Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Charles Burnett moved with his parents to Los Angeles during the great migration to escape the Jim Crow south when he was still a boy. Suppressing vague artistic urges as a teenager for economic reasons, Burnett enrolled in a more practical degree program of electronics hoping for job security. But the encouragement of a writing teacher, and a lifelong fascination with movies, led him to a UCLA film degree at just the right time to become part of the emerging Black Independent Movement of like-minded young African-American writers, cinematographers, and directors in the area.
Throughout his career, he has persisted against the odds of what big studios consider Americans’ limited interest in black and working-class subjects, and experimental techniques, calmly but fearlessly continuing with project after project across genres. His films have won prizes throughout the world. He has earned a McArthur “genius” grant, and in 2017 an honorary Oscar for his career work. Just before the pandemic, Amazon announced that he would be making a new film about the escape of a slave called Steal Away. I feel I can hardly wait, but of course, I’ll have to. In the meantime, I’ve been looking at the highlights of his career and present brief recommendations below. Occasionally I’ve quoted the director’s own comments from interviews throughout the years, and descriptions from critics more eloquent than I am.
KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)
A legendary but unseen film which was unavailable for three decades because of the complications involved with obtaining the rights for recordings used on the soundtrack. An anonymous donation to the UCLA restoration project cleared the rights and produced a clean new print. The release in 2007 caused a sensation in international cinema.
It’s a risky movie—instead of a straightforward narrative, it’s a stream of interlocking anecdotes punctuated by lyrical interludes of pure visual poetry, all of it revolving around life in late 70s Watts. As Burnett said, “I don’t think a film should tell you A happens, and then B, and then C will necessarily follow. Life isn’t necessarily that simple. Films have a tendency to generalize, to reduce complex issues.” And so he portrays the life of the titular worker at the slaughterhouse as he tries to hold his family together while keeping his own sense of dignity and purpose in a challenging environment. And he shows the man’s life in relation to his neighbors in vignettes that are both straightforward observations and moments of poetic insight.
As fellow director in the movement Bill Woodberry says, “He was working in a way that was not exploitative or stereotypical. He had decided early on that those lives were epic in quality. The people who lived in the stories didn’t realize it, but it was his job as an artist to give them form and shape.” The movie’s soundtrack turns out to be worth the investment because Burnett’s use of a great range of styles—Dvorak and William Grant Still; Earth, Wind, and Fire and Louis Armstrong; Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson. He’s probably the most interesting cinematic purveyor of matched musical quotations outside Martin Scorsese.
The trailer for Killer of Sheep
Richard Brody of New Yorker magazine comments on the film and presents clips:
MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (1983)
Burnett’s second feature is like a parable with a quizzical punchline. The protagonist is a young man who feels trapped in his job at his parents’ dry-cleaning business in Watts, but who nevertheless is too proud to embrace his brother’s aspirations to escape through marriage into a middle-class family. He feels loyal to an ex-convict hustler of a friend and must choose between them in the climactic sequence. It’s a coming-of-age saga that Burnett has called a “tragicomedy.”
His method is deceptively simple, catching the protagonist’s neighborhood seemingly on the sly, but again what looks like neo-realism or documentary has more going on in the frame. As A. O. Scott put it in the New York Times “They are involved, Mr. Burnett and his crew, in a project of making art out of materials and inspirations that lie close to hand. And the result is a film that is so firmly and organically rooted in a specific time and place that it seems to contain worlds.”
Trailer for My Brother’s Wedding
Here is the opening sequence of the film to give you a flavor:
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990)
Although its budget was modest by Hollywood standards, the movie was well-funded and it was backed by the enthusiasm of its star, Danny Glover in the press. (You can see that enthusiasm in the trailer below.) Drawing on his sense of his own past, Burnett shaped a tale of a couple, Gideon and Suzy, who emigrated from down South to L.A. years ago, and are beginning to settle in to a well-earned comfortable version of the American Dream with their two sons and their grandchildren close by. Enter Harry Mention, a suave and sly neighbor from their past down home who insinuates himself into their lives, and begins to disrupt their sense of identity and security as a family.
The film combines folkloric African mythology of the trickster with a mysterious sense of absurdity and dread—funny and spooky at the same time like Zora Neale Hurston with a touch of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming superimposed. The cast is a wonderful selection of black actors we don’t see often enough: Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Carl Lumbly, Richard Brooks, and more. As usual, Burnett makes music a crucial part of the atmosphere, employing the great Kansas City blues shouter and jazz balladeer Jimmy Witherspoon at the end of his long career to play a supporting role and sing commentary on the action.
To Sleep with Anger trailer
Here are some very brief interviews with the cast and director about the film:
THE GLASS SHIELD
Some of the director’s films are fascinating variations on mainstream genre films. This one is in the tradition of police investigation films mixed with racial tensions, such as Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, and also resembles police corruption exposés like Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Prince of the City. Another terrific actor we haven’t seen often enough, Michael Boatman, plays a fresh-faced and eager rookie cop who stoutly faces the hazing of resentful and bigoted white veteran officers, and soon finds himself over his head as he discovers criminal conspiracy of fellow policeman. Lori Petty plays another new recruit, a slightly more wised-up cop who faces variations on prejudice because of her gender.
This time Burnett is telling a straight-ahead plotted film, with clues to trace, and suspenseful scenes, but his thematic concerns are as strong as ever—how do I fit in with the America that wants to exclude me, and still keep my vision of my own self? Veteran actors, including Elliot Gould, M. Emmett Walsh, Michael Ironside, and, at the beginning of his career, Ice Cube, strengthen the supporting cast. The clear-eyed, unflashy cinematography is by that wizard and Cherry Hill West graduate, Elliot Davis, who also shot the next film.
