difficult to reconcile all the warring forces fighting for primacy and as a young person just trying to find love and make sense of one’s life, it’s never easy. We have more questions than answers. However imperfectly, Masculin Feminin synthesizes some aspects of this universal phenomenon, one that’s not totally restricted by time. We can all relate to this idea as long as we were young once.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

Le Petit Soldat (1963)

“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second.”

Although Le Petit Soldat was released in 1963 — no thanks to the censors — it was actually filmed in 1960. This context is all-important because Jean-Luc Godard is still fresh off the sensibilities of Breathless, and they pervade this film as well.

Its plot follows the aftermath of a professor killed in a terrorist attack and a young journalist in Geneva, who is enlisted by French intelligence to assassinate a man named Palivoda. This is in the age of the Algerian War; the young man, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), has avoided the draft, and the man he’s assigned to kill is a National Liberation Front sympathizer.

If it’s not apparent already, the groundwork has been set for a political spy thriller. While balking at murdering the man in a drive by, Bruno simultaneously falls in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), a dark-haired beauty in a trench coat. His friends bet him he’ll fall in love the first time he sees her on the street. He sheepishly shells over the money after only a brief introduction. He’s instantly smitten.

Le Petit Soldat is such a literary film thanks in part to its voiceover. Bruno, as Godard’s stand-in and cinematic conduit, references a myriad of things. He asks rhetorically about Veronica, “Were her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?”

It’s as if Godard is contemplating the muse in his own art. Still, he continues with a steady stream of namedrops including painters, authors, and composers. Van Gogh and Gauguin. Then, Beethoven and Mozart. Anna Karina prancing around to Joseph Haydn is definitely its own mood.

It occurs to me this is a distillation of Godard as a filmmaker. It’s a visual style wedded with these deeply mined traditions of literature and art.  Both cutting edge and steeped in the culture of the past before thenceforward going off and creating its own unique vocabulary.

Godard gleefully inserts himself all over the movie on multiple occasions where we see him in the flesh. It’s a spy movie as only he can conceive it totally deconstructed and aware of itself while simultaneously taking most of the thrills out of the genre.

Soldat remains a precursor to Alphaville by effectively turning the contemporary world around him into the environment for his latest genre picture. Whereas Breathless‘s jazz-infused contemporary aesthetic is accentuated by the black and white streets of France, here they are repurposed. Though it’s as much a film about driving around the city philosophizing as it is about any specific dramatic action.

Because Francois Truffaut, while not always disciplined, could spin stories with a narrative arc and genuine emotion. Godard is at his best as a philosopher and cinema iconoclast where his style doesn’t totally get bogged down by ideas, and he uses the medium in ways that would become the new standard. Or at least his own standard, before he decided to upend them again.

But in order to make the case for Anna Karina as more than Godard’s Pygmalion, it’s necessary to consider her screen image in depth. Whatever Godard gave to Anna Karina in terms of iconography or legacy, Karina gave that much back, and they will be inextricably linked for all times. Because if there was ever a reason to fall in love with her, it’s right there in Le Petit Soldat.

His alter ego riffs about God and politics, political left and right, quotes Lenin, and unravels his entire worldview (ie. about a man who loves ideas, not territories). When he asks his girl why she loves him, she shrugs her shoulders and says I don’t know. I don’t think she’s dumb, but whereas here we have one character who is in their head, she seems to be a creature who is real and present in the moment. She has a heart.

Whatever the digressions and despite the perplexing way Bruno interrogates her during their impromptu photoshoot, she is undeniable. If cinema is truth 24 frames a second, she somehow makes Godard’s cinema more accessible and real — she takes his theorizing on truth and gives it a pulse.

The movie is still a thriller, and it follows its own version of narrative beats. Bruno is framed, he continually has second thoughts about his assignment; he gets the gun, but things always get in his way. His heart is not in it — killing a man mercilessly — because this is not who he is.

Instead, he wishes to run away to Brazil with his girl. He’s locked away and tortured as a double agent for his troubles. These sequences are simplistic — contained in a hotel bathroom — and yet as they light matches near his fingertips and dunk him for minutes on end in the water, there’s a definite heartless menace about it.

We have the political bent of Godard’s cinema detected early on before his other overt efforts later in the 60s. It comes in the guise of his story as it unpacks current events, ideologies, and even controversy around torture.

True to form, he has the audacity to cram the final act of an entire movie into one minute of celluloid. He shows us some things and just as easily explains away the rest with voiceover.

It feels like he leaves just as he emerged. He’s totally singular. At times, maddening and bombastic, and yet always prepared with his own take and alternative approaches to convention. Godard will always challenge the viewer and make you reconsider how much you appreciate cinema even as he continually helps to redefine how we conceive things.

1960 or 63. It makes no difference. Le Petit Soldat has a young man’s malaise acting as a film for the coagulating disillusionment of the ’60s. This isn’t your father’s war nor one of his films — not the “cinema du papa” as Truffaut put it. If Godard’s style was coming into its own, with Karina cast front and center, then the propagation of his ideas is equally evident. Cinema would not be the same without his distinct point of view.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

Cat Ballou (1965)

When the Columbia statue whips off her toga and comes out with western wear and six shooters, the movie’s intentions are made quite clear. And if that’s not enough Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye appear on the scene, decked out, strumming their banjos. They become the accompanying bards relating the ballad of Cat Ballou.

