Monday, February 1, 2010

Pregnant Teen, South African Rugby, Southern Fried Tramp, the Hermitage and Silent Era Porn

I'm in the middle of PFA's Tati and Capra series and 2010 Noir City just wrapped but I've several other films in January. The Tati series has been a pleasant surprise but I'll write about that a future date.

Five films/programs I've seen in January are:

Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique; (2009) Official Site
Invictus starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon; directed by Clint Eastwood; (2009) - Official site
Shanty Tramp; (1967)
Russian Ark directed by Aleksandr Sokurov; (2002)
The Good Old Naughty Days; compilation of silent short films; (2002)


Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire has been well reviewed and received. I was mightily impressed by the film. It was an emotional punch to the gut. The story is about an obese, illiterate, pregnant, teenager in 1980's Harlem. I'm not sure why they set the film in that time period except that the novel was set in that time period. Regardless, there wasn't much specific to the period which came into play during the film. The litany of misfortunes I described is not the end of Precious' troubles. Her mother is abusive, she is a runaway and she has HIV. Now that would destroy most people but Precious has a very dedicated teacher (Paula Patton in an excellent performance) and a very dedicated social worker (Mariah Carey who seems to have received more praise than I thought she deserved). The film follows Precious as she lurches from one calamity to another. At its core is the fractured and tortured relationship between Precious (Sidibe) and her mother (Mo'Nique). Although Sidibe has most of the screen time, it is Mo'Nique who commands attention portraying the abusive and ultimately pathetic mother.

This is the kind of film where I'm at a loss for words. Do people like Precious & her mother exist? It's hard for me to imagine much less empathize with their situation but I'm certain they exist due to the constant barrage of shocking stories in the news. Seeing it portrayed on the screen left me numb. Mo'Nique's character has not only rationalized her behavior (enabling her daughter's incest) but come to deeply resent her daughter (dating to the time she was an infant) for "stealing her man."


Invictus is also a film that has been well reviewed if not quite as widely well received as Precious. Clint Eastwood has been a good director. "Good" maybe a mild compliment but by that term I mean that Eastwood makes enjoyable and well-crafted movies. I would classify his films as "high art" or brilliant but Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino are solid films that I can watch repeatedly. Like a master carpenter making a functional and aesthetically-pleasing piece of furniture, Eastwood cranks out these films that entertain and manipulate your emotions (which is a compliment in my lexicon).

Morgan Freeman and Eastwood have now collaborated on at least three film -
Invictus, Million Dollar Baby and The Unforgiven (my favorite film of Eastwood's directorial efforts). Freeman as an actor is like Eastwood as a director. Freeman always gives solid performances; usually of men who have a quiet dignity despite their circumstances. That's exactly what is called for in portraying Nelson Mandela who instituted a policy of forgiveness and inclusion after spending more than 20 years in prison.

The interaction among Nelson's mixed race security detail were the scenes I enjoyed the most. Julian Lewis Jones as the menacing Afrikaaner was a delight to watch. With a crew cut, sharp angular facial features and vaguely racist demeanor, Jones brought out the most in his character's limited screen time. A thorough security professional, his Feyder looks on with caution as his President tries to heal a country and always stays one step away from insubordination while dealing with his boss, a black man (Adjoa Andoh who gives a fine performance in is own right).


Shanty Tramp was a Thrillville production at the 4-Star. The film was preceded by a burlesque revue called the Hubba Hubba Revue. Three girls performed their routines. The emcee was a raspy voiced guy named Kingfish who sounded a lot like Penn Jillette. The opening act was a guy billed as the Vicar of Liquor who spoke with a Southern drawl and wore a Catholic priest's collar with a leather suit. He gave a sermon about how God returned on the 8th day to make women (i.e. Men 2.0). There was also some guy dressed up like Alice the Goon or something similar that walked around.

As for the film, Shanty Tramp looked like it had a budget of about $20. They even had a original song called "Shanty Tramp" but the music I remember was a sultry cover of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Actually, that was probably the best part of the film. Most of the film involves horse-face Lee Holland sashaying around town and the woods in a tight white evening dress. The plot can be summarized as The Downfall of the Shanty Tramp. She gets involved with an oily, tent-revival preacher, a biker who almost rapes her, a black man who saves her from being raped only to have her accuse him of rape when caught in flagrante delicto and eventually kills her drunkard father. Best scene - there is a dance scene in a dive bar/roadhouse where the man looks like he is having a seizure. Everyone in the film comes off looking sleazy except perhaps the black man. Even he could have avoided his fate if he had listened to his mother and stayed away from the Shanty Tramp. As it turned, he had sex with a white women, then falsely accused of rape and eventually dies in a car accident while fleeing the police. How is that for a moral? It's like the KKK After School Special.


Russian Ark was quite an ambitious film. Screened at the Phyllis Wattis Theater in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the film is one continuous shot filmed at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The film used a guide who spoke directly to the camera as if the audience was a part of the action. Much of the Russian history references were lost on me. My knowledge of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible is limited. I only caught one reference to the Siege of Leningrad and another reference to Nicholas II and his daughter Anastasia.

The film was interesting as a curio piece but the Russian history references, constant camera movement, large cast and what I considered pretensions left me luke warm towards the film.


The Good Old Naughty Days screened at the Red Vic. The program was a compilation of pornographic short films from the 1920s. Most of the films were French intertitled and according to the introduction, shown to customers at French bordellos while awaiting their service.

It was interesting how the pornographic tropes were present 90 years ago. My favorite was a cartoon featuring Eveready Harton, a well-endowed, mustachioed man whose penis not only had mind of its own but could also detach itself and had to be chased after. According to lore, Max Fleischer of Popeye fame was involved in the animation.

The live action films were interesting just to see the grooming practices of men and women back then. The women were rather flabby by today's standards; likewise the men did not measure up to their modern counterparts (Eveready Harton notwithstanding).

I honestly find pornography boring and even silent era porn became a little tedious. I will say that I was surprised by the presence of acts of homosexual and bisexual behavior. Obviously, that behavior has been going on since the beginning of mankind but I would have thought that it carried to great a stigma to get "actors" to perform. In hindsight, I guess the incremental shame between porn and gay porn was rather small during that time. These men and women were probably marginalized before they made porn or else they wouldn't have risked so much to make the films. Besides, they were French...

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