The trailer for The Glass Shield
A favorite with students of all ages in my film courses. Based on the young adult novel by Gary Paulsen, who also wrote the script, Nightjohn tells the story of an escaped slave who comes back south to search for his wife and child, secretly teaching the forbidden skill of reading to any fellow slave curious and brave enough to try. When literacy can result in maiming or death, the risks are high. John the teacher, played with warmth and humor by Carl Lumbly, is a flesh and blood hero, but he also looms as a mythical figure in the story. The film is told from the point of view of young Sarny, a slave girl, savvy and sassy played by Allison Jones, wonderful here in one of her only two film appearances.
Burnett’s family themes reappear in a new variation. Sarny’s mother was sold off the plantation when she was a toddler, so she has become part of an extended family, including Delie (Lorraine Toussaint) as her adoptive mother. The only intact nuclear family is that of the plantation owner (Beau Bridges), whose wife is cheating on him, whose brother condescends to him, and whose sons fear him. Once again, music is crucial to the meaning of the tale—see if you can keep from choking up in the climactic scene where the slaves give voice to a spiritual they have repurposed for new significance. This film is an unknown little gem. Here’s hoping its director gets to finish his latest project soon
Trailer for Nightjohn:
Time to celebrate one of the most innovative instrumentalists of the 20th century, a figure whose influence is still felt today, the high-flying bird, Charlie Parker. I’ll start with a few observations about his life and art and I’ll pass along some links to various celebrations across the internet. I’ve also chosen some clips to form a Bird Jukebox for the occasion. Happy Bird-day!
"Ever since I've ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise — as clean as possible, anyway, and more or less tuned to people. Something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know? Because definitely there are stories and stories and stories that can be told."
Parker with the Metronome All Stars
So many jazz musicians have testified to the moment they first heard Parker, and when you assemble their comments, it seems like a mass conversion experience! Trumpeter Red Rodney: “When I heard him play I nearly fell out the window. Oh, my God! Everything came together at one time. I knew then. I knew where it was and who it was and what I had to do.” Clarinetist Budd De Franco: “He was a deep, extremely knowledgeable person, though self-taught. I don’t think had professional training, but his fingers were perfect. His technique was just perfect—as though he had years of schooling. To me it’s incredible that he’s the one person in jazz who influenced an entire world.” Trumpeter Joe Newman: “The first time I heard him play I couldn’t believe it, because he was doing something different from what everybody else was doing, and it was obvious his style was going to force things in another direction.”
Bird and Diz
The same effect could happen over a great distance, too. Trumpeter Thad Jones: “I was in the army on Guam, traveling with a GI show. There were about six of us, all in our tent…listening to the radio, and all of a sudden Dizzy [Gillespie] comes on playing ‘Shaw Nuff’ with Charlie Parker. And you know, I can’t describe what went on in that tent. We went out of our minds!...It was the newness and the impact of the sound, and the technique. It was something we were probably trying to articulate ourselves and just didn’t know how. And Dizzy and Bird came along and did it. They spoke our minds.”
First there was the sheer velocity of the playing. Bop, the style ushered in by Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, Parker and a few key other originators, simply moved faster than the swing of the 1930s. Parker skimmed, and flitted, and soared. His nickname was the result of a road trip with some fellow musicians. When one of their cars hit a chicken on the side of the highway, Parker insisted they go back and scoop up the fowl’s carcass and he had it cooked up for dinner when they reached the next town. But it probably stuck because of how his fingers, and that signature sound, flew faster than anyone else’s.
Charlie Parker with Miles Davis
Then there was the harmonic adventurousness. Bird was open to all kinds of music, but he was particularly enamored of contemporary classical composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok who were pushing the limits of tonality and exploring new harmonies. As with many of his fellow boppers, Parker often took a traditional pop song that had become a jazz jam session standard, such as “I Got Rhythm” or “How High the Moon,” and superimposed new chord changes on them, exploring remote intervals. Parker’s ability to play these difficult changes, especially at such daring tempos, was the result of hours and hours of practice from his early teenage days as a devout saxophonist.
And there was the revolutionary sound—beautiful without being pretty, expressive yet still cool. The cool probably came in part from his admiration for fellow Kansas City native Lester Young with the Count Basie band. Lester could swing hard while not bearing down on the beat, and his dry tone was somewhat detached, but beautiful on any ballad. The timbre came from devotion to the sound of many alto sax players, including Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington’s magnificent band member Johnny Hodges. But whereas Hodges’ glorious notes were creamy, Bird’s were tart. The slightly acid edge gave Parker’s tone a modernistic, somewhat alienated feel that appealed to fellow youngsters in the jazz and also to literati like the Beats.
Unfortunately, Charlie Parker’s career was brief. Afflicted with recurring bouts of heroin addiction, he also drank too much when trying to stay off junk. Substance abuse had worn his system down even as he cleaned up. By the time of his death in 1955 at the age of thirty-four, the coroner guessed he was fifty-three. Within a week, graffiti was appearing in New York proclaiming “Bird Lives!” Thanks to recording technology, that’s vividly, startlingly true.
