12 July 2011

Frenchmen, Minstrels and Hot Tubs -- Oh my!

[Note: Originally posted on Facebook, August 9th, 2010]
The wife and I watched Le Mépris, The Jazz Singer and Hot Tub Time Machine over the weekend. A few observations:

The language of film is distinct and rich, and the great filmmakers speak it fluently. Goddard gets away with a long, extended scene of two people having the same conversation over and over and over in the middle of Le Mépris because he is an elegant storyteller in this unique visual language. Throughout the film, in glorious widescreen tracking shots that belie Lang's (scripted) assertion that Cinemascope is only good for "snakes and funerals," Goddard repeatedly loses actors and regains them. It's a slyly jarring, subtle way of depicting the disconnection between the characters. Likewise is the frequent change of languages. English, French, German and Italian are all spoken, and frequently on top of each other. (Interestingly, Lang is the only character in the movie to speak all four languages fluently.)

The Jazz Singer is an embarrassing milestone -- embarrassing because the climax of the flick has Al Jolson in blackface, emoting through the song "Mother of Mine, I Still Have You". As for the milestone, this being the first full-length movie with sync dialogue: The shift from title cards to sync sound still holds considerable impact. I can understand why people flocked to this movie back in the day. It's overly sentimental, overtly racist, and not a little creepy at times (Jakie Rabinowitz and his mother at one point elicited a shout of "Get a room!") Yet the intertitles have a poetic simplicity, and the story of an artist who finds his place of worship before a Broadway audience certainly appealed to this heathen.

Not to make excuses for it, but there is a thematic necessity for Jakie to put on a mask when he becomes Jack Robin, jazz singer, especially the mask of another race. He is turning his back on his own race and culture, pursuing a musical form that was originated by African Americans in the South. He is literally covering up the authentic with a mockery of what he idolizes. Although handled clumsily and with too much melodrama, Jakie's return to his own culture and racial identity as cantor for Yom Kippur is the logical progression of his story. Performing in blackface should be the low point for the character, where he demeans himself and the people whose music he loves by literally coating on a horrible falsehood. Jolson's blackface performances are not presented as "buffoonery." There's an emotional accessibility in the singer, a "cry in his voice," an honesty on display that undercuts the overt racism. His redemption is found immediately after this scene, at his father's deathbed and in the synagogue, his clean-shaven face conspicuous among the bearded Rabbis. He finally actualizes himself through the marriage of his racial and cultural roots to the man he aspires to be. That's powerful storytelling.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't end at Yom Kippur, and the filmmakers leave us with the image of Al Jolson in blackface, on bended knee, extolling his "Mammy." Ugh. Yes, at the end of the day, it's still a minstrel show; an abhorrent artifact of a thankfully bygone era. However it is such a rich and complicated time in history -- particularly for the arts and pop culture -- rife with dramatic potential, don't be surprised if a certain dramatist wades into those controversial waters in the not-so-distant future.

Hot Tub Time Machine is itself a time machine. This movie is a throwback to a simpler cinematic time, when onscreen heroes could do stupid amounts of drugs with no ill effect, break the laws of physics with wild abandon and get the girl in the end despite all odds and logic. It's incredibly stupid and lots of fun. Ample nods to Back to the Future and assorted 80s fare ("A bet's a bet, man. I want my two dollars!") simmer throughout without ever turning the movie into a cheap string of pop culture references. The cast is perfect, and John Cusack hasn't been this plugged-in since ... Fuck. When was the last time I cared about John Cusack in a film role?

Craig Robinson is one of the best things to happen to screen comedy in a long time. The man has timing like a Swiss watch and a delivery that sidles up to you like a hot prom date (I should know -- I married my hot prom date). He is beyond ready to pop, and a smart producer would line him up in his own star vehicle, like now.

So there you have it, a weekend of movies on DVD. The good, the bad and the funny.