To my mind, it’s one of the only moments in Nat King Cole’s movie career where his talents seem used in a more robust way, and it seems like he’s genuinely having a ball sending up the story. He and Stubby have an open line of communication going with the audience becoming one of the film’s primary conduits for comedy.

And of course, the world itself is ripe with screwy antics easily sharing a world with the likes of Support Your Local Sheriff if not Blazing Saddles. It feels like the West is a place filled with all sorts of oddball characters and idiosyncracies worthy of laughs and a myriad of double-takes.

Jane Fonda was still ascending on her way to becoming one of the ’60s and 1970s most visible performers, and she teems with an undeniable pluckiness in the title role. In its own likable and goofy way, it becomes a picture of empowerment for female heroines.

If hardly a feminist screed, it nevertheless has the kind of charm you might find in an episode of That Girl. It’s Hollywood not quite coming to terms with the full brunt of counter-culture (Ann-Margret was even earmarked for the role).

But if Fonda proves her mettle as a “wanted” outlaw destined to be hung and the leader of a “nefarious” gang of desperados, it’s Lee Marvin who becomes the film’s undisputed attraction. Kid Shelleen is an inspired western hybrid: the restless gunslinger crossed with the town drunk.

He’s got hair like Harpo Marx coiffed under his beat-up hat, hands twitching, married to a bottle, with his disheveled buckskins hanging down to put his long john undergarments on full display. It’s this whole package making Lee Marvin’s performance such a crowd pleaser, but this is only true because it flies in the face of so much of what he made a name for himself doing. He was tough guys, psychos, and henchmen. Here he’s more than game to lie prostrate in the street, falling over his horse, in fits of comedic inebriation.

However, it’s the scene before his auspicious introduction that really brings the picture together. The square dancing sequences become a wonderfully visual merging of characters and arcs all in one place as Cat formulates a plan to help her daddy out: enlisting the help of a gunslinger, or at least a man with a gun. It devolves into glorious chaos as all the men who have been thrown into her life (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and Tom Nardini) vow to protect the elder Ballou (John Marley) to the best of their abilities.

Cat Ballou is mostly corny, and it works best leaning whole hog into this sentiment. When it tries to be something with the semblance of drama, it doesn’t quite work as if it’s grasping for something outside its comfort zone. Cat loses her father, faces a town complicit in the killing perpetrated by a rival gunman — a silver-nosed murderer (also played by Marvin). Even a storied hero like Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicut) has stuck himself behind a mercantile counter.

Jane Fonda exerts herself pouting and throwing a rock tantrum to get her three male companions to see it her way. The Hole-in-the-Wall gang is revived to acquire their much-needed funds, and they do quite a job of it without a Superposse to chase after them.

These exploits are how Cat Ballou earns notoriety across the Old West although she finds herself before a scaffold for quite a different reason. The gallows humor of the noose going around her gorgeous neck feels like another unbecoming scenario until we slip back into a much-preferred gear of silliness.

Cat Ballou is at its finest as a goofball western, a bit dorky around the edges but no less lovable. It does mystify me how it became such an award-season darling, though it’s not without a few unremitting charms. Its impact on the western mythos feels minor at best if only for Fonda’s spirited heroine in a genre otherwise replete with male heroes.

3.5/5 Stars

A Patch of Blue (1965)

I hope my analogy does not get misconstrued, but A Patch of Blue plays like a sublime fairy tale. It’s set in New York, a city that often feels as much of a visual fabrication made out of magic and myth as it is a real place anchored in time and space. Here is the very same world that exists in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s or other such pictures.

Shelley Winters is at her nastiest and most acerbic as a street tramp Rose-Ann. An evil “stepmother” if you will, because she and her daughter are on a first-name basis. Aside from that, you’d hardly realize they’re kith and kin. Because you see our cinematic cinderella, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), is blind thanks to a violent altercation in her childhood and is now resigned to spending most of their time locked up in the shabby apartment.

Wallace Ford, bless his soul, is Ole Pal and though his heart might be in the right place, he’s not much used to the world because he spends most of his waking days home from work griping at the insufferable Rose-Ann or going out on the town to get royally plastered. 

When Selina’s not slaving away at chores, she’s stringing beads together for mere pennies. Otherwise, she’s considered useless. She’s blind after all. It’s hardly a life at all. At least, that’s what the world around her seems to suggest and any minor pleasure like an afternoon in the park feels more precious to her than gold. 

It’s in this said park where she first meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). If we wished to describe him, you could highlight any number of salient characteristics. He’s tall, handsome, and intelligent. He works the night shift and he has a brother (Ivan Dixon) who’s training to be a doctor. He’s also black…

But Selina cannot recognize or know any of this during their first encounter. Instead, she learns about him through his actions and words. Rather than being an impediment to their connection, somehow it provides the most sincere indications of human affection. She finds him to be kind and patient in a manner she has rarely experienced.

In this first encounter, she’s dumped her precious beads all over. She can’t possibly gather them together again and so we have an effortless meet-cute. For all we know, Gordon appears at her tree, but whatever the means — fate or happenstance — the film is never the same again. The metaphor of this movie is evident even for those who’ve never seen it. The cliche that “love is blind” is made quite literal because, for young Selina, that’s what happens. She falls in love for the first time. 

Guy Green does not employ altogether flashy filmmaking notwithstanding some fitting match cuts, but this leaves ample space for his narrative focal points. There’s something undeniable blooming between Hartman and Poitier making this movie a tender slice of romance brimming with sincerity. 