Charlie Parker with strings
To start our musical tour, let’s take a look at the only footage of Charlie Parker playing. (There was a short made by photographer experimental filmmaker Gjon Mili, but the soundtrack was lost. To look at a TV appearance in which Bird and the other musicians mime playing to a pre-recorded track you can click here.) Jazz producer and journalist Leonard Feather presents awards to Bird and Diz from Down Beat magazine. The brief ceremony is precious because we get to hear Parker’s speaking voice, too. The band plays “Hot House”:
A NIGHT IN TUNISIA
To get an idea of how new listeners felt lightning strike when they first heard the Bird, I’ve chosen Parker’s first version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” (Miles Davis is on trumpet and Dodo Marmorosa on piano.) This features what is now called the “famous alto break.” When the other instruments drop out after the intro, Parker’s first solo packs harmonic daring and dazzling speeds into a concentrated four bars. The other musicians on the date were so startled they couldn’t make it through the first take!
Here’s something even more amazing from Bird’s first recording session as a leader. Parker had been improvising on Charlie Barnett’s big band theme “Cherokee” for some time, and would have been familiar with Count Basie’s epic two-sided 78 rpm version. Here he recasts the harmonies and revs up the speed to astonishing effect. Dizzy plays both trumpet and piano. An earlier take has Diz laughing in joy at Parker’s playing. To hear Basie’s version of the original you can click here. For an excellent short article and a ten minute radio bit from NPR, you can hear Gary Giddins discuss how “Ko Ko” came about by clicking here.
ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE
Next I want to give an idea of Parker’s inexhaustible inventiveness. It’s said he had capacious taste—opera, pop songs, dance band numbers, calypso, Salvation Army Band music. And he had a predilection for gorgeous tunes, as well. Here is one of the early hit versions of Jerome Kern’s evergreen “All the Things You Are” played by Artie Shaw’s Orchestra in 1940 with Helen Forrest on the vocal.
Now here’s how bop players transformed the melody in 1947. There’s the cool tag at the beginning vamping until the main theme enters, and there’s still plenty of lyricism as the soloists, mostly Dizzy with a soupcon of Bird, weave in and out.
And finally Parker, playing at a jam session in someone’s apartment in 1950 exploring every angle of the melody and flowing endlessly (well, OK, for six choruses) and showing how it’s done.
Now for a controversial bit of Bird lore. This cut comes from the infamous session the night Parker was arrested in Los Angeles and sent to the sanitarium in Camarillo for rehab. Bird had run out of money and drugs during this period and showed up to the studio very drunk. His timing was off and his intonation a bit shaky, yet many people hear so much soul in this reading of the classic ballad. Bassist/composer Charles Mingus regarded it as one of the greatest jazz pieces ever recorded. Others demurred. Gary Giddins reports that despite its flaws “the performance is oddly indigenous and moving. When producer Ross Russell released it, and indiscretion for which Bird never forgave him, callow musicians memorized it, mistakes and all.” I myself find it heartbreaking.
NOW’S THE TIME
A much happier moment. Traditionalists resisted the bop revolution of the 40s, saying the speedy rush of notes and changes crowded out the elegance of the swing beat. But Parker and company knew how to lay down a groove when they wanted to, and the motion here anticipates the funky force of the “hard bop” of later decades in music like Horace Silver’s. The cool swagger here promises a good time even as the title proclaims modernity.
Although skeptics found the concept pretentious or ill-advised, Charlie Parker insisted that producer Norman Granz provide him with a small symphonic orchestra for his first project on the Verve label.
It’s true that the opening bars of this number evoke a cheesy movie soundtrack, but then the lushness of the strings is cut through with the luster of the master’s tone. This track was found on jukeboxes throughout the country and it gave Bird the closest thing to mainstream hit he had. He was dashed when he was prevented from exploring this vein further.
Charlie Parker was born and raised in Kansas City where jazz was steeped in the blues. Part of his apprenticeship was spent in the territory band of blues pianist Jay McShann. In this composition, Bird holds the twelve bar form, as essential to our indigenous music as the sonnet is to English poetry, up to the light and explores different facets of harmony and intonation. Solid.
I just wanted to end with some straightforward gorgeousity—Charlie Parker playing a Gershwin ballad with all the spirit and affection that even a bop resister can embrace.
To find out more about Charlie Parker, the best place to start in print is with Gary Giddins’ book Celebrating Bird, handsome in layout and lavishly illustrated with photographs even in its paperback form. (The hour long documentary Giddins directed to accompany it is available used on DVD for reasonable prices, too.) Stanley Crouch’s biography Kansas City Lightning is a marvel of research and imaginative empathy for its subject.
Recently Terry Gross’s Fresh Air featured a short piece by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead that does a fabulous job of summarizing Bird’s impact and career which you can hear by clicking here.
NPR’s Jazz Night in America with host bassist Christian McBride recently celebrated Bird’s birthday with a full program, including a generous section on the Parker with Strings sessions and lots of fabulous music inspired by the birthday boy. Hear it by clicking here.
There’s a New York Times item that lists the various celebrations going on this year here.
One of the things I love about pop culture is the many ways media and artforms can interconnect. This week I celebrate a collage of music, radio and internet journalism, photography, and street art. This is the story of East Side Story.
Twelve or so years ago, I found a discount box set of twelve CDs containing a few tracks I knew, and many I’d never encountered before, so I took a chance. Each volume’s cover was labeled in the same distinctive lettering that evoked graffiti and featured a photo of someone posing with his car. It was all very mysterious to me, but the music was fabulous—some doo-wop, many sweet ballads, and an awful lot of soul music that hit a certain mid-tempo, easy-loping, magical feel. Whenever I played a disc for friends, they’d ask for more.
Re-releases of classic East Side Story albums on display
Over time, I figured the East Side of the title must be referring to the Chicano neighborhood of Los Angeles, and as I began to discover vocal group music of Texas and L.A., the stuff people called “brown-eyed soul,” I noticed the names of groups like Sunny and The Sunliners were on both kinds of anthologies. Cool, I thought, these folks on the cover are from East L.A. and the music is the soundtrack of their ethnic surroundings and their remembered youth. But why were there so many African-American bands, and why did most of the tunes come from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and even New Orleans?
