29th 04 - 2015 | no comment »

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Director: Ivan Dixon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For the past few months, the United States has been convulsing through an historic moment, and I mean that statement with what is for me unaccustomed irony. The sometimes violent clashes between the black communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and, most recently, in Baltimore are historic, as in déjà vu all over again. Despite mind-boggling advances in technology that have reshaped our world in many ways, the needle toward racial harmony has hardly moved at all. If you don’t believe me, I hold The Spook Who Sat by the Door up as Exhibit A that we haven’t come a long way, baby. This 1973 film, cowritten and coproduced by Sam Greenlee from his 1969 novel of the same name, includes scenes that could have been footage from dozens of news reports made within the past week.

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The film chronicles the activities of the portentously named Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black civil rights activist in school who has decided to go the mainstream route to success. He is one of a cohort of black applicants to a CIA affirmative action program foisted upon the agency by the U.S. Senate—hardly a scenario we could imagine today, but also not a sincere effort by the movie senators, who are more worried about approval ratings than equality. The all-male cohort of black hopefuls don’t realize that their white trainers will use every opportunity to eliminate them from contention; they don’t even seem to suspect that the trainers are observing them via a closed-circuit camera while they enjoy cocktails and plot how to land these cushy jobs—not a terribly good recommendation for their fitness to become agents.

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By the end of the comprehensive training and testing, Freeman is the only one to have made the grade. He is appointed section chief of reproduction services, aka photocopying, and remains with the agency for five years before returning to his native Chicago to take a higher-paying job as a social worker. There, the real purpose of his CIA stint becomes clear—to use the skills he acquired to recruit and train guerrilla freedom fighters in all the major urban centers in the country to battle Whitey to a standstill and force the Establishment to grant black Americans freedom in exchange for safe and peaceful streets.

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Greenlee, a native Chicagoan who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a firebrand and committed Marxist to the end. His book and screenplay provide a graphic depiction of the lumpenproletariat rising up in a people’s revolution against their bourgeois oppressors. After first establishing Freeman as a charismatic leader who can win respect with his muscles as well as his brains, the film shows him recruiting his former gang, the Cobras, to be his first platoon of revolutionaries. Director Dixon shoots parallel scenes and dialogue of Freeman training his men as he was trained at The Farm, a still-relevant example of American forces opportunistically training people who just as opportunistically will turn on them some day. Relying on the invisibility subservient blacks have in white America, Dixon shoots a humorous scene of one of Freeman’s men, dressed like a window washer, going into the mayor’s office and stealing his carousel of pipes right off his desk while the mayor talks on the phone. Conversely, Freeman uses the “high yellow” members of the gang to stage a bank robbery; dressed in business suits, with slicked-down hair, they are assumed to be white not only because of their appearance, but also because blacks are assumed not to have the cunning to pull off such a daring, daylight raid.

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The bourgeoisie and their protectors are represented by Freeman’s lover Joy (Janet League), who leaves him to marry a successful doctor, and his best friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a Chicago cop. Showing the bourgeoisie selling out their proletarian brothers and sisters to maintain a respectable, comfortable place in society, both Joy and Dawson are quick to turn on Freeman when they realize he is the mysterious “Uncle Tom” who is broadcasting revolutionary messages and organizing the insurrection, beginning with bombing the mayor’s office. The film has no real place for women as active fighters, but Dahomey Queen (Paula Kelly), a black prostitute Freeman hooks up with during his CIA training, becomes an invaluable informer when she overhears the General (Byron Morrow), her white steady “date,” lay plans to go after Freeman—cutting off the head of the snake, as military types put it.

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The most harrowing and resonant part of the film occurs after Shorty (Anthony Ray), a young penny-ante drug dealer Freeman tries to help, is shot in the back by police. The ensuing standoff between riot police and angry members of the community is an all-too-familiar sight these days, one that looks like it will end peacefully until some cops bring German shepherds to the scene. This potent symbol of violence from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights demonstrations inflames the crowd, who tear into the police and torch a car and an apartment building. The handheld camera work gets into the chaos, offering some truly frightening, heart-stopping moments that linger long after the final fade. Faced with the violence that we know is absolutely real from recent events, Freeman’s desperate actions “to be free,” as he puts it, are likely to be met with a good deal of sympathy from a larger portion of today’s audiences.

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Spook has been lumped into the category of blaxplotation films inaugurated by Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and it does share some common aspects of the genre. There are extended shots of a belly dancer undulating for the camera at a nightclub, thrilling action sequences and explosions, and a judo match that roughly correlates to martial arts sequences in these films. The film was also made independent of studio backing; after cobbling together just under $1 million, the producers had to shut down production after they ran out of money, which may account for some sketchy sequences, particularly at the beginning of the film. In a 2013 radio interview of Greenlee, the writer said the production stole some shots in Chicago when the city refused to issue permits for the production, but that Gary, Ind., welcomed them with open arms, even to the extent of lending them a helicopter free of charge to get overhead shots and one impressive shot moving down the middle of a street.

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What Spook does is extend the struggle begun in Sweet Sweetback. Sweetback is a put-upon, ignorant man who struggles to survive. Van Peebles suggests that when next we see Sweetback, he will be coming back to revenge himself on white America. Freeman represents the next step in the struggle for freedom and equality. He’s not scared. He’s both streetwise and worldwise, and he has a philosophy to guide him. The character speaks poignantly about discovering that his grandmother couldn’t read but admonished him to get his education, and how he taught her while pretending that she was teaching him. To Freeman, seeing the light come on in his grandmother’s mind also flipped a switch in him.