Poitier empowers her in a way no one has bothered to before, and it’s an awakening of the world around her even as her sense remain attuned to everything. Though Poitier isn’t necessarily stretched beyond his limits — he’s perfectly at ease being a benevolent guide — his customary affability and charm feel infallible at this point. 

True to form, he comes back in subsequent days to check in on Selina, providing her sunglasses to cover the scars on her face. Another day he offers her a can of pineapple juice, which she takes with relish. He broadens her horizons further by traveling together on the crosswalk for pastrami at the local delicatessen and then to pick up his groceries.

To us, these seem like mundane tasks, and yet for Selina, these are such generous acts because someone has taken the time for her. And though she is mostly unawares, there is a sense that in 1965, just there being together, existing in the world, and taking part in life together, is a meaningful act of solidarity if not total rebellion against prejudicial behavior. At its most fundamental level, it courts these ongoing themes of friendship and tolerance.

 Most importantly, it is Gordon who rescues her from the pit of despair and the vengeful jowls of Rose-Ann once and for all. Remember, it is a fairy tale — Poitier acts as the fairy godmother whose job never has enough contours for us to really know what he does; he appears when he is needed most. His performance is matched by the agreeable whimsy of Jerry Goldsmith’s score dancing softly in the background. It can end no other way even as this adolescent girl’s life still hangs in the air partially unresolved. 

Although the words have been echoed many a time, it does seem like Selina comprehends Dr. King’s incomparable words in their totality. Because in her mind’s eye and in their day-to-day actions, she has no difficulty judging Gordon, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

It’s another sentimental picture and you can rail against it, although I’m predisposed to enjoy its quiet bounties. Even compared to a more high-profile option like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s something unostentatious and rather attractive about this movie. It has Poitier’s sense of decency and there’s a message of tolerance, but the scale feels wonderfully mundane. So, perhaps it’s a realist fairytale. 

4/5 Stars

Nothing But a Man (1964) and Human Dignity

I know Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes and I’m hardly ashamed of that. He is a lifelong friend forged out of days poring over episodes on classic television stations. Whether he was satisfied with the work is an entirely different conversation, but I am thankful for what he brought to the ensemble in terms of humor and his reliable presence.

Then, recent viewings of Too Late Blues and A Raisin in The Sun, introduced Dixon into my life again in a renewed context. It was a new way to appreciate him even as I’ve become more aware of his prolific work behind the camera in more recent years.

However, in Nothing But a Man, he showcases a depth of character and a facet of the human experience, that frankly, was never accessible in a zany half-hour CBS comedy about American prisoners in a German Luftstalag or any of the smaller film roles he was bequeathed.

The images open with jackhammers as a gang of black section hands help lay down the railroad tracks. It’s hardly breezy work. In return for their sweat and middling conditions, they get a wage and a certain amount of freedom. In the evenings they can be found playing cards or frequenting the local beer parlors with “Heatwave” jamming away in the background. It’s lo-fi instant ambiance and Motown proves to be the perfect soundtrack for this film.

Although he’s not much of a churchgoer, Duff Anderson does show up at a local church meeting in Alabama for some food and southern hospitality. The girl dishing out the meal catches his eye. Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) is the local teacher and the preacher’s daughter. This feels like an instant red flag. Anderson’s not exactly a moral saint, but he relishes her company.

There’s a modest kinship rapidly blooming between them. Even so, Nothing But a Man is a film that feels attentive to the thoughts and feelings of its characters spoken not simply through their words but the expressions on their faces and their actions. Dixon has such classically handsome features, and there’s something unequivocally lovely and unassuming about Abbie Lincoln’s smile. They bring the best out of each other as their romance strengthens.

However, there are other underlying issues to contend with. He has a young son, although he’s never been married before. The reverend looks at him with suspicion. He’s not the marrying kind. Even he knows it, but as a bastion of society, and a mediator between the black and white communities, Josie’s father is not welcoming of any disruption to his moral standing. It’s easy to feel for him even as the gravitational pull of empathy drags us in other directions.

Duff tells the preacher, “Us colored folks got a lotta churchgoing. It’s the white folks who need it real bad.” Of course, the irony of the words can’t be lost on us. Most if not all the white folks have their own churches to go to on Sunday, but it has no positive impact on their lives. I’m sure neither race has a total monopoly on this lukewarm reality. It’s human nature.

But there’s still another question to be answered: How did two Jewish men from up North hone in on such a resonating story of a black community, by taking New Jersey locales and fashioning them into the Deep South? It has to begin with this same kind of personal identification — some form of shared empathy — because they could not get close to the material any other way.

One thing that comes with watching films en masse is how they have the ability to inform one another. Take Pressure Points about a black psychiatrist treating a white neo-Nazi. He espouses vitriolic rhetoric about turning Blacks and Jews into the world’s scapegoats. He never uses the exact words, but it’s plain he believes them to be subhuman. I’m no expert, but it’s difficult for me to think of any group that has been more oppressed than these two.

However, this is not Stanley Kramer at work. It’s not a film about messages or social significance. Instead, we are allowed the privilege to walk alongside this man and woman, and even for a few moments become privy to their circumstances as depicted on screen.

