“That should be banned!”

I remember a play I was in many years ago.  I was playing a Supreme Court Justice in First Monday in October.  One of the main questions in it concerns an obscenity case in which the justices are called upon to decide whether a particular porno movie is so obscene that it cannot be shown.  The justices all gather together and watch the movie,  except one.

The holdout justice insists he doesn’t need to see the movie.  He’s voting for it to be shown, no matter what.  He feels that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and any chipping at it lessens us all.

Amen!

There’s been a lot of hubbub on one of the movie collector forums about Disney’s Song of the South (1946).  This is one of the few films Disney has never released on home video… well, one of the few popular color and sound films.  I’ve never seen it.  Its last theatrical release was a rather sparse one in 1986.

Song

And the cries come out against it: “It’s racist.”  “It’s antiquated.”  “It would offend people.”  “We shouldn’t show it in case it does offend people.”  “It’s not a great work of art, in part because it’s offensive.”

I never understand this stuff.  It cuts across political barriers, too.  Basically, the criterion for banning something is “I don’t like it.”  Books, movies, music, you name it, someone wants to ban it.  It’s often in the name of “the children.”  We wouldn’t want to expose children to this sort of thing, would we?

Let’s look at what this is, instead of our opinions about it:
James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for the film.
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel appears, the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar.
Walt Disney considered Baskett a discovery, one of the best actors he’d found.
The work with animated characters superimposed over live action is groundbreaking, especially in a color film (this was shot with the three-color Technicolor camera.)
It’s one of the last works of legendary photographer Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

Is there racial stuff it it?  Sure.  Is it insensitive by modern standards?  I have no doubt it is.

Should parents plop their kids in front of it without explaining it to them first?  NO!  But that goes for a lot of stuff.  The television is not an electronic babysitter,  nor is the iPhone or any other device.  Sure, there’s a lot of mindless stuff out there that can just be watched, and this isn’t one of them.

I haven’t seen Song of the South.  I don’t need to.  It should be out there to be seen.  If we have to get Leonard Maltin, Whoopi Goldberg, or Bill Cosby to do an introduction, then fine.  It should be seen.

This reminds me of an interchange I had with a friend of mine who I’ll only identify as “Chef Carl.”  I was asked to come up with a program for Black History Month.  OK, I said, let’s show how racism once rocked the movies.  Let’s really show it.  I had some good examples.  They wouldn’t let me do it.  The manager of the theater said it would be perceived as insensitive because I’m white.  OK.

So I thought about all the African-American folks I know and thought, “Who’d be the best one to introduce these pictures and explain the history of them?”  I thought of Chef Carl.  He even agreed to do it.  Then the manager came forward and wouldn’t allow Carl to do it either.  Why?  Well, they were afraid that Carl would be seen as a “token black,” which was bad, too.  I told Carl about it.  I still remember his answer:

“So you can’t introduce the movies because you’re white and I can’t introduce them because I’m black.”  BINGO.  The most accurate response I can imagine.

botnsmallThere’s a similar uproar with Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a DW Griffith film.  Birth of a Nation changed the world.  It was the first time that it was clear that a long, feature-length film could make money and keep making money.  It caused the landscape of movies to change.  Vaudeville houses switched over to movies.  Movie houses changed from flat Nickelodeons to raked, long theaters.  Theaters put in extra projectors to make smoother changeovers.  It was a big deal, and it made money in the North and South, wherever it played.  It’s a good film, it’s a landmark film, and it’s one of the key films in the history of the motion picture.

It also sparked a resurgence of the KKK in America.  There was a lot of racist content, and one of the Klansmen is a hero.  It was true to the book it was based on, which was also racist.  Without even really understanding what he did, DW Griffith made a racially polarizing film in 1915.  It was so polarizing that he got death threats and there were Klan rallies that showed the film to whip up support for a new (and very different) Klan.