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The film has no real resolution, with Freeman wearing his African colors but facing a doubtful, possibly short future. In his day, so-called gangs like the Black Panthers were benevolent forces in their communities; recruiting gangs to be revolutionaries was a plausible plotline in 1969 and even 1973, so hope might have lived in its contemporary audiences. Today, gangs are as ruthlessly self-serving as the many other sectors of American society, and the current assault on the credibility of teachers and public education are undermining the hope and possibilities of those in the underclass. In 2012, “Spook” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film—nonetheless, its relative obscurity and the currency of its vision would have made Freeman very disappointed.

The film is viewable in its entirety on YouTube.


9th 03 - 2015 | 4 comments »

Amour Fou (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner

18th Annual European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Austrian director/screenwriter Jessica Hausner is one of the most unique voices in European cinema today. Her particular concern with the intertwining dance of love and illness made her film Lourdes arguably the best film of 2009. Amour Fou, her first film in five years, forwards that concern and suggests by its title that Hausner will present a comedy about the folly of love. Indeed, Hausner’s film offers an amusing look at the petty passions of the haute bourgeoisie, but as she did with Lourdes, Hausner builds a sense of horror that mirrors the rising passions of a world in flux.

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The film takes place in Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Vogel (Stephan Grossman), a tax official with the Prussian government, and his wife of 12 years, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) live a comfortable life with their 9-year-old daughter Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus). They are attended to by servants and attend musical evenings and balls among their social peers. Henriette is a compliant wife who considers herself her husband’s property, remarking that she has no desire for the freedom her companions are afraid will infect the common classes as French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe. A poet she admires, Heinrich (Christian Friedel), responds that it is better to die free than to be bound to an unhappy, conventional life.

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Heinrich, in fact, longs for death, saying that he has no talent for living and suffers constantly due to his sensitive nature. Further, his romantic nature requires him to find a woman who will die with him out of love for him. Unfortunately, the woman with whom he has been involved, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), refuses to enter into a suicide pact with him. Thus spurned, Heinrich believes that Henriette, who was attracted to the tragic heroine in his most recent poem, may be an acceptable substitute.

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Amour Fou is as droll a film as one can imagine. The actors all underplay their scenes, a parody of the polite society to which their characters belong. Their homes and clothes tend to bright colors, thus saving them the inconvenience of donning rose-colored glasses. The scene in which Heinrich implores Marie to die with him is worthy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an earnest Heinrich (“You would make me very, very happy.”) met with Marie doing a double-take and dismissing the idea with an incredulous laugh. And Hausner gives the Vogels a Weimaraner, indelible to me as the quintessential absurdist dog because of the photos of William Wegman.

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But Hausner tends to trap her characters at the bottom of frames, inside window panes, and below heavy, sashed curtains, similar to how she seemed to crush Christine, her pilgrim with multiple sclerosis in Lourdes, by filming her through a small slit between enormous church pillars. None of these wealthy bourgeois are truly free, though they scarcely seem to notice. Their self-dramatization—the aristocrats whining about having to pay taxes, their loathing of equality and their fear of a Jacobin terror, the poet for whom death seems the only answer to his roaring mediocrity and dependence on his relatives for a living—is laughable, but given the social and economic terrors of our modern world, all too familiar and deadly serious.

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Heinrich’s courtship moves in fits and starts, with a selfish cruelty Henriette recognizes but is helpless to resist. He insists that she is lonely, a misfit, unloved and unloving, despite all appearances to the contrary. Henriette begins to have fainting spells and spasms, which are initially diagnosed as a nervous disorder, but later determined to be the result of a large tumor or ulcer that will kill her in a matter of months. Given her diagnosis, Henriette’s attitude toward Heinrich’s proposal changes, but in his simpering egotism, he only wants her to die for love of him, not to forestall her own suffering.

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Hausner’s linking of love and illness is an interesting one. In Lourdes, Christine’s attraction to a man and determination to compete for his affections with a pretty nurse seem to banish her disease—making her a shoe-in for the best pilgrim of the trip award—though she is only in remission. Henriette, on the other hand, falls ill when faced with Heinrich’s “mad love”—not a true romantic love, as he clearly says he’s still in love with Marie, but one based on a platonic ideal not unlike the kind of love desperate pilgrims seek from Our Lady of Lourdes.

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Looking at her own mediocrity—her skill on the pianoforte is hardly better than her daughter’s and her singing a crow’s caw when she renders a song she heard an opera singer perform at the gathering that opens the film—and her pending mortality, Heinrich’s proposal seems a way to fulfill her desire to make a mark, to become mythic through an act of extreme romanticism. This is the age that birthed Richard Wagner, after all. How else can one explain her rejection of her life, of a daughter and husband who clearly love her? Indeed, Friedrich travels through the conflict-torn countryside to reach a specialist in Paris and returns with the news that Henriette might still be cured.

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The careful framing, gorgeous period settings, brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces like a ball with period dancing, and vibrant colors of this film are a feast for the eyes, and I admired the subtle performances of this uniformly fine cast. Schnoeink especially initially emerges as a shallow hausfrau without a thought in her head that her husband and acquaintances haven’t put there. As her situation grows more dire and her choices narrow, our laughter gives way to concern and a contemplation of what we owe to society and what we owe to ourselves. There is a shocking ambiguity to her actions and a genuine poignancy to her growing attraction to the eternal, but is she the victim of yet another man dumping his desires into her empty cranium? Trapped between two equally distressing outcomes from the audience’s point of view, we wait anxiously for Henriette to make her choice.

Amour Fou screens Monday, March 9, at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


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