It becomes apparent how the specter of racism dwells over every element of daily life. It cannot be conveniently compartmentalized or ignored because it always has a way of rearing its ugly head. White co-workers try and whip up “friendly” small-talk couched with subtle belittling and microaggressions. And you cannot have a quiet car ride without being accosted.

For whatever his negligible crimes against humanity might be, Duff is considered a troublemaker and standoffish. He won’t be cowed. The next stage in the systematic onslaught is bodily threats — he’s chastised mercilessly as a gas station attendant —  only to be laid off out of fear of retaliation.  And it doesn’t stop there as he’s totally blackballed and all the work propositions mysteriously dry up all around him. There is no deliverance from such a sphere of existence.

His primary problem is that he’s a proud man in an environment that is not ready to give him the respect he requires. What’s striking about Dixon’s portrayal is how it never feels combative or confrontational. That’s never his M.O., but he also will not degrade or ingratiate himself as a basic act of survival. There are some things that run deeper still, and he knows no other way than to be true to himself.

Self-proclaimed experts always talk about the problem with families is the lack of a father figure. But fathers need work and here you see the issue in its totality. It plays out throughout this movie. There’s hopelessness, then desperation, and a lashing out at all those close at hand — wives and children. However, while all this looks to be another portrait of dissolution and a man’s restlessness in a world that won’t let him be, it actually rings with a final note of hope.

I would never accuse Sidney Poitier of grandstanding, but there is a sense Dixon has the same substance as his peer, but this story feels even more mundane than the bulk of Poitier’s Hollywood work. The canvas and the drama are distilled to these very humble forms, and yet there is something powerful in these simple building blocks.

And if there is not a Hollywood happy ending, since this picture shuns everything that is expected by contemporary conventions, Duff does maintain his sense of human dignity. It’s all right there in the title. He was never asking much of others. Never looking for trouble. He just wants to be given the inalienable right to be a man.

For some, that’s easier than it is for others. Let us strive tirelessly for the day when all can claim that they really and truly are created equal. Nothing But a Man is a poignant reminder that this is still far from a reality.

I always knew Ivan Dixon was special, but I will never look at him the same way again. Abbey Lincoln also won a new fan today. I wish I had been aware of her career and her music sooner. But there’s no time like the present to rectify the situation. Let’s not live under the lie that says otherwise.

4.5/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

It seems that some of the greatest strides in diverse representation have found their roots on the stage. One of the cornerstone examples would have to be Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961). I saw the film adaptation quite a few years ago, but now, with a renewed sense of context, it’s ripe with so much more discovery.

While it might feel like a trivial observation, I was reminded how the movie is laden with nagging, moaning, and groaning as you would find in any family living in close quarters. For this very reason, the stage conventions feel less of a limitation and more of an expression of this family’s tangible struggle.  But it also feels like a safe space for the black cast where they are able to express themselves in all manner of ways. One moment they’re wild — gesticulating all over the place — and the next minute is the height of silliness. It feels almost unprecedented for the era.

Sidney Poitier is often shafted for playing an “Uncle Tom” because detractors have some kind of preconceived straw man of him they’re prepared to tear down. Whatever your thoughts on this, Walter Lee Younger is just the character to rip those presumptions down to their foundation. His main credo is built around the idea that money is life and despite everything Poitier became known for over his illustrious career, in A Rasin in the Sun, nobility goes straight out the window.

But it’s not simply a story about a man, because we must consider the entire family as they wait impatiently for the $10,000 insurance check set to be bequeathed to their matriarch Lena Younger. Walter Lee can’t wait to siphon off some of the funds for one of his shady business deals.

His sister, Beneatha, is a young free-minded woman of the modern world with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She’s hoping for some financial support to make her dreams come true. Marriage is considered an afterthought.

However, whatever she might say, there are two worthy suitors played by a pair of familiar faces. Ivan Dixon is the benevolent Nigerian suitor: Mr. Asagai, tickled pink by her iron will and prepared to take her back to his homeland. The other is Lou Gossett Jr’s George. He’s hoodwinked by Beneatha’s recent behavior and when he comes a calling, he’s left on the couch to crawl out of his skin. Walter’s ready with the rich black college boy wisecracks or else prepared to proposition the boy’s daddy with one of his business ideas.

Beneatha and Walter have plenty of sibling animosity to go around (I dissected something that looked just like you yesterday). And she also receives the ire of her mother because God has no place in her personal destiny. She tells the scandalized old lady point blank, “I get so tired of Him getting all the credit for everything the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There’s only man and it’s he who makes miracles.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

Because the movie is borne out of this generational difference. Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) was raised up a certain way, and God will always be present in her house just as family and charity are of great importance to her. She’s not a woman trained in book learning, but she is a picture of stalwart character. Keeping her family together means everything to her, but she will never become a slave to money.

Ruby Dee is the only one who seems unencumbered by the thought of worldly wealth and what it will do to them, both good and bad. Instead, she works diligently at her laundry and becomes a kind of calming force in a house that feels constantly in a state of familial tumult.

This is what makes their final introduction to their new home that Lena plans to purchase so cathartic. When they drive up, walk up the steps, and then rush around the house, it’s a slice of suburban heaven, albeit situated in an all-white neighborhood. As a housewarming gift, her kids pitch in for some gardening tools, and it speaks to her character — always wanting to till the soil and cultivate all that is around her with love.