Griffith (a child of Kentucky) felt so awful about the film’s reception and what it did that he made a followup called Intolerance (1916) that made the age-old plea of “Why can’t we just get along?”  Just how racist Griffith himself was is the stuff of much speculation.  I can simply state that Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) a long-lived African American actress, appeared in Birth of a Nation.  There’s also a reel of home movies shot at DW Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  She’s in that reel, too, crying and needing support from others, the only person in the whole reel who seemed to be moved at the occasion.

If DW Griffith was the evil, racist pig that many modern authors make him out to be, then why was Madame Sul-Te-Wan so moved at his funeral?  She knew him… we didn’t.

Shouldn’t we see the film for ourselves to find out?  Or, if we choose not to, shouldn’t we be free in that choice, too?  There have been protests at showings of Birth of a Nation even as recently as a few years ago, rife with cries of “It should be banned!”

No, it shouldn’t.  The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.  I’ll repeat that, and it’s key: The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.

Let me give you an example of what I’m saying.  When FW Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922, he stole it from the novel Dracula.  Let’s be honest, he stole it.  They changed all the names around, but the plot is barefaced and recognizable.  The book was very much in copyright and Murnau was sued.  The studio lost, and the film was ordered destroyed.  All prints, and the negative, too.

Except.

Nosferatu became forbidden fruit!  Film pirates the world over clamored for “the last print.”  There were a lot of “last prints” saved, duped, and bootlegged.  It got way more release in foreign countries than any of other Murnau’s films did.  He became a popular director mostly because of the fame of a movie that no one was supposed to see.

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (left, in makeup) in one of the most famous lost films
Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (center, with cape) in one of the most famous lost films

So consider Der Januskopf (1920).  This was another FW Murnau film pirated illegally from a novel and play.  In this case it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It became Janus-kopf (Janus head) and the two characters were Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.  The dual role was played by Conrad Veidt.  Veidt’s butler was played by Bela Lugosi, who was on his way from war-torn Hungary to America.  This is one of his few appearances in a German film.

Historically important?  You bet.  But no one sued over this film, and there was no clamor over its illegal piracy.  No one bootlegged the last prints or the negative, which stayed in storage until it rotted.

Two films, one director, both pirated, one forbidden fruit, and one completely legal.  The forbidden fruit survived.  Stamping out the idea perpetuated it.  Today, you can get a version of Nosferatu on any street corner, in various versions, cuts, tints, and speeds.

And is that different now?  Nope.  Song of the South is forbidden fruit.  It’s out there.  As of this writing, there are 85 copies on eBay for sale.  Those are just the ones who are brazen enough to post them.

Just 10 copies of Steamboat Willie for sale, though.  That one… it’s always been available.  It’s a landmark Disney picture, the first cartoon with sound, the first big Mickey Mouse picture, and 10 copies.

So is Song of the South a great film?  I have no idea.  I might like it, I might not.  I might be offended, and I might not.  My advice to Disney is to make it available and therefore control the dialogue about the film.  Now it’s forbidden fruit.  You can make it a “Never Forget” historical item, which it needs to be.  You can also make sure that everyone knows why it’s historically important.

By the way, I don’t want political comments in the comments section or I’ll shut it down.  “Those liberals” and “Those Republicans” are equally guilty of censorship, albeit often for different reasons.  This isn’t a political forum.  It’s a film forum.

Plan 9 from Out of Sequence

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) gets the name of being the worst film ever made.  It isn’t; it isn’t even Ed Wood’s worst film.  Plan 9 does have that oddly poetic Wood dialogue that doesn’t make sense and can’t quite be read properly by his actors.  It also has a raft of really awful cinematic mistakes, particularly in editing.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the film.  It’s a low-budget story of aliens who come to Earth and re-animate dead people.  For some reason, the aliens believe this will frighten the living into listening to a dire warning: mankind is on the brink of a discovery that could threaten the entire universe.  If this doesn’t make sense, then you should watch the film, because that doesn’t make sense either.  Plan 9 is also notable for being Dracula star Bela Lugosi’s last film.  Lugosi died suddenly in 1956 during tests for a movie that was to be called Tomb of the Vampire.  Three years later, Wood cribbed this footage and used it to make Lugosi seem to be one of the walking dead.  For most of the picture, he’s awkwardly doubled by a guy holding a cape over his face.

