“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.

I Have a Bad Feeling About This

OK, I’m a movie fan and there are a lot of people who know I’m a Star Wars fan.  Sort of.  A former Star Wars fan.  Well, a fan of Episodes 4, 5, and part of 6.

I remember when Star Wars came out in 1977, before it said A New Hope, before anyone knew anything about it.  (And trust me, doubters, on the original release date, it did not say A New Hope.  This is why Episode IV will always be called Star Wars to me, because that’s the way it was originally billed.)

And then Episode V came out, The Empire Strikes Back.  I was not as impressed with that one initially, but this is a film that holds up very well on repeated viewings.  There may be some slow spots in it here and there, but overall, this is a great film.

And then Episode VI came out.  Half of it was great.  The stuff with Luke and the Emperor.  Good stuff.  The stuff with Jabba the Hutt in the intro was pretty good.  But the Ewoks.  Oh, the Ewoks.  They were obnoxiously cute, in a cloying 4-year-old way.  That’s exactly what they were intended to be, because Lucas himself had sold out to the Dark Side.  In this case, it’s not the Sith, but much darker: Merchandising.

(By the way, I’m going on 30+ years of reading about this franchise here.  I’m not going to source this.  It would take days, and I’m not being paid.  I’ll stand by what I said.  If you think I’m an idiot, then so be it!  Hi, Tom!) The original plan for Return of the Jedi was to have a planet of the Wookiees instead of the Ewoks, which dramatically tied things together better.  But Wookiees aren’t as cute as Ewoks: Ewoks look like little teddy bears.  Ewoks sell better.

So Lucas made more money from merchandising than he would have otherwise.  It was a calculated move.  The movie suffers for it.  Jedi reeks of cute for two full reels, and it stalls the story.

Then we have another problem.  Like it or not, Star Wars is an epic.  It’s structured like an epic.  Epics have themes.  The theme of Star Wars is “sometimes good people must die in order to forward a worthy cause.”  This is why Ben Kenobi dies in Episode IV.  No one major dies in Episode V, but Han’s death is up in the air.

Harrison Ford has said many times that he felt that Han Solo should have died in Return of the Jedi.  From a dramatic and structural standpoint, he was right.  Han Solo really has nothing to do in the story.  Apparently, different drafts of the script had him dying either in the pit on Tattooine or the raid on the uncompleted Death Star.  Lucas told Ford that there was no money in “dead Han” dolls, and that was the end of it.

The movie suffers for it.  Here’s the problem: yes, it would have been sad to see Han go, just as it was sad to see Ben go, but for the sake of the story, and for the structure of the story, it was important.  You might have been upset the first time you saw it, but it would make more sense to you as you thought about it.

So I had mixed feelings about Episode VI, until I saw Episode I.

I can’t tell you how much I hated The Phantom Menace.  I really, really, really hated it.  There was nothing good about it.  When a great actor like Liam Neeson turns in a bad performance, you know that something is wrong.  I also knew that when we had the climactic chariot race from Ben Hur in the middle of The Phantom Menace, that something was dead wrong.  It’s just called the pod race in Phantom, but trust me, it’s the same thing.  (As a side note, Phantom Menace was an early all-digital film, and I remember thinking that the trailers for it were out-of-focus.  They weren’t.  It just looked like that.)

Ultimately, I hated The Phantom Menace so much that I wouldn’t even see the next two entries in the series.  I still haven’t seen them.  As a kid, I’d loved the Star Wars films, but these were lousy.  I wondered for years how George Lucas had changed so much over the years to make such horrible films.  I read various things.

I came to one clear conclusion: George Lucas never changed.  I hadn’t either.

I read an interview with Martin Scorsese in which he recounts a screening of New York, New York.  Lucas told Scorsese that the movie would make a lot more money if Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro would end up together at the end.  Scorsese countered that the movie wouldn’t make any sense if that happened, and Lucas said, “Yeah, but it would make more money.”

That sums it up.  The entire history of movies has been the struggle of Art vs. Commerce.  Repetition and sameness are deadly for art, but they are the heart and soul of commerce.  We go to McDonald’s at midnight because we know that the Big Mac that we are buying is just the same as the one we had in Pittsburgh last week.  They count on that.  On the other hand, if you go to an art show and all the pictures are the same, you feel pretty cheated.  Art is supposed to be unpredictable.  The movies have always been about balancing those two forces.

Scorsese is about Art.

Lucas is about Commerce.

If we look very carefully, Star Wars (Episode IV) isn’t a very good film.  It has moments that are classic, and it has two performances that elevate it into something it wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Dramatically speaking, it’s not anything great, with creaky dialogue and several problems with pacing that should have been addressed.

(OK, don’t beat me up here.  Star Wars Episode 4 changed the world of movies, and I know that.  What I’m saying is that it doesn’t hold up on repeated viewings and has a lot of script problems, just like Lucas’ other productions.  It’s got some good actors who put the script across and enough spectacle to help gloss over the problems that the script has.)