DJ/journalist Melissa Dueñas at a gallery show highlighting lowrider culture and Chicano art
I started to find some answers from the Google oracle, specifically when I found an article about a certain Melissa Dueñas, who was making a documentary about the East Side Story compilations. Dueñas, who had been a drummer as a kid and is now a DJ and podcast host, had become a graduate student in journalism. I soon found several of her pieces about Latino culture online, and was delighted when a few weeks later an audio report about her relationship with her dad was aired on NPR for Father’s Day. (You can read about it, and play the piece, too, by clicking here.) She clearly has the skills, and the heart, to tell the story of her family, her neighborhood, and Chicano culture in general, so I hope she gets to finish the documentary about the East Side Story compilations. (Read about her project—and watch the trailer, too—by clicking here.)
Dueñas with compiler Mr. B. at a swapmeet
What Dueñas is doing is tracking down the people who were in those cover photos, and also is interviewing the man who put those pictures on the original 8-track tape and vinyl versions in the late 1970s, a business man who goes by the name of Mr. B. One of Mr. B’s hobbies was collecting old records (another—no surprise—is vintage cars), and he got the idea for making bootlegs of old soul tracks from the enthusiastic response to certain cuts at the San Diego Starlite swapmeet. (Later, when the compilations became regarded as classics, the artwork was re-released with legitimately licensed tracks.) Soon he was putting local folks and their cars on the covers, because fans of these classic and obscure-but-well-loved 45s associated the tunes with cruising in their lowriders on and around Whittier Blvd. in East L.A.
Lowriding is a crucial part of the cultural scene there. As Chris Kaiser, a blogger for DailyDriver.com explains:
“People know lowriders represent a specific American car sub-culture. Yet this still might understate their cultural significance. Lowriders are drive-able artwork representing a specific mode and medium of personal and cultural expression emanating from a specific time and place. They belong within the wider Chicano arts movement that includes visual arts like murals and graffiti, El Teatro Campesino and similar street theater, and the zoot suit fashions pioneered some 80 years ago by the “pachuco generation.” The flamboyance of lowriders, with their lurid colors and hopping, mirror the attitude and ostentation of these other forms of Chicano art.”
1964 Impala, retooled and repainted, classic lowrider style
(You can read his full article, and see some eye-popping photos, here. There’s also an excellent detailed examination of the history of lowriding enthusiasm at the History Channel’s website here.)
It makes sense that the taste of Mr. B’s fans throughout the year should lead the 144 tracks he chose to become the soundtrack to their lowriding nights. Whereas the hot rod craze was for young car fans who wanted to chop up and reform older cars to make them run faster and louder--souped-up American dreams-on-wheels barreling down Thunder Road-- lowriders were reshaped for a sleek and shiny look, and a smooth, cruisin’ feel—the quiet storm of laid-back Chicano cool. I’m no gearhead but I can appreciate the tenacity of the guys who retooled their rides. But what I really appreciate is the syncretic imagination it takes to hear all these different romantic pop tunes woven together, an eclectic mix from all over the country that makes listening another form of creativity.
Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. with cruising classic cars
For this entry I’ve created a jukebox of a few selected tunes. (You can search on Spotify for a playlist one ESS fan has made of most of the tracks under “Actual East Side Story.” You can also listen to Melissa’s (aka Lil Smiley’s) podcast called Lowrider Sundays by clicking here.)
You don’t have to wait until it’s starry night and you’re driving around with your significant other while you play this through the car speakers, but you can dream you are. Hope you enjoy!
“MR. DJ” VAN McCOY
I’ve started with a “meta-song,” one of those records about the importance of playing records. (Another one Mr. B. chose for the series is Little Caesar’s “Those Oldies But Goodies Remind Me of You.”) This obscure slice of doo-wop is an early creation of Van McCoy, the mastermind behind many Philly productions of the disco era, including “The Hustle.”
“AIN’T NO BIG THING” THE RADIANTS
Chicago guys who met in the Baptist youth choir, like so many gospel singers of the time they moved on to the secular realm of doo-wop, R & B, and then soul. Their biggest hit was “Voice Your Choice.” This one, on the big, brassy Chess records sound, made it to #91.
“I’M AN AVERAGE GUY” THE MASQUERADERS
These Texans got their group’s name from their reputation for being able to copy any other group’s sound, and perhaps that was what stalled their careers from time to time. They flunked their audition at Motown but became legendary in clubs around Detroit. When they tried out at American Sound Studio in Memphis, they were encouraged by Bobby Womack to stick around. A great harmony group, you can hear them on other people’s hits, including Wilson Pickett and The Box Tops. This plea from a common man whose love is uncommonly big is a lost gem. (Also: Top marks for proper use of the subjunctive!)
“ANGEL BABY” ROSIE AND THE ORIGINALS
Rock and roll balladry does not get more basic than this. Rosie Hamlin composed the song for her boyfriend when she was fourteen in San Diego. A year later they recorded it for an amateur studio, and legend has they promoted it by convincing the manager of Kresge’s department store to pipe it through the speakers for shoppers. It went top 40 and Rosie became the first Latina on Dick Clark’s Bandstand and the first Latina inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John Lennon often expressed awed admiration for her voice and her composition.
“HAVE I SINNED” DONNIE ELBERT
One of those singers who kept chasing fame from city to city and label to label throughout two plus decades, Elbert almost hit the charts a number of times. This one was a regional hit in Pittsburgh but charted nowhere else. That distinctively rich falsetto and the sinuous alto riff intertwine memorably. The record sure made an impression on Martin Scorsese—it’s in a key scene in The Irishman.