When I teach classes in film history, I use the graveyard scene chase from this Plan 9 as an example of bad editing.  The scene is intended to be a tense chase through an old cemetery.  The walking dead chase Mona McKinnon as she struggles to stay ahead of them. This aim fails completely, because Wood has cut it in such a way that there is no consistent geography to it.  The shots are all over the map, some out of sequence, and some just wrong.  Now, that monster is… over there… and… over there, and she ran through that set once, no, now backwards, and that monster moved left to right and now right to… oh, I give up.

The other problem that the editing exposes is the utter poverty of the film.  Bela Lugosi’s double basically trips over a cardboard gravestone, and we see it bobble.  Wood hired an actor with a gigantic posterior to pick up Mona McKinnon at the end of the scene, and he cut it so that the posterior is seen far too often.  Tor Johnson has a nice shot in which he is seen emerging from his grave, but the bulky actor can’t quite stand upright, and struggles to get to his feet.  Rather than cut away… please CUT, Wood leaves it in, because big Tor looked so cool.

Watch Ed’s cut for yourself.  Now that I’ve pointed out the myriad errors, we can move on from there.

This is a sequence that lends itself to reordering, because the soundtrack is essentially just the Plan 9 theme.  The music is actually pretty good.  The monsters are at least somewhat spooky.  The photography is fine.  The problem is that the sets are cheap, and the editing is horrid.  Apart from one shot at the beginning of the sequence, there’s not a single shot with a monster and Mona McKinnon in view at the same time.  This is not fixable, but a good editor can minimize it.

I noted several key problems with the scene:

  • Mona McKinnon takes forever to run out of the shot with Lugosi’s double, and there’s no sense of drama in it.  Too long.
  • Tor Johnson’s grave emergence takes too long and slows the pace.  If we start it earlier and shorten the whole thing, making it seem as if he’s coming out just as McKinnon is going through the cemetery, then we’d have more tension.
  • McKinnon goes through the same set 3-4 times in different directions to pad out the scene.  It’s confusing, and too long. CUT.
  • The actor who rescues McKinnon at the end takes too long getting around the car and his posterior is embarrassing.  Let’s help him out by minimizing that.
  • OK, we all know that Bela Lugosi was long dead by the time this movie started shooting.  Wood’s use of test footage is actually pretty clever, but the double (Dr. Tom Mason) is glaringly obvious because he looks nothing like Lugosi.  In order to give us a little illusion, let’s not hold on long shots of Mason.  Let’s also not use the same shot of Lugosi six times just because he’s billed in the film.  If it doesn’t make sense, it needs to go.

I had to fudge a little.  I didn’t have access to the sound stems (the separate tracks for music, sound effects, and dialogue), so I was stuck using the sound as it was on the finished soundtrack.  By the time dialogue occurs, late in the scene, I’d cut the better part of a minute out of it, so I had to overlap two pieces of disparate music to make it work.  Here’s what I did with it:

The point in all of this is to show what an editor does.  People think he just cuts out the boring parts of a movie.  That can be true (it was in this case!), but he’s also responsible for making the film flow properly.  He takes a bunch of shots that the director supplies him and has to make sense of it.  If the film’s shooting was a disaster, then he’s essentially trying to rescue the film at the last moment.  There are people known as film doctors who specialize in taking footage from troubled films and creating something better out of them.

One of the episodes of the Dr. Film TV show will be dedicated to editing techniques and how films are put together, as we trace the development of the art through the years. Look at this and sort of a sneak preview of what is to come if the show gets picked up.

Stephen King directed Maximum Overdrive (1986).  He told an interviewer that when he saw the “rushes” of the film with his editor, he thought he had another Plan 9 from Outer Space on his hands.  The editor told him that all films look like Plan 9 until they’re cut properly.

Plan 9 would never have been a good movie, but Wood’s editing makes it a lot worse than it had to be.  Sometimes it’s what you do with the lemons that makes all the difference.