Most importantly, What Star Wars had going for it was that it was the first commercial film to capture the fun of the 1930s movie serials and combine it with the groundbreaking special effects that 2001 had started.  The opening shot was mind-blowing for audiences in 1977.  We’d never seen anything like that.  We were used to sci-fi epics looking desperately fake, like Logan’s Run, which had come out the year before.  This looked very convincing.

Harrison Ford had terrible troubles with the dialogue in the film.  “George, you can type this s***, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”   Mark Hamill remembers Ford making notes in his script, desperately trying to make sense of the lines, trying to find a context in them that would make the character work.  He succeeded.  Ford’s performance, paired with that of Alec Guinness, are the dramatic saving graces of the film.  If we add in Peter Cushing, who makes great use of a brief part, and James Earl Jones, who is unseen as Vader but adds an immeasurable presence to the film, we have a movie that is pretty well acted.

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher acquit themselves less admirably, but both have gone on to do other things well.  I think this was simply a case of not being able to transcend the material.  Perhaps Ford was only able to do so because his part was better written in the first place.

Alec Guinness was at the preview and complained that the last battle sequence at the Death Star was about five minutes too long.  Bravo, Alec!  He’s absolutely right.  In reissues of the film. I often watch audiences during this scene and they get bored about halfway through.  As spellbinding as this was in 1977, it doesn’t hold up today.  Lucas is too in love with that cool shot of diving into the canyon in the Death Star.  It’s overused; the whole thing is too long.

In addition, there’s a bit of the ending that’s too short!  (Potential spoiler, although not much of one…)  When Han decides at the last minute to join the battle and help rescue Luke, we don’t really know he’s going to do it.  It’s a surprise and it’s cut in at the last second with no establishing shot at all.  It’s jarring to first-time viewers.  Where’s Han?  Where did he come from?  If we’d had a few more shots of Han thinking and one of him trying to get there at the last second, it would have been more dramatic but less surprising.

Lucas was grilled by many critics at the weakness of his script.  To counter this, he brought in Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan for Empire Strikes Back.  This makes the script immensely stronger, even though Empire is really the second part in a three-part epic, the part that’s always the least interesting.  The first part has all the setup, the third part has all the resolution, and the second part just gets all the characters in trouble.

That said, Empire is full of suspense, action and great dialogue.  Lucas hated it.  He resolved to take over more the reins on Jedi, and we saw what that got us.

We note that Lucas made the Indiana Jones films, too.  Well, except that Lawrence Kasdan wrote the first one, and Lucas is said not to have liked the script too much.  His buddies Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the second one, more to his specifications, and it’s not very good.  The third one was kind of a piecemeal effort and is largely saved by the brilliant performance of Sean Connery.  The less said about the last one, the better.

We also note that when left entirely to his own devices, Lucas can’t really come up with a good epic… I submit Willow (1988) as evidence.  It’s not a great film, and the last reel might as well be the last reel of Return of the Jedi with Jean Marsh substituting for the Emperor.  Reliables like Val Kilmer and Marsh are wasted.  Ron Howard, a variable but often talented director, doesn’t save it.

I can only come to the conclusion that Lucas is, as he has often said, a film cutter at heart.  He does make a mean action sequence. They’re always cool, even if sometimes too long.  He’s not much of a storyteller, and I say that with a big caveat.

Lucas is excellent at creating a story and a universe.  He studied the art of epics and how to structure them.  He doesn’t follow through on it, cuts corners, and can’t make the guts of it, the dialogue and character motivation, work.

And that brings us up to today.  Disney has purchased Lucasfilm.  What’s my reaction?

Well, initially, I had a bad feeling about it (hence the title and hence my quote from the films.)  My initial reaction was that Disney would cute the series up even worse than Lucas had, and I made a video of it. (This was the first video that made it on YouTube as a response to the sale. Gotta be proud of that!)

Disney and Lucas have long had what I think are the same problems.  Disney is often worse, though. Disney saw Star Wars and decided to make a movie with even cuter robots and then graft it on to a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, add in some weird effects and a journey not unlike the end of 2001, and they released it as The Black Hole.  It’s a tremendous misfire of a film.

But, unlike Lucas, Disney has changed since 1979.

Disney has grown and diversified.  They’ve hired new and different people, and they’ve absorbed Pixar while revitalizing their animation unit.

In recent weeks, I heard that Harrison Ford may be interested in playing Han Solo again (something he said he’d never do), and that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill may be on board too.

I find it even more interesting that Disney is talking to Lawrence Kasdan about writing scripts for the series.  In my opinion, it was Kasdan who saved Jedi, helped save Empire, and made the Indiana Jones series what it was.  He has often said that he didn’t want to work on these films again.

Again, I can only come to one conclusion.  These people didn’t want to work with George Lucas again.  I don’t think they hated him personally… in fact, I think they all regard him as a friend.  Deep down, though, I think they all realize that George was his own worst enemy on the Star Wars films.

I’m not a big Disney fan.  I admit it.  They are big bullies and throw money and legal logistics around like a baker throws pizza dough.  That said, can they save the Star Wars franchise?

I’m not sure.  They’ve made some good first steps.  Frankly, they couldn’t make films much worse than George did.