“THAT’S HOW HEARTACHES ARE MADE” BABY WASHINGTON
Justine Washington had a number of hits in the 1960s that walked the line between pop chanteuse and soul crooner, somewhat similar to early Dionne Warwick. This wonderful number was her biggest hit, and was covered by many others, including The Shirelles and Dusty Springfield.
“SMILE NOW, CRY LATER” SUNNY AND THE SUNLINERS
Texan Chicano Sonny Ozuna and his groupmates recorded for their own local label in the early sixties, and like other Texas Latin vocal groups could shift between Tex-Mex rock, doo-wop, pop covers, and smooth ballads like this one. Louisiana record producer Huey Meux (aka “The Crazy Cajun”) picked up their singles for distribution (as he did with Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, and many other Texans) and they became a favorite of the lowriding oldies crowd.
“I’M READY” BARBARA MASON
A savvy mainstay of the music publishing industry, Mason was writing her own material in from an early age and scored a #5 hit when only eighteen with this wonderful single. She continued her career for decades on different Philadelphia labels. The winsome freshness of the vocal and the languid lyrics are carried away by those tumbling strings…
“RIGHT ON THE TIP OF MY TONGUE” BRENDA AND THE TABULATIONS
Another Philly gal, Brenda Payton started with such songs as “Dry Your Eyes,” a doo-wop ballad backed with male vocalists. (I never quite understood the group name. Do they bring adding machines to the gig?) By the time of this track, Van McCoy was writing and producing Brenda, and The Tabulations were now women.
“STILL WATER (LOVE)” THE FOUR TOPS
When Mr. B., the East Side Story compiler, chooses Motown, he steers clear of the obvious. I didn’t remember this cut at all from my Motown-drenched transistor radio youth, but when I heard it on the compilation, I ID’d Levi Stubbs’ trademark shout, even if it’s toned down in the medium groove The Funk Brothers lay down. The song is composed by label stalwart Smokey Robinson, and as usual, he gives a new sparkle to a worn-out proverb. Now “walk with me…” everybody.
WORKERS LEAVING A FACTORY (Lumiere Brothers, 1895)
Movies in their first year…
MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
Chaplin’s alter ego, The Tramp, always seemed to be scrounging for work to earn food and shelter starting with many of the shorts during his rising fame right through to the succession of odd jobs the little fellow takes on to support the blind flower girl in City Lights. But this film distilled everything he had to say about man’s struggle to define himself in an increasingly depersonalized society. It may be his greatest film. This sequence certainly is justly famous:
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
Most people remember this film for the central romantic misunderstanding—Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan can’t stand each other on the in their shop where they’re co-workers, but are falling hopelessly in love as anonymous pen pals. But what gives the film its larger context is the relationships of everyone else on the job. This may be the best film about what it means to work retail, even if Lubitsch adapted it from a Hungarian farce, and reshaped it with his famously delicate Touch. Supporting actors Felix Bressart, William Tracy, Joseph Schildkraut, and especially, as the hilarious, infuriating, and ultimately tender boss, Frank Morgan, ground the screwball antics in the real world.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (John Ford, 1940)
Hard on the heels of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize in 1939, Nunnally Johnson adapted the novel quickly so as not to lose the chance at remaining relevant. Ford gives the mise en scene a sense of quiet dignity that made this Depression equivalent of a Biblical exodus feel true. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used the wizardry that would create the intricate baroque angles of Citizen Kane here to recreate the look and feel of the famous still photographers of the period such as Dorothea Lange’s. And Henry Fonda gave life to Tom Joad.
IL POSTO (THE JOB) (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)
Young Domenico arrives at the city seeking a position that will help him support his family back in the countryside. While struggling in an entry level messenger job to make sense of the bureaucracy of the corporation that employs him, he yearns for a girl he’s spotted in the company, who may just be his soul-mate. Sad and absurd at the same time, the film is like a neo-realist anticipation of “meet cute” “rom-coms” to come, and features a terrific final scene. Olmi’s epic tale of peasant farm life, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, also deserves a viewing.
THE ORGANIZER (Mario Monicelli, 1963)
On a small scale, Monicelli creates an entire world in this account of a strike in 19th century Turin at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The town’s central factory is the hub from which all classes radiate like spokes, and an international cast is mixed with non-professional actors. The one outsider is a scruffy pied-piper of a roving professor whose rhetoric inspires the workers to band together. It may be Marcello Mastroianni’s greatest turn in a long career of great performances—at once charming, raffish, silly, and tragic.
HARLAN COUNTY, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1975)
Despite worthy competition, I often think this could be the greatest documentary ever made by an American director. Kopple and her crew were able to gain the trust of the Kentucky coal miners who endured a long and grueling strike, protesting decades of hellish conditions and facing violence from thugs hired by the mining company. The result is an intimate portrait of vividly sketched individuals and a close-knit community rising up. It’s also a suspenseful and riveting story. It’s nearly impossible these days to see her other strike film, 1990’s AMERICAN DREAM, a more ambiguous account of the conflict at a Hormel meat packing plant in Minnesota, but keep your eyes open for TCM or a streaming platform to screen it. It may just be the only film that ties with HARLAN COUNTY.