However, we must also take a moment to mention John Fiedler and Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He’s a favorite of mine from 12 Angry Men, The Odd Couple, Bob Newhart, and of course, he’s the voice of Piglet. What an inspired piece of casting it is to have this diffident, genteel little man be the face of de facto racism in the world we live in. He’s perfectly civil; he will gladly trade pleasantries, and yet his people want no part of blacks in their neighborhood. At any rate, it doesn’t fit the agenda or the name of their little two-bit association.

It all comes down to his fabled line: “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.” These are like trigger words signaling a gunshot going off. When he’s out of the room, the more satirical members of the Younger family rephrase his words: “he can’t understand why people can’t learn to sit down and hate someone with good Christian fellowship.”

If you’re anything like me, these words sting a little. But that’s nothing compared to what hits Walter. The hammer drops when a no-good shyster runs off with some of his money. Ever the principled moral compass, Lena gladly loves others at their lowest, when they’ve made a mess of things and the world has whipped them. Because despite all of her unyielding values, she’s a creature of love and integrity.

Poitier makes his final stand — his first prominent act as head of the household with the blessing of his mother — like his father would have done before him. So perhaps I wasn’t quite right. Even in this picture, Poitier makes a stab at nobility. The greatest part is how he’s given license to fail.

Although their hope might be deferred, they still have hope nonetheless. What a lovely reminder it is about the human spirit. We are thoroughly irrepressible creatures and strengthened in the arms of our loved ones. Let that hope reap heavy dividends. My prayer is this comes sooner rather than later.

4/5 Stars

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
      – Langston Hughes

Pressure Point (1962)

Peter Falk with Sidney Poitier sounds like as good a place as any to start a movie. There he is a young man charging into his superior’s office, telling him he’s just about had it with his latest case. Surely, what we have is a story of mentorship on our hands.

Although this review is meant to be standalone and films do not need to be watched in tandem, there’s something to be said when they can interface with one another. Recently, I’ve been delving into the early works of Poitier, and his partnership over several films with Stanley Kramer certainly cannot be understated. Likewise, though John Cassavetes joined forces with Poitier in Edge of the City, it was Falk who would become one of the actor-director’s foremost collaborators. You can rarely imagine one without the other.

However, it shows where my mind goes because all these mental extrapolations are all for naught; it’s only a ploy. We barely catch sight of Falk again because this is not his movie. Instead, we drift into the recollections of the veteran doctor and the one case that almost broke him. Hokey setup aside, you can appreciate the unspoken and altogether unprecedented nature of Pressure Points.

Poitier’s lead doesn’t feel like an explicitly black part, but Kramer earmarked him for the role, and it adds a dimension to the movie that would be unavailable with almost any other actor of the era. In Poitier’s own words, “Obviously a picture about a black psychiatrist treating white patients was not the kind of sure-fire package that would send audiences rushing into theatres across the country. But Kramer had other gods to serve, and he was faithful to them.”

The dynamic of the movie is established thereafter when a new patient (Bobby Darin) pays a visit to the doctor. What becomes apparent after a few minutes is that Darin is really going for it. His giggling neo-fascist is all over the doctor from the outset, and here the mind games begin. He can’t figure out why “people” try to be white and respectable — doctors, psychiatrists — it’s not the place for them. 

However, as Poitier’s character scours the other man’s memories, he begins to establish who he is as a person — what his fears and vices are — all born out of his traumatic childhood. After the shaky narrative device, it’s a relief to admit Pressure Points has some artistic invention at its disposal, namely, in the trippy childhood scenes.

In his youth, Darin’s alter ego flees through a meat locker from the grotesque liver his domineering father waves in front of him, while bouts of paranoia overtake him in the present. The only friendships he forms are through hooliganism and a kind of sadistic dependence on invisible playmates.

It feels a bit like Norman Bates’s splintering dissociative identity disorder but playing out in real-time within Poitier’s office. Darin’s voice dissolves in and out of his adolescent personality in an eerie melding of his psyches. A small but crucial detail is how young Barry Gordon’s rounded features somehow mimic his older doppelganger, thus making the connection between them that much more pointed.

Two scenes that succinctly color his antisocial personality involve a tavern and a Bund Meeting. He takes a bit of artistic license with the Nazis’ early strong-armed tactics. In his version, they use tic-tac-toe to systematically vandalize the hapless owner’s establishment (Howard Caine who was Jewish in real life), while effectively scandalizing his onscreen wife. It’s totally perturbing to witness and one of the most evocative scenes I’ve been privy to in some time; the later Bund meeting causes some queasiness in its own right.

To echo Poitier’s words, it’s no surprise that Pressure Points was far from a box office smash. Take a moment to consider what was going against it. Whether people believed in its message or not, it’s a resolutely unnerving picture causing us to take a long, deep look at the very spine of American nationalism.

One of its primary characters spews rhetoric rallying white Christian Americans. Jews and Blacks are necessary. They need them as a scapegoat so they can mobilize the populous against something. It gives them something to hate and be against. Because they are the unchosen people — somehow oppressed in their own way — and breeding resentment and fear.

What strikes me about Darin’s performance is not the pure evil of it, but if we were to evoke Bates again, there are moments where he feels sane even momentarily reasonable. This unnerves me. How many people has this man taken in? How many people believed his methodologies and had their sense of self and right and wrong twisted by narrow-minded vitriol and hate speech?

