Killer of Sheep (1978) — The Neorealist Equivalent of Conan’s Hat

One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.

While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.

As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.

 

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REVIEW — Paper Moon (1973)

FilmJuice have my review of Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon, a film I did not expect to like but wound up absolutely adoring.

The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? left me with what I consider to be a healthy scepticism of American films set during the great depression. Though many a director has set out with a head full of social realism and the urgent need to capture what things can be like for capitalism’s victims, most of them wind up getting distracted by the slang, the hats, the music and the endlessly photogenic poverty. Add a few fast-talking grifters to the mix and what you have is a recipe for self-mythologising nostalgia: Sure the excesses of capitalism can destroy communities and drive people from their homes but these are also moments of opportunity for the kind of lovable rogues who not only benefit from other people’s misery but actively legitimise the capitalist system by proving that America is still a land of opportunity for those who are smart, lucky and charming! I approached Paper Moon expecting another lesson in America’s capacity for economic re-invention but what I found was a beautiful and genuinely funny character study of one fucked up little girl:

Aside from the film’s gritty look, what keeps the film on the right side of sentimentality is its willingness to share Addie’s profound distrust of human relations. Only child of a woman who made her living as a bar room honey, Addie’s skinny frame, ugly clothes and fondness for cigarettes display all the signs of historic neglect. Before Addie even opens her mouth, we are shown the ‘warm-hearted’ Christian neighbours who are so desperate to get rid of her that they literally dump her on the first stranger who passes through town. Addie is desperate for family but rightly wary of people who would proclaim their righteousness only to reveal their hypocrisy in secret, she warms to Moses precisely because his displays of piety are understood to be nothing but an act.

And when I say ‘beautiful’, I mean genuinely jaw-dropping. This Masters of Cinema release is dual-format but the screener I received was DVD-only, which genuinely surprised me as I can’t remember the last time I saw a DVD look this perfect.

 

Consider, for example, this shot of a factory from early in the film, it’s not just that the buildings themselves look amazing, it’s also the composition and the attention to detail as Ryan O’Neal gestu8res to his daughter while workers toil in the background:

 

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Despite producing three back-to-back hits that made a shit-ton of money and won people armfuls of awards, Bogdanovitch’s place in the canon of American filmmaking is far from guaranteed. It’s not just that the quality of his films seemed to decline as his career progressed, it’s that his ability to produce great films seemed to evaporate the second he parted company with his wife and production designer Polly Platt. Both Peter Biskind and David Thomson float the possibility that Platt was the real talent behind Bogdanovitch’s directorial throne and the complexity of Paper Moon‘s art direction certainly supports this theory. For example, look at how much detail is crammed into this image from a short scene in a diner… It’s not just the composition and how the straw in the bottle of Nehi seems to split the screen, it’s also the positioning of extras so that the men are clustered on one side of the screen while women are mostly clustered on the other:

 

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The Masters of Cinema release comes with some interesting discussions of the film and one of the point that people make is that Paper Moon is a film in which everything is always in focus and how the positioning of background details not only aid the composition but also help to create the impression of a real world. The extras point to this exquisite combination of shots from when Moses tries to get rid of Addie by sticking her on a train:

 

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Note Addie looking sad in the background and compare it to the shot that immediately follows it:

 

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Look over the ticket-seller’s shoulder and you’ll see kids playing with a ball.  This not only echoes the shot of Addie looking sad, it also foreshadows the questions posed in the final act about whether Addie is actually in a position to make her own decisions and whether she is right to stick with Moses. In the context of these two shots you have a sad-looking Addie standing next to Moses and a pair of kids playing happily on the other side of the rail road buildings.

 

Another thing the extras reveal is that Platt not only convinced Bogdanovitch to work on Paper Moon and dressed the sets, she also served as a location scout meaning that all of the film’s evocative scenery was chosen by Platt rather than Bogdanovitch. Bogdanovitch started his career as an actor before falling into film criticism and many people seem to associate him with the rise of auteur theory in American film-writing. The auteur theory would certainly struggle to account for a production designer with the capacity to pick up on locations that are literally idiot-proof:

 

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Take Shelter (2011) – The Power of Nightmares

The Twentieth Century was kind to the American people. A continent claimed and a nation forged, the Americans dipped their toes into the waters of international politics with a pair of heroically late entries into wars that ultimately destroyed the great European powers of the 19th Century. Generation by generation, the American people became wealthier and wealthier while their language and culture travelled the world breaking boundaries and making friends. By the end of the twentieth century, life was so good for so many Americans that historians proclaimed history to be at an end: America had won and the American people stood at the very pinnacle of human flourishing. Never in the history of human affairs had one society been so wealthy and so powerful. The future was bright, the future was American.

Then something peculiar happened. The economic forces that once promised universal wealth and happiness suddenly began to cough and stutter as skyscrapers collapsed in downtown New York. Shaken and traumatised, the American people demanded that American blood be avenged ten-fold but the wars this sentiment created produced nothing but trouble. There was no revenge or glory, there was only a bottomless sea of moral ambiguity and America was rapidly running out of beach. Denied the cathartic closure of a ‘good war’, the American people retreated into their dream of cosy consumerism but the events of September 11 were nothing but a grim foreshadowing of the economic collapses to come. September 11 messed up a few buildings but the credit crunch destroyed an entire way of life. Suddenly, the long balmy evening of eternal economic growth was cut short and, for the first time in generations, Americans were less well off than their parents. Not only that but working seemed not to help as millions of Americans worked multiple jobs but still struggled to hang on to their homes. To this day, many Americans spend all day working and yet feed themselves and their families from soup kitchens.

After a series of brutal kicks to the abdomen, the American dream lies bleeding and gasping for breath but when people look around for help or guidance they find a political class that is constitutionally incapable of recognising a problem. With millions unemployed and an entire generation of young people being shovelled onto the scrap heap of history, the American media and political elites seem more worried about the president’s religion and nationality while public discourse has devolved to the point where it amounts to nothing more than a pair of cowardly tribes who shout insults across the battlefield without ever ordering a charge. Something is profoundly wrong with the American way of life and yet neither American politicians nor American journalists seem prepared to acknowledge it. To admit fear and worry would be too un-American and so the people of America hunker down and wait with anxieties unaddressed and uneased.

Jeff Nichols’ psychological thriller Take Shelter is a brave attempt at confronting the fears that grip American society. It is a film about the reality of living scared and the problems that come from failing to address these all-pervasive feelings of dread.

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