Friday, August 3, 2012

The Firemen's Ball (1967) Spine #145

There are some works of art that in and of themselves are not particularly aesthetically pleasing or emotionally stirring.  However, the social / political / economic / cultural context they are produced in elevates the work to a point of significance that, on its own merit, it would not have achieved.  This seems to be one end of a spectrum where artistic merit alone stands on the other end.  In the middle, you can have a movie that is both (like Children of Paradise).

Fireman’s Ball.  Is this a great movie?  No.  It’s amusing.  It’s very much in keeping with the 1960s European push towards neorealism (using real people and real locations instead of actors or sets).  What happens?  A group of firemen are celebrating the retirement of their chief.  They get the party ready, the party happens, it is interrupted by a fire that they do not put out, the revelers return to the ball, there is an unsuccessful raffle where all the prizes disappear, the ball ends.  There are moments of poignancy, like the man who lost his house being given a jacket in order to enter the ball because almost everything he used to own about an hour ago is now gone, and one cannot be without adhering to the dress code. The fireman who’s in charge of making sure the prizes don’t disappear returns the head cheese that his wife stole on her watch and is chastised for it.  But the movie largely paints the firemen as loveable drunks who are pretty horrible at their jobs and the Czech people, at this point in history still on the cold side of the Iron Curtain, as a bunch of thieves necessitated by the economy of scarcity that was communism.  But none of these people look like they are starving (in fact, the majority are quite portly) and the beer pitchers that are masquerading as steins seem to have no trouble staying filled to the brim.  Are things really all that bad?

What’s important about this film is when and where it was made.  Milos Forman’s commentary on making the film and trying to get it shown to the Czech people is insightful and heartbreaking.  It is noted that this film and its difficulties are the impetus for Forman fleeing Czechoslovakia for the United States, for it was indeed his last Czech film.  Do not watch this film without listening to Forman’s interview on the disc.  It is invaluable for a glimpse at censorship in communist Eastern Europe.


As much as I am excited about what I've started here, I'm a bit appalled about my productivity (or lack thereof).  I also realize that posting the ultimate response to any given film is too high of a bar to raise.  I'll give myself a break if these aren't the best posts of all time or that I'm not posting at least once a week.  This has been an exceedingly busy summer.

Do the Right Thing (1989) Spine #097

This is another movie from the Intro to American Cinema class I teach, and up until recently, it was the last film of the class, meaning the class ended in 1989.  That’s an odd year to freeze on, but overall I think it is hard to try to encapsulate 120 years of cinema history with ten films.

This was Spike Lee’s third film, following She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988), two films which I have not seen.  Lee not only wrote and directed the film, but he stars as the protagonist, Mookie.  His real life sister (Joie Lee) plays his sister in the movie.  He also notes in the director’s commentary that several other family members helped with the production of the film.  Some of the actors that played in his first two movies appear again in this film in different roles (although the police officers are the same).  It is odd that Lee is playing a character that, supposedly, is rather young (early twenties), and he is actually 32 when he made the film.  It reminds me of the narrator of Bambara’s “The Lesson.”  The position of the narrator in time is important.  If the narrator is speaking directly after the events in the story take place, then the last lines about how she is not going to let anything stand in her way or put her down are incredibly empowering.  If the story is told from the position of a narrator removed from the incident by 10, 20, 30 years, then the words at the end ring hollow – she is in the same position as she was and did not better herself and is part of the low-education poverty where she originated.  Is Mookie meant to be a young man, with the promise of a better day ahead of him, or is he really in his early 30s, delivering pizza to a Brooklyn area that seems to be impoverished, doomed to repeat the same day with Da Mayor getting drunk, Mother Sister watching lives move past her, the three men on the corner drinking and cursing the world, not making an impact or a difference?

Much is written about the politics and controversy about DtRT.  There are the references to racially-motivated crimes, the riot at the end of the film.  It’s rather sad and telling that the 1960s, 70s and 80s are pockmarked with race riots around the country, highly publicized crimes of one race against another.  The 80s had the OJ Simpson Trial, the LA Riots (of which the recent passing of Rodney King made me ruminate).  It seems that race relations, while coming a long way since the segregated 1950s, always is a bubbling anathema below the surface of America, which erupts violently and messily from time to time as if to say “this has not been resolved.”  The Trayvon Martin case in of all places (I’m from there), Seminole County, FL, is our most recent example.  The next session of the Supreme Court will tackle affirmative action.  We as a society will never move past this.  Nor will we move past how we treat people of lower or higher social or economic class.  I always think of the line from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when Screwtape says “To be means to be in competition.”  Resources are finite.  Humans are animals.  Whenever one has more resources than another, there will be the feeling of superiority and inferiority.

The conflict of this film boils down to this simple equation.  Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is in a predominantly African American, lower income neighborhood.  There are some Latino-Americans as well, and a white guy who owns a whole brownstone rather than living in a parsed-out brownstone inhabited by several families and a Korean family that runs the convenience store.  Buggin’ Out’s contention is that Sal has no brothers on his Wall of Fame, although his livelihood comes from serving African Americans.  Sal says that once Buggin’ gets his own place, he can put up whatever he wants on the wall.  The movie takes place on a Saturday, so we don’t see much of the block working.  We don’t know Buggin’s prospects.  We know he can afford Air Jordans, but that’s about it.  Could Buggin’ have his own place?  The one of the three wise men on the corner wants to see a black business in their community, rather than the two businesses on their block run by Italians and Koreans.  Lee brings this up through his characters, so it is worth investigating.

What is interesting about this film is that while Lee seems intent on dealing with the big issues and the struggle against each character and his or her ability to do or not do the right thing, the film is steeped in 1950s British filmmaking.  If you have a chance to listen to the commentary track (which is great because it is punctuated by Chuck D from Public Enemy announcing each speaker with the force of a rap lyric, even when what the person announced is talking about something extremely subtle), it is worth your time for the cinematographer’s, Ernest Dickerson’s, commentary about how he took a lot of his lighting and color set ups from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.