AMERICAN HEART (Dir. Martin Bell, 1992)

The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.

Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.

JOSHUA (Dir. George Ratliff, 2007)

The Yuppies are back (did they really ever go away?) in this expertly crafted psychological thriller that fuses the ornately technical sensibilities of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby with the bombast of The Omen. The result is one very claustrophobic work, visualising the descent of a family into ruin who become increasingly imprisoned in their high-class New York apartment. Director George Ratliff succeeds at creating a deeply impressionistic horror, favouring a mounting tone of dread than going for the jugular. This is equally a film about motherhood, a terrifying take on post-natal depression, much of it channelled through the exhausting performance by Vera Farmiga as a mother who begins to lose her mind, much of it orchestrated by her son – a piano prodigy psycho child of Satan. The link to the world of finance is made concrete in the obnoxious Yuppie aspirations of the father played by Sam Rockwell, the suggestion that horror and capitalism exist in a twisted parallel actuality. The ending is superbly underplayed, consolidating Jacob Kogan’s exquisite performance as the disturbed Joshua.

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (Dir. Ivan Dixon, 1973, US) – ‘You have just played out the American dream…now, we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare’

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The high point of Blaxploitation political radicalism is commonly signposted with Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking film – ‘Sweetback’. When considering the limitations of Blaxploitation cinema, the seminal nature of Peebles film should in no way exclusively act as the definitive reference point for the radicalism of the era or black cinema. Released in 1973, The Spook who sat by the door falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. The claim that Blaxploitation offered new ways of representing what it meant to be black in America seems like another liberal oversight considering how many of these films perpetuated a fantasy urban image of a black anti-hero. Many of these so called Blaxploitation films did little to further the political cause of the black communities in America as many of the films were financed by the major studios in a deliberate and premature attempt to cash in on the emergence of a new black audience. With Blaxploitation, the difficulty with articulating a differing ideological perspective, one which was as fiercely radical and uncompromising as that of the values of black revolutionaries, remained worryingly absent from mainstream cinema.

Black actor and film maker, Ivan Dixon’s second film as a director, The Spook who sat by the door, makes for provocative and highly charged viewing today. Yet the explicit political sympathy it shows with the ideology of black militancy and its centrality within the black community as a force of real change continues to be largely responsible for its relative obscurity and marginal status. Written by Chicago based black activist Sam Greenlee, ‘The Spook who sat by the door’, was published in 1968. Greenlee served as a foreign services officer with the US Information Agency between 1954 and 1957. Though his first novel was a work of fiction, it undoubtedly reflected his own personal experience (and perhaps the discrimination he faced) working for an extension of the white establishment. Co-adapted by Greenlee for the screen (he also acted as one of the producers alongside Ivan Dixon), the novel like the film follows the journey of black CIA agent Dan Freeman who uses his training and skills to create a popular black uprising in the deprived ghetto of Chicago.

Post 68, America had been traumatised by a wave of political assassinations including that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The death of the civil rights movement and the political gap left by the absence of aspiring leaders brought about a period of disillusionment. The reactionary, armed struggle and brand of empowering black militancy advocated by Marxist groups like The Black Panthers questioned the pacifist approach taken by the civil rights activists as somewhat abortive in achieving the ultimate objective of political, social and economic independence and freedom. Rejecting the non-violent ideologies of Martin Luther, black militancy argued that for real change and progress to take place in the black communities it would need to emerge from a collective and somewhat revolutionary attitude towards the oppression of the white establishment.

A handful of films were able to channel such anxieties including the much dismissed and misinterpreted 1973 film, The Spook who sat by the door. The financing for the project came from wealthy black members of the Chicago community whilst Ivan Dixon’s credentials as a black actor and competent director of TV shows secured a distribution deal with United Artists who also agreed to contribute the final share of the budget. On this basis alone, one could argue that Dixon’s film is an independent feature, made outside the sphere of studio interference and described by Greenlee as ‘guerrilla’ film making. Dixon had promised United Artists another blaxploitation film in the vein of his directorial debut Trouble Man but the finished film enraged the studio who gave it a truncated release. Ivan Dixon started his Hollywood career acting as an uncredited student double for Sidney Poitier on The Defiant Ones. Eventually shifting into television, recognition came with Nothing but a Man, an independent film for which he received critical acclaim in the lead role.

Dixon spent much of his career directing apolitical television shows, much of which he has openly criticised as insignificant. His career after The Spook who sat by the door seemed to stall; Dixon accused the FBI of making it difficult for him to find work – his inflammatory political ideals did not go down well with the wider conservative elements of the white establishment. I think the staunch resistance Dixon faced from United Artists when it came to distribution and the suppression of the final film galvanised a mind set which confirmed that it was possible to make a political film but virtually impossible to get it distributed. I suspect this is what largely prevented Dixon from continuing his engagement with political film making. He tried but had failed at subverting the system.

What makes The Spook who sat by the door fascinating viewing today is the film’s uncompromising approach in detailing the ideology of black militancy – the idea of an armed struggle is something that we actually witness and take place in the film. Perhaps the major criticism with the film is Dixon’s over reliance on the trappings of the blaxploitation film – one can see clear evidence throughout of Dixon’s anxiety with making a film that would potentially limit the commercial prospects. Upon the rigorous recruitment procedure, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) is hired to be the CIA’s first black agent and immediately given a redundant, powerless and token desk job. In the sequences in which Freeman interacts with the white establishment, Dixon mocks the Uncle Tom stereotype as our protagonist acts submissively, politely following orders and maintaining his subservient position as the CIA’s pathetic symbol of liberalism.