Is there any of Darin’s character in me?  Wasn’t Norman the one who said we’ve all gone a little crazy sometimes?  It’s frightening to come up against a man who shows no emotion. Although sometimes I see that very same apathy in myself. But I brush it off. Surely we’re nothing alike. We have nothing in common…

I remember when The Atlantic first premiered the footage from a “Night in the Garden,” with Madison Square Garden full of German-American Bund supporters in 1939. Those feelings of discomfort and dissonance are not easy to dispel because the history we are taught tells us that the Allies are good and the Nazis are bad. Here there’s something fundamentally wrong. We wonder why there is still anti-Semitism. We wonder why there is still race hatred and violence against Blacks.

It seems contrary to the country we know and love. And yet if these newsreel images, Darin’s neo-Nazi, and current events tell us anything, it’s that we need to take a hard look at how these poisonous ideologies take root. They are not fantastical, they are not innocuous, and they certainly are not dormant.

What a horrible thing if these insidious things gain legitimacy and become normalized. Watching Pressure Points, it seems good and right to acknowledge mental illness and to acknowledge our shortcomings as human beings, but there is also a time and place to label evil for what it is.

3.5/5 Stars

Too Late Blues (1962): Art and Commerce

It’s hard not to instantly think of Too Late Blues as a historical curio. Here’s a studio film from John Cassavetes that seems fully aware of the context of Shadows. Shadows, of course, was his independently-made directorial debut that took improvisation and a jazz-like mentality to the streets of New York and the beat generation.

The images here are sleek, but they feature much of the same world carried over from the previous film with a young black audience watching as a group of white musicians play their set. We come to know the boys through their daily rituals: they hang out, shoot pool, drink beer, and play music in parks and beer hauls for pennies. It’s not much of a life, but they seem generally content with what they’re doing.

Cassavetes originally wanted Montgomery Clift and his wife Gena Rowlands in the leads. I would definitely have paid to see that film, but there’s still more than enough that’s intriguing about what he ended up with. Bobby Darin doesn’t sing a lick and it’s a daring career decision because it rests on the bearing of performance.

His Ghost Wakefield is at his best as one of the boys because they function together as a mirthful and inspiring unit. As was thinking when they show up at a local gather how I dig a John Cassavetes party. It’s lively and a packed room, but there’s a cool, relaxed ambiance to it as the boys get greeted by their host and Bobby Darin makes his way up the spiral staircase to mingle.

Cassavetes feels like he’s giving us so many great perches to watch and observe the social experiment going on around us. There are optimal spaces from which to focus on the actors, whether through close-ups or a camera that constantly seems to be following them from the hilt with grave interest.

It’s a bit cleaner, it has the bangles, the bells, and the whistles that give off Hollywood, and yet there are still elements of his directorial debut and future works that bleed into this picture. If you’ll pardon the term, it’s “tainted,” but it still fits fluidly into Cassavetes’s body of work even as it functions at its best as a group effort. It wouldn’t work without the many voices and faces who are more than ready to oblige.

Rupert Crosse as Baby is one such figure as is Seymor Cassel, beginning his own auspicious collaboration with the writer-director. If you’re like me, you also get a private satisfaction in seeing Ivan Dixon even for the briefest of moments.

However, we have yet to mention our heroine: Stella Stevens. We meet her stationed by a piano accompanied by a lively crowd. She’s a flustered young singer and as parties such as these are not for the faint of heart, it’s an excruciating moment to watch her try to perform.

In the aftermath, her eyes flutter like a beautiful deer caught in the headlights. Ghost watches her and compliments her. It seems genuinely sincere. Instead of sticking around, they set up in a booth at a local bar. If it doesn’t sound like Too Late Blues is about anything consequential, at least in theatrical terms, then we’ve come to an understanding of why the movie was never a box office smash.

The sinews of the story are all an examination of characters as only Cassavetes might be fascinated in documenting, and the narrative gladly moseys along at its own predetermined pace. The wheeling-dealing agent Benny with his crewcut wears a crooked smile, though he generally means well. He does his best to scrounge up work for Ghost and the boys as well as Jess with varying degrees of success. The bottom line is that Benny tries and he really is tender at heart.

With all this groundwork, what’s really appealing about Too Late Blues are individual scenes or ideas that have been assembled together to create something else. Take, for instance, the interludes where Jess goes from self-loathing to loving Ghost, even lusting after him. They head to her apartment and on the way take a detour onto the diving board.

She lets him in. Coaxes him to keep the lights low and to wait on the bed. She’s prepared to make his evening as it were, but that’s not what he’s looking for. He wants her common, everyday unadulterated love. It flips the script even slightly as she becomes the aggressor.

However, if Ghost’s masculinity is ever in jeopardy, it’s during a bar room brawl. Vince Edwards gets the most prominent cameo as a rowdy pool player who stirs up trouble after a line of drinks. He gives everyone the business, but as he’s got the pianist in a helpless headlock, his girl looking on, it’s like his dignity has been snapped like matchwood. If she is a fragile human being, his ego is more fragile still, and he lashes out. They are actions he cannot take back.

The one false step might be the arc of Ghost. He’s not altogether the most interesting part of this picture. It’s an endeavor functioning in the crowd and the ensemble — him paired with Princess or the barman or his agent together — living out their lives in these standalone moments strung together. The luster is gone when we start seeing a version of A Star is Born or Limelight. We hardly need another. Time flashes forward and we see he’s just another phony. There is no revelation here.

