MORE ON THE RUSSIAN FILM LEVIATHAN
Please see last week’s blog (3/13/15) for an earlier description of the film.
The local priest is another interesting character in Leviathan. He is portrayed as siding with the community’s power structure, perhaps even being part of it. He offers sympathetic counsel to the grasping, drunken mayor but gives the desperate, honestly self-questioning Kolya bromides and judgmental preachments. Interestingly he quotes the scriptural leviathan but likens him, if the subtitles are correct, to God (instead of the traditional enemy that God defeats). Most reviews I have seen are more interested in Thomas Hobbes’ leviathan (Leviathan) than the Bible’s.
Lindsey Bahr, reviewing Leviathan for the Associated Press and describing Kolya’s struggle to save his property from developers, says many things better than I could. Here are two:
“Kolya, a hot-tempered, passionate sort, calls in his cool, suave friend…a buttoned-up Moscow lawyer, for help in court. Despite a front of masculine aloofness, Kolya wears every worry on his face and in every jug of vodka he consumes. His entire being is wrapped up in the house, a physical representation of his heritage, and a symbol of his personhood, and it’s all in jeopardy.”
“Alas, their appeal is rejected by a humorless bureaucrat who reads what might as well be this man’s execution sentence with monotone, robotic speed.”
Reprinted in the Akron Beacon
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DISNEY IN THE LATE 40s
My out-of-town film festival program a couple of years ago promised that the annual Saturday morning potpourri of animation would include a feature mixing animation and live action. Since the announcement further described the surprise film as one not having been publicly shown in a long while, I guessed to myself what I was about to see. When the Song of the South title hit the screen I burst into applause, joined by only two others in an audience of more than a hundred. The couple on my left stared at me as if wondering should they change their seats.
The Akron Beacon Journal‘s outstanding television/film reporter/critic, Rich Heldenfels writes a weekly mailbag column in which he responds to requests for information. A recent query concerned the Disney 1946 feature Song of the South. Heldenfels responded with information about the Disney group’s keeping the film unavailable for fear of reaction to what is seen as racist content.
Having seen Song of the South not all that long ago at that Midwest film festival mentioned above, I am convinced that the perception of the film and the company’s fears are groundless. (Easy for me to pontificate: I have nothing at stake.) And it might be more accurate to say that the perception is wrong but that the fears of reaction might be realistic. I consider myself highly sensitive to racism in every form and, with a lifetime of moviegoing experience under my belt, especially sensitive to it on screen. At this same film festival over the years I have been chagrined to find that many in the audience are quite comfortable laughing at the typical stereotypes and racial jokes in the typical Hollywood productions of the 20s, 30s and early 40s. I confess to having once hissed a cartoon there. But I write of my own sensitivity with fear and trembling, aware that I have never experienced for one moment the hurts and injustices that the average African- American must daily encounter.
Having declared my caveats, I feel prepared to assert that I found nothing offensive in Song of the South. Uncle Remus is a slave, and he is obsequious in the manner of a slave toward his owners. His speech is that of many African-Americans to this day. But the boy Johnny’s devotion to him and his love for him are the emotional center of the story. The audience identifies with Uncle Remus and his delightful tales (recently selected and rewritten for modern readers by towering African-American author Julius Lester). As Johnny, Bobby Driscoll, an uneven, unreliable talent, is good here. His performance works. James Baskett as Uncle Remus received a special Academy Award for his portrayal. Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempy is strangely subdued. (Was she already ill?)
What shines through all the film is the strange historical, sociological fact that for Southerners more than Unionists, blacks were people, individual human beings.
When you are part of an audience you can sense its overall reaction, its general leaning, its siding this way or that. At my film festival, the same audience that I was certain was so moved by the gentle Uncle Remus and were pulling for him, laughed at an ugly racist joke in the very next film.
Also in the cast are Ruth Warwick, Luana Patton and the great Lucile Watson. The photographer was Gregg Toland. The Academy Award-winning song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert. James Baskett’s Oscar citation read: “To James Baskett for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus friend and storyteller to the children of the world in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.”
Song of the South
Harve Foster (live action)
Wilfred Jackson (animation)
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FOR NORTHEAST OHIO
If you are a reader of blogs devoted to film, you will be aware that the Cleveland International Film Festival is underway. Check out John Ewing’s current Cleveland Cinematheque calendar in which he describes how he uses the festival’s excellent but unwieldy schedule and calendar. I found it to be personally helpful advice.
Be sure to check out also websites and Rich Heldenfels’ Akron Beacon Journal articles for opportunities to catch festival films at other, closer venues: The Nightlight, the Akron-Summit County Public Library and the Akron Art Museum.
NEXT FRIDAY POST March 27
See you at the movies, including at Akron and Cleveland,