Friday, January 28, 2011
AT THE MOVIES WITH CHARLES JOHNSON
When I was a kid in the 1950s, three movies had a huge, lasting impact on me. The first was Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937), which was quite a masterful, cinematic improvement on James Hilton's moodier 1933 novel, at least in terms of appealing to a mass audience. I identified with the protagonist, Robert Conway, sick of his Western life in London, who after a rescue mission in an Asian country unexpectedly finds himself (and his shallow brother George) kidnapped to Shangri-la, a lamasery where the residents (devoted to inner peace and kindness) are preserving the greatest works of humankind because another devastating, world war that will likely destroy civilization is coming. But Conway loses that utopia during a moment of doubt (instigated by his brother) that an unselfish, spiritual life is actually possible. After leaving Shangri-la, he has to put his life on the line---really struggle and almost die---to regain it. (Or so we hope at the movie's end.) This is easily my favorite film of all time.
A second movie that burned itself into the emulsion of my mind was the film version of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" (1955) about two of society's rejects, both ugly duckings (by this society's standards), who are fine people, and find each other. Marty's family and crude male buddies all oppose his love for Clara, the plain schoolteacher. Ernest Borgnine delivered a performance so emotionally pained in Act One---a one-way phone conversation in which he tries to set up a date and is rejected three times (we watch him just fall apart before our eyes)---that the scene's stark simplicity and the purity of Marty's anguish shocked and moved me when I was a kid; it sensitized me to how cruel, indifferent, and insensitive the social world can be. (I also love the first film version of "The Glass Menagerie" in 1950). "Marty" includes a truly hilarious, wonderful send-up of Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled, macho, (and at the time popular) pulp fiction.
A third film that struck me deeply when I was 12-years-old was "All The Young Men" (1960), starring Sidney Poitier as Sergeant Eddie Towler, a black soldier in Korea who has to take over the leadership of a battered, decimated, all-white platoon, some of whose members are outright racists. In other words, he has to do two extremely difficult things: (1) Finish the dangerous mission, And (2) protect his men, even though one of them is a stereotypical, southern paleo-racist---he even saves the life of that Neanderthal and shatters his prejudices. What's at stake here, of course, is the integration of the United States's armed forces, so the burden on Towler's shoulders---as one of the first shock troops for integration---is to acquit himself with honor, dignity, even nobility for the sake of his people, regardless of the outrageous obstacles placed in his way. (For 33 years, I kept Towler in mind when I taught at the University of Washington.) In some scenes, young Towler is struggling with the racial and military burden placed on him, with a statue of the Buddha in the background. After seeing that movie, I walked out of the theater in 1960 thinking Towler in that story was who I wanted to be when I grew up. (And maybe in this description of the film you can hear echoes of Rutherford Calhoun after the Africans revolt on the slave ship, The Republic, in Middle Passage).
I could list scores of movies that I, as a screen-and-teleplay writer for 20 years, admire for both professional and personal reasons: "Unforgiven" (1992) for the relentless intelligence of its screenplay; "Amadeus" (1984) for F. Murray Abraham's portrayal of composer Antonio Salieri; "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) for its use of a Depression-era dance marathon as a powerful metaphor for capitalism (Jane Fonda is memorable in this film: strong, cynical, and doomed). I should probably add two Sam Peckinpaw films, "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "Straw Dogs" (1971)---OK, I admit it: I like a lot of well-done guy movies---Ang Lee's "Pushing Hands" (1992), which is about an elderly Tai Chi Chuan master and his family problems when he comes to America (Believe me, it's hard to write a good, character-driven martial arts story, but this film achieves that); and a big library of great science fiction films that have been my guilty (well, maybe not so guilty) pleasure since childhood because that sub-genre at its best can tilt toward the philosophical, the imaginative, and remind us of the great mystery of the universe that envelops us.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 5:04 AM