Thrown back together with Jess, they have a renewed moment of rage. For once the camera shakes, and it feels telling. We are aware of the movie again, and in one glorious bathroom drain shot, there is a cinematic directness of Hitchcockian proportions. The camera cuts to the core of the moment, this final act of drama and duress. Graciously we are allowed an exhale afterward.

It occurs to me this movie is a lovely bit of metanarrative. During their recording session, when Ghost charges into the sound booth vowing to play the music his way, it’s like a switch has been flipped. He intimates that he thought the financier wouldn’t tell him how to play his music — that the Man would just listen. He’s rebuffed. This is not the way the world works; it’s not what people want. Commercialism is what makes the world go round.

Whether there’s more than an ounce of truth in the analogy, it’s easy enough to cast Cassavetes as the jazzman fighting against the constraints around him to make his art as he sees fit. Like Ghost, he’s trying to navigate an industry trading in commerce and art.

To his credit, it seems Cassavetes never became totally beholden to one or the other straddling the line between both quite spectacularly and even holding together some semblance of a personal life. By that I mean he had a wife and family and of course, it helped that his wife Gena Rowlands was an actress, and they remained on the same wavelength for most of his career. In the end, he didn’t fulfill the destiny of Ghost. He found a way to live his own life.

3.5/5 Stars

A Colt is My Passport (1967)

Nikkatsu studio’s reputation for these kinds of down and dirty pieces of noir pulp employed action and gangster plots to entice the youth market. Obviously, the influence of the American canon cannot be disregarded, and yet the films came into their own given Japan’s own turbulent history with syndicated crime.

However, A Colt is My Passport does something more with the genre archetypes. It starts with this mythical weapon, not traditionally of mobsters and hitmen, but western heroes and villains dueling out on the range. Wherever the firearm might have progressed, it always carries this mythos about it.

As such, the movie is introduced with a whistling, stringed, and partially staccato score that might as well be plucked out of a  spaghetti western. Further strengthening the ties is Quick Draw Joe, a movie Joe Shishido starred in that was also directed by Takashi Nomura. Now half a dozen years they meet again to build on their collaboration.

The initial beats are familiar if you’ve seen any of these types of pictures. There’s a target to knock off. His name’s Shimazu, and when he’s not constantly being shadowed by a bodyguard, he’s stashed away behind bulletproof glass. It’s a tough job with only one day to see it out.

In this world of guns and souped-up automobiles, Shishido, the chipmunked-cheeked cult hero of cool, somehow feels right at home. It’s all part of his work as he studies his target, sets himself up with a hotel room, and then prepares to get in and get out with surgical precision behind his sniper rifle.

If there’s a methodology here it suggests how Colt is a film built out of a regimen and the setting of its protagonist in an architectural world. He is always completely cognizant of his location and how he functions in relation to the spaces around him. Thus, it becomes as much about mood and milieu as it is focused on action and violence.

Take for instance, how the story is constantly switching contexts. It’s in a car, about getting to a plane at the airport, holding up in a hotel, then fetching a barge out of the country, and when that fails, commandeering a big rig to retaliate against the enemy.

Of course, there must be a love interest. In the subplot, Mina, a young woman who works at the Nagisakan hotel, offers them asylum from their pursuers. What draws her to them? She says the god of death follows in her wake. Her former beau must have been like them, and as she spends her days serving the riffraff and sewer rats always loitering around, she looks to take back her life in some way. This is her form of rebellion in a world generally dominated by men.

However, even with the proliferation of gangster imagery and this kind of masculine bravado, the contours are the film consistently emulate the West with its own recurring motifs. There’s a musical aside of guitar not unlike Ricky Nelson or Dean Martin might knockback in Rio Bravo (Your star is a lonely little star…but now your face is a ghost town in the mist”).

It’s a way to bide the time before inevitable showdowns while also distilling this sense of male camaraderie in such a way as to make it palpable. It evokes the loyalty forged between two men, one mentor and his pupil, who have been through so much together. He shields his partner by giving himself up.

He knows where he must go. Where else would we end up but a deserted, windswept landfill where we half expect to see a tumbleweed roll by? Instantly the urban world and streets, even the maritime port of Yokohama, all but evaporate and fade into the periphery. The entire film culminates in one definitive moment where the sides are drawn up all but prepared to have it out in an instant. While the final showdown is fairly spare, it still manages to blow the lid off the picture with its gritty cross-pollination of the noir, western, and yakuza inspirations.

It’s hardly drawn out — finished in what feels like a few suspended moments of chaos — and yet it might be one of the most monumental standoffs you’ve ever seen. As Shishido digs a hole (what might as well be his grave), then sets a charge of dynamite, which might as well be a self-destruct mechanization, and then finally fights for his life, we are inundated by the full brunt of the impact.

There’s hardly any mistaking who came out victorious, but then again it might be just as difficult to claim a hero as a man totters away from the wreckage.  I’m not altogether familiar with the etymology of “borderless action” cinema as marketed by Nikkatsu, but here it feels like one meaning is about this unabashed melding of genre and inspirations.

Shishido channels hitman, gunslinger, and jaded antihero all rolled into one. He’s got a dash of Eastwood, maybe a bit of a Melville assassin, but also a distinctly Japanese sensibility. It creates this pleasing amalgamation that finds something rather gripping in its myriad of influences. There’s an indiscriminate and still somehow an artful freedom to it drawing me in all the more. 