NORMA RAE (Martin Ritt, 1979)
The best of those major Hollywood studios “based-on-a-true-story” labor films, NORMA RAE features Sally Field’s well-deserved Oscar winning performance (she won at Cannes, too) as a tired single mother whose dead-end life gains purpose when she takes on the management of the local textile mill in North Carolina and rallies her fellow workers to organize a union. Ron Liebman is every bit as good as the savvy outside agitator mensch from Manhattan, and Pat Hingle, Beau Bridges, and Barbara Baxley lend support. Add the splendid cinematography of John Alonzo that gives the Alabama locations both air to breathe outside and grit and sweat inside the plant, and the hit theme song by David Shire, and you have a classic film.
THE KILLING FLOOR (Bill Duke, 1985)
A little-known gem of a film. Set in the Chicago stockyards during and just after The Great War, the film traces the growth of solidarity in the diverse ethnic communities. Told from the point of view of a young African-American from the deep South who longs to bring his family up to live with him, the plot is structured as a coming-of-age story, and (quite an achievement on a tight budget) is also a period epic and historical pageant. The script by playwright Leslie Lee is cunningly structured, and the film features Damien Leake and Alfre Woodward at the beginning of their careers, and the great Moses Gunn as an irascible, scoffing, anti-union packer.
ALL OR NOTHING (Mike Leigh, 2002)
Like Ken Loach, Leigh has been tirelessly and for decades making first TV shows, and then films, that mostly explore the lives of the unglamorous. His method is to assemble his cast for months prior to shooting, provide them with the basic situation of the story, and then to improvise in lengthy rehearsals. When it’s time to shoot, he’s edited the improvisations into a proper script that all have learned. The situation here is the intersecting lives of various families in a block of flats who face the various challenges of working on the fringes of society, barely hanging on economically and emotionally. His ensemble this time includes his stalwarts Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, and Sally Hawkins and James Corden, who were newcomers at the time. Humorous and tender, despite the dour setting.
NORTH COUNTRY (Niki Caro, 2005)
This fiction film is based on the landmark first class action suit concerning sexual harassment, and involves a woman who moves back to her North Minnesota town to work in the mine, and who takes a heroic stand under harrowing circumstances against what the law mildly terms “a hostile work environment.” Cinematographer Chris Menges gets the look and feel of the blue-gray town and works just right, but the film devolves toward the end into a predictable court scene that’s all climax and very little law, leading to an unconvincing feel-good conclusion. You’ll want to see it anyway, because the cast is spectacular from Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, and Woody Harrelson in the leads, to Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins as the parents, and in smaller roles such solid performers as Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, and Corey Stoll. Music is by Hibbing, Minnesota’s own Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan.
Sally Hawkins and the women of Daggenham
MADE IN DAGENHAM (Nigel Cole, 2010)
A fiction film based on the historic strike by the women working in a Ford factory in the UK that brought about equal pay. In its striving for a bright and upbeat tone, it’s all a little too breezy, but Sally Hawkins brings her special luminous brand of dedication to her role, and as a union leader, the irrepressible Bob Hoskins appears in one of his last roles. You’ll definitely enjoy the film, but you’ll probably want to google some deeper background when you’ve seen it.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
Taut and lean, taking place over the weekend indicated by the title, this film is nevertheless brimming with humanity. The Dardenne brothers typically employ a mixture of low-key actors and non-professionals, but for the first time here they cast an international star in the lead. Marion Cotillard plays a woman whose job has been downsized from a solar panel plant in the brothers’ usual setting of Seraing, just outside Lieges in Belgium. She has been given one weekend to persuade her fellow workers to give up a bonus so that she can be hired back. Her trek across the city becomes eventful and suspenseful. One critic at the time lamented the film was not getting enough coverage, saying that the attitude was, “ho hum, another masterpiece by the Dardenne brothers.” A must-see movie.
Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez
CESAR CHAVEZ (Diego Luna, 2014)
Enthusiastically guided by actor Luna, Michael Pena plays the farm workers’ union legend in a somewhat predictable, but nevertheless informative, film about the breakthrough of the AFW.
It’s great to see such strong and attractive performers as America Ferrara and Rosario Dawson embody the struggle, and John Malkovich slyly underplays as the malevolent farm owner. There are a few interesting moments of internal conflict when Chavez’ wife begins to bother him by becoming too enthusiastic about the cause for his comfort! But mostly the movie sticks to a standard heroic template, hitting the highlights of his career—the roadside pilgrimage, the fasting, the grape boycott, the European visit—all essential to know about, and all touched upon briefly. Worth seeing, but…see the next entry, too.
DOLORES (Peter Bratt, 2018)
A documentary about Chavez’s less famous partner in the struggle Dolores Huerta, finally getting a feature-length acknowledgment of her uncompromising courage and eloquence. Well-paced with still photographs, fascinating film clips, cable news sound bites, and interviews that give the context of Latino culture and the origins of Civil Rights movement in California, the film pieces together detail after detail of her contributions to American justice. Colleagues interviewed include Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. An inspiring film.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS (Andrew Bujalski, 2018)
Bujalski has the reputation of being “The Grandfather of Mumblecore,” but this small budget film speaks loud and clear about the trials and tribulations of a sisterhood of the wait staff at a Hooters-like establishment. Observing the unities (except for two brief epilogue scenes), the film takes place on one day, as the “girls” try to keep the customers and the boss happy while juggling their exhausting schedules with their home lives. As the manager whose super power is her bottomless empathy, Regina Hall gives an award-worthy performance, even more impressive in her quiet moments as she is while taking care of business.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU (Ken Loach, 2019)
In the director’s twenty-fifth film in fifty years, he still remains clear-eyed, unsentimental, and coolly angry at the systemic injustice that gnaws at the working class. He and longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, did extensive research interviewing package delivery van drivers and home care workers to prepare their script about a couple in Newcastle working at those jobs in order to build a life for themselves and their son and daughter. The result is a kind of Bicycle Thieves for the “gig economy.” Any of a dozen others of Loach’s films could be on this list, but I’ve chosen this one for its timeliness and in tribute to an 84 year old director who shows no signs of weakening in his powers.