Though his time at the CIA is a humiliating one, Freeman’s infiltration proves to be worthwhile as he puts to work his skills and knowledge as an agent to instigate a political revolt in his own community. He recruits a mixture of naïve community activists and politicised revolutionaries, teaching them how political resistance must be determined by acts of violent retaliation – he inevitably attracts the support and even consent of the local community who rally around the group’s radical oppositional thinking. For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the film. Unlike most films in which the revolutionary or radical is eventually captured, imprisoned and killed, the ending sees Freeman very much in control of the revolution and prepared to go to any lengths to ensure it achieves the purpose of political emancipation – the CIA and FBI are unable to repress Freeman as he uses their ideas of guerrilla warfare as a weapon against them. The irony here is simply devastating.

Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee.

LITTLE MEN (Dir. Ira Sachs, 2016, US) – The organic whole

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Harmony is an art but many films struggle to balance all the different filmic elements into a synchronic, syncretic whole, and one that does not feel maudlin, laboured or exact. But cinema or filmmakers are never expected to be harmonious in their overall paradigmatic design yet in many respects an over abundance of visual and narrative beautification that often plagues mainstream cinema(s) globally seems unappreciative of the lost art of humanist cinema – Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini form a post war collective. Humanist cinema has often been dismissed as critical contrivance, a suitably ignoble denigration of an aesthetic, thematic concealment.

If we were to judge the viability of humanist cinema right now through the prism of contemporary film criticism then it would probably be far less argumentative and anodyne to say the work of Ken Loach and The Dardennes have continually kept alive this very notion, although one in direct conflict with the knotty corpus of ontological debates. In his work on Roberto Rossellini Peter Brunette uses a film review by Giuseppe De Santis to posit why the Rossellini scripted Un Pilota Ritorna (1938) betrays a repressed longing for truth:

‘To ask what is the “poetic necessity” behind this shot or that shot is to assume that every shot must contribute to the overall organic project, where every element works not for itself, but is subsumed into the whole’ (Brunette, 1987: 23).

In fact, De Santis points to the organic approach to cinema that would come to define neorealism in the 1940s of which Rossellini would become a chief purveyor.

If the films of the aforementioned directors could be labelled as organic then does this mean everything else is simply inorganic? Organic is a term often associated with food in today’s contemporary culture and while it still retains the associative cultural connotations of righteousness, ethics and virtue, it is a term rarely ever linked to cinema, simply because the once connective, elemental relationship humanism and cinema has been challenged so often, corroding an idea of cinema that appears almost archaic and even doleful now. But what does this prelude of Rossellini, De Santis and organic have to do with Ira Sach’s Little Men? Everything really.

While watching Little Men organic (and orgasmic) kept going through my mind and I kept asking myself – what is it about this remarkable work that keeps drawing me back to this cinematic reckoning? Foremost, it is to do with congruence. The congruity of editing (Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Gonclaves) sound design, performance, cinematography and mise-en-scene are balanced so wholly that the narrative and aesthetic computation takes on a distinctly organic rhythm that in turn works to give life to life. If all the filmic elements are subsumed into the whole as De Santis said then this wholeness, a seemingly impossible enterprise, in Little Men also gives way to the poetic.

Poetic explication extends from the fervent audio-visual interludes (a certain nod to Ozu) that see the two teenage boys bonding over skating, an urban ritual functioning as interstitial breaths, suffusing the narrative with an evanescent allure, fleetingly removing us from reality and entering a state of vacillation. The ambience of Dickon Hinchliffe’s music, a former member of Tindersticks, layered over these transient interludes communicates a friendship that is a provisional marker of adolescence. However, the coming of age story is played out in the realms of the family melodrama, which not only gives the film a classical texture, but also seems logical considering the humanist inclinations.

The connective glue of this melodrama derives from and extenuates traditional masculinity in the guise of the father, a struggling actor – Brian (Greg Kinnear), as one of repressed anxieties. A flawed reconstitution of manhood and a foolish imagining of redemption come from capitalist excess, gentrification, a theme with a prescient socio-political resonance that Sachs uses with which to frame the antagonism between Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and Brian as a class struggle, one determined by the chaotic reign of market economics that have displaced lower income families from their neighbourhoods, made altogether upsetting in the contemporary age of urban austerity.

But let us return to the idea of Little Men as an organic unit in which many of the scenes flow into each other with a remarkable dexterity. Some of this organic aesthetic and thematic unity is attributed to the unassuming placement of the camera, micro sound design (Damian Volpe) and off screen space as a celestial realm. Together, these judiciously regulated formal elements create a cinema that is constantly underplayed by Sachs. What becomes visible are the nuances and minutiae of human behaviour. This is what he wants us to see, to understand and respond to emotionally. The cumulative effect is indelible. So too are the breakout performances from the main leads; Michael Barbieri as Tony and Theo Taplitz as Jake. In the end, the film emerges as a work completely about transience; the social, the psychological, the political.