4/5 Stars

Pigs and Battleships (1961)

If you want to make some sense of the rise of Shohei Imamura, it’s convenient enough to fit him into the context of two of Japan’s foremost filmmakers. During his time as a university student at the prestigious Waseda University, he saw a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which not only became a catalyst for Japanese film worldwide but also for young men like Imamura.

However, upon arriving in the film industry he found himself working with another acclaimed master, Yasujiro Ozu. The only problem is that Imamura’s own sentiments played in stark contrast to his elder’s fairly sedate albeit meticulous style. Imamura wanted to get into the issues and the conflicts of the times. He feels like both a  nonconformist with a bit of a rebellion in his blood and someone with an acute appreciation for humanity.

Here he positions himself as a Japanese New Wave iconoclast having some fun at the expense of his countrymen and their most prominent post-war ally: the United States. In his own words, he was an anthropologist using his films to analyze humanity in all its foibles and messier predilections.

This might be as good a place as any to provide a jumping-off point for Pigs and Battleships. It plays as the antithesis of his elder Ozu by readily showing Japan at its most pathetic with a host of men who might well be a circus of dim-witted ignoramuses in a comedy of errors.

In the opening frames, you get an instant impression of the backstreets and alleyways frequented by American sailors, bums, and pretty girls with their come-hither looks. Vagrants of all sizes can be found scampering around town messing with sailors — swiping their hats — and generally causing mischief. Some of this is organized.

This is the unruly underbelly of Japan as represented by the seaport of Yokosuka and those with a certain perception of civilized Japanese society, would do well to avert their eyes. Imamura has no intent to present some idealized or cloying sense of his homeland

Kinta is one of the ilk of street trash gaining our attention for whatever reason. He’s a lowly gangster yet to earn his stripes.  Hiroyuki Nagato plays him in such a way that his movements come off as those of a callow, entirely overgrown child. While he tries to make a name for himself among the local gangsters, he has an on-and-off fling with a local girl named Haruko.

She’s not a glamour queen, but there’s something good and decent about the naivete found in her eyes. However innocent she might be, she still chides Kinta to get out of the racket and take up a steady factory job out of town.

Whether he meant to or not, you begin to see how the Japanese New Wave was carried on the shoulders of filmmakers such as Imamura. He accentuates a certain world through a particular methodology.

Where hoodlums feel more like snickering hyenas in baggy clothing ready to pound the populous for a good laugh. These aren’t criminals given any amount of deference or import. It feels like we should scorn them even in their hijinks trying to make some money off a drove of pigs.

However, the movie is not without a shock factor. You know when a man’s head is dunked in a tank of gasoline and a thug waves a lighter in front of him ominously, he’s making the threat count. It’s easy to see the director pushing back against any post-war American tokenism. Because Kinta is found right in the crosshairs.

Where being American is king and if you can’t be white Anglo-Saxon — victors of WWII and wooer of Japanese women — at least with the gangs you get to do something cool with your life. You belong to something bigger than yourself. Anything honest and menial is frowned upon. There’s a self-contained scene when a little boy reads out loud how refined and highly cultivated Japan has been able to fluidly integrate aspects of other nations, the irony is not lost.

You only must watch what happens before and after to have a good laugh. The hiccups keep on coming. The mobsters have their hands full disposing of a body, and it feels like a bout derivative from The Trouble With Harry than any hardened crime drama. Try not to giggle with morbid glee when they find a false tooth inside the pig they’re chowing down on!

Even, the yakuza boss, that symbol of towering and lethal villainy is a sorry figure. He’s dying of cancer — looking pitiful when his little brother comes to visit him — the gang gathered around his bedside. He thinks he only has days to live and there are so many affairs to get in order. Namely, all the debts he still needs to collect!

We also meet the man known only as Sakiyama at a bar talking with a Chinese fellow. They’re involved in this pork deal between the Americans and the locals. Although the “Japanese-American” man speaks English, it’s easy enough to tell in a moment it’s not his native tongue. This actor is Japanese and so the illusion is broken, but given the carnivalesque bits of business we’ve already been privy to, it’s not completely out of place.

Because things just keep on falling apart in this ever-changing state of fateful narrative entropy. For most of the film, Imamura remains an observer, but in one specifically pointed setup, he inserts himself into the action. It happens in the aftermath of a row between Kinta and Haruko. They’re probably not getting back together, and she vows to get drunk and party with American seamen as an act of spite.

Instead, she ends up in an empty hotel room with three brawny men prepared to overpower her in their stupor. The overhead shot of Haruka and the three boisterous sailors might be the pinnacle of the film’s hysteria in this intersection of worlds and toxic schemes of life. It breaks the moment down to its most pointed elements as we spin toward oblivion and a horrible outcome that cannot be undone.

Going with its prevailing tone, Pigs and Battleships owns a final act built on total futility. However, there’s something about seeing pigs roaming in the streets that made this feel like Pamplona for porkers. It’s a hilarious image even as the film comes to terms with its own human tragedies. Ozu would never make this movie; not even Kurosawa with his more dynamic proclivities. No, this is something new.

Most important is the implicit message found in the title and much of the comedy. In the post-war landscape, Japan was very much subjugated to America, and they too became conduits of Capitalism.  However, in case it’s not already apparent, our way of life and systems come with their share of flaws. Pigs and Battleships begins to suss out the complexities of this relationship. We’d do well to consider it.

3.5/5 Stars