Heads up, Mount Laurel Library film fans: Kanopy has available four splendid examples of the film essay about film. Below I’ve given the details about these personal documentaries. Each one is on the long side (well, and one is very, very long), but can comfortably split up into the chapters the directors have helpfully provided.
Keep a pad and pen, or your notes app in your phone, handy. You’re going to want to jot down a lot of titles of favorite films of these directors.
Marty on the set
FILM: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)
Produced originally for The British Film Institute. 3 hours, 45 minutes
AUTHOR: Written and directed by Martin Scorsese. (Co-written with documentarian and film historian Michael Henry Wilson).
It probably isn’t necessary to mention the many awards and popular films of one of America’s most important filmmakers, but this is a good place to discuss the range of subjects he’s covered. His twenty-five fictional films include his take on the woman’s picture, the musical, the boxing picture, the biblical narrative, an exploration of Buddhism, a saga of Christian missionaries in Japan, a biography of Howard Hughes, an adaptation of Edith Wharton novel, a children’s film in 3D, and a sequel to a classic film about billiards. He’s made sixteen documentaries on topics ranging from Italian American ethnicity; musicians such as The Band, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and George Harrison; and the Statue of Liberty. Scorsese is also a pioneer in film preservation, and has advised museums, art cinemas, and DVD manufacturers on programs that bring rare films to the public from around the world. Oh, yes, and he made a few gangster films, too.
With such a range of interests, it’s no wonder that he says he has in his mind a sort of “Imaginary Museum” of films that made an indelible impression on him beginning in his childhood and stretching throughout his career.
THEMES: Scorsese weaves together his personal reactions with the larger canvas of American film history, by means of chapters devoted to the director’s different tasks. The chapters are: “The Director as Storyteller,” “The Director as Illusionist” (in which he looks at various technical challenges), “The Director as Smuggler” (in which he examines strategies studio-bound artists managed to sneak unlikely or subversive themes into routine projects), and “The Director as Iconoclast” (in which he celebrates directors who went against the grain and risked open rebellion).
- The prologue, “The Director’s Dilemma.” Scorsese supports his ideas about the dichotomies of art in show business—individual vision vs. collaboration with a team, artistic integrity vs. commercial concerns—with a witty montage of scenes from films about directors.
- The sequence in which he provides a crash course in the history of popular Hollywood genres—the Western, the gangster picture, and the musical—and shows how each matured while developing parallel themes about the American Dream.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (D. W. Griffith, 1912), the first gangster film
Scorsese is a legendary raconteur. Leonardo DiCaprio says that you cannot talk to him for longer than five minutes before the talk turns to classic films. He’s been known to explain to his cinematographers how a scene should look by screening two or three other clips from older movies. So his affection, enthusiasm, and wonder come through easily here. He’s like a cross between a small town booster and your favorite college professor.
NOTES: Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, his long-time collaborator, the film clips flow seamlessly. This film is available on Kanopy. You can purchase a digital copy on Amazon Prime, but there it’s called History of American Cinema. Although it’s tricky to see these days, try to find a used DVD of his sequel, My Voyage to Italy. He also has a fascinating shorter personal documentary A Letter to Elia about director Elia Kazan.
FILM: My Journey Through French Cinema (2017) 3 hours, 12 minutes
Written and directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Writer and director of over twenty fiction films and a dozen documentaries and shorts, Tavernier had a long apprenticeship in the glory days of the New Wave, and has won many awards from festivals at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and elsewhere. His films include The Clockmaker, Coup de Torchon, The Judge and the Assassin, Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight, and The Princess of Montpensier.
Like Scorsese, Tavernier relates simultaneously his personal experience with the films as a little boy, a teenager, and then an aspiring filmmaker. He frequently connects these memories with the history of French film, occasionally expressing a revisionist opinion about a director’s, actor’s, or specific film’s worth. He constantly searches for what gives a movie’s vision its sense of excitement, melancholy, wit, or verve. A recurring theme is the enormous changes wrought by France’s experience of WWII, and the history of protest, resistance, and fight for liberty throughout French history and French film.
Jean Gabin in Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve (1939)
First let it be said that as the most recent of the documentaries considered in this column, My Journey features the most gloriously luminous film clips of all. Tavernier is lucky that France at this point in its history regards its cinematic history as one of the glories of its national culture.
Every moment is a highlight visually. Other highlights include:
- Tavernier’s discussion of the career of Jean Gabin, which uses copious examples of his performances to show the man and the artist from his earliest appearances as a dashing exemplar of the working class, through his triumphs with directors like Renoir, Carne, Gremillon, Duvivier, and more. The section on his comeback also features priceless excerpts from interviews.
- Tavernier’s defense of the somewhat tarnished reputation of director Marcel Carne, creator of my personal favorite film Children of Paradise, and an influential source of American film noir as well. Running against the grain of received opinion, Tavernier finds much to admire in his post-war career, and has convinced me to seek out more of his films.
- The sequence on music in French film is something to treasure. Tavernier admits that as a result of the rise of fascism Europe lost many gifted composers to Hollywood. But he accurately points out that Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Bernard Herrman, were all from the Austrian tradition. The French who stayed were amazing talents, too. Poulenc, Maurice Jaubert, George Auric, Joseph Kosma, and many others were in a different, more modern tradition that valued precision and lightness over Romantic or Expressionist techniques. This he proves a marvelous sequence of scenes that have no dialogue, in which the music expresses more than words could
Joseph Kosma, composer of “Autumn Leaves”
NARRATION: Down to earth, but at the same time urbane, Tavernier’s avuncular manner should warm you heart while teasing your brain.
NOTES: Available on Kanopy and as an inexpensive purchase on Amazon Prime.
FILM: Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, revised 2014) 2 hours 49 minutes
AUTHOR: Written and directed by Thom Andersen, documentarian, film historian and professor. The movie was first created as a lecture series with accompanying clips and then developed over years into an in person performance at museums. Andersen was finally persuaded to turn it into an actual film, and after securing the rights for the clips under Fair Use guidelines, he had the clips cleaned up and digitally remastered for Blu-ray release a few years ago.
THEMES: As someone who grew up in the city, Andersen has a distinct dislike for the conflation of Los Angeles with Hollywood, which he says is a series of factories outside an actual community. “L.A.,” he contends, is an invention of the American commercial motion picture industry, a concept that replaces the actual history, geography, sociology, and very soul of the town he loves. His extraordinary range of clips illustrate his thesis in witty, impassioned, and determined ways, and relate his specific concern with the City of Angels to a larger issue of how we use movies to avoid confronting our past and present realities. As has said, “A major influence on today’s school of Internet video essays and supercuts, Los Angeles Plays Itself is also an epic rant, an expression of civic pride, a playful history lesson, an act of first-rate muckraking, an archival editing triumph, and—per its director—a ‘city symphony in reverse.’”
The Bradbury Building dressed up in Blade Runner
- Andersen is a connoisseur of architecture, and the sequence in which he examines the appearance of some of Los Angeles’ most interesting and beautiful buildings as they appear in film is fascinating. Particularly wonderful is a series of shots from movies and TV where the interior of the fabled Bradbury Building appears in different guises from Double Indemnity to Chinatown to Blade Runner.
- In his cool and suppressed outrage, Andersen is amusing when he incredulously presents cuts from action sequences and car chases that make mush out of the actual street layouts of the city and its suburbs.
- In the final part of the film, Andersen explores the filmmakers who have tried to capture the actual diversity of the working class and minority population of Los Angeles, highlighting Native American, Latino, and African American filmmakers and subjects. For a while, this was the only place you could see clips from the classic Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and The Exiles by Kent McKenzie.
Native American night wanderer in The Exiles
NARRATION: Andersen hands his script over to fellow documentarian Encke King for the actual soundtrack. King’s deadpan delivery gives you a sense of factual correctness, but it’s also like an ironic counterpoint to the film noir gumshoe voice-overs of Hollywood’s L.A., or the “just the facts, ma’am” dryness of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, who makes an appearance in the film!
NOTES: Available on Kanopy, by subscription on Sundance Now, and on a beautiful new blu-ray.
Mark Cousins behind the Hollywood sign
FILM: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) 15 hours, 51 minutes
Originally presented on Channel 4 in the UK. First aired in US on Turner Classics in 2013
AUTHOR: Written and directed by Mark Cousins, a film critic and documentarian based in the UK.
Brian Doan has reported that “Cousins and his producer John Archer spent six years shooting in more than ten countries and on every continent, gathering dozens of interviews, and finding and editing 1000 clips from films of all kinds (to say nothing of dealing with the vagaries of their funding from multiple sources), in order to make a 900-minute movie.” (It’s closer to 950, but it certainly isn’t meant to be viewed in one sitting!)
Cousins professes that he wants the series to be "the history of innovation in the movies," and he likes to emphasize where something new and surprising emerges. He celebrates the achievements of Hollywood’s contribution to this development, but he repeatedly refers to the escapism of the dream factory and, later, the big budget blockbuster as “the bauble.” A garish and shiny object capable of distracting the audience from other forms of truth and trapping us in mere escapism. Therefore, he hopes his history of cinema will be a counter-myth that lets us see that the “playing field is not level. The bullies with massive marketing budgets force their movies on us, whether they are good or not, thus restricting our choice." He means to give credit to different artists, genres, and countries who have contributed to the odyssey of film.
- In the first episode Cousins provides a crash course in development of film grammar from pioneers like the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies in the 1890s through Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith in the 1910s, and then on to astonishing sophistication before sound arrives. Cousins gives credit to the techniques developed in this crucial early period by filmmakers all over the world, using clips I’d never seen before.
- Episode 10 looks at directors in the 70s from countries around the world whose work is seldom celebrated here. Each one is an innovator, and each short tribute to them makes me want to fill up my watchlist with titles.
- Episode 11, “Fight the Power” examines the role of protest in recent filmmakers’ careers. Countries whose artists have crafted movies to affect change and secure justice include China, Russia, Poland, France, Spain, England, Canada, and, of course, the US.
Cousins is from Northern Ireland, so the pronunciation and rhythms of his speech are in a lilting murmur. He didn’t want to tire the viewer over the course of the project with a strident volume and he didn’t want to sound overly didactic. "You have the feel the filmmaker is in the audience with you watching," Cousins explains. "I'm sitting next you whispering in your ear, watching with you." It works for me, but I’m a hopeless Celtophile.
NOTES: OK, let me say again: this film is almost sixteen hours! On Kanopy it appears as the fifteen episode version first screened on TCM years ago, so you have to plan your viewing carefully or you’ll max out your monthly streaming allowance pretty quickly. Or (and I swear I am not secretly working for Jeff Bezos) you can purchase an inexpensive digital video version from Amazon Prime so you can stream as much as you want whenever you want.
A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996), one of the many Iranian films Cousins discusses.