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’


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


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.

FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012, US) – New Wave Intertexts

‘I know when to go out. And when to stay in’, sings Bowie on ‘Modern Love’, the opening track to his 1983 album ‘Let’s Dance’. Bowie’s music disputably transcends context but a song like Modern Love educes nostalgia for the 1980’s occasioning the dissolution of time and space in Frances Ha. Although this film is not contingent in temporal affirmation, the negation to contextualise New York as a contemporary topography signifies an intertext to Woody Allen’s patina of romanticism in films such as Manhattan and Annie Hall. What matters is the city, not the time in which it is set. The same principle applies to Frances Ha, thereby conjuring Frances (Greta Gerwig) into a ball of schizophrenic energy. Her neurosis, an unfolding existentialist crisis, adjudicates her ‘undatable’ status. Director Noah Baumbach first worked with Gerwig in his mid life crisis feature Greenberg starring Ben Stiller. Frances Ha sees Gerwig in the leading role, and in virtually every scene, but also as a co-writer on what is a semi autobiographical script (this fact seems certain when in the film she takes a ‘home for the holidays’ trip that sees her real life parents cast in the roles of mum and dad in her home town of Sacramento). Gerwig’s ascent came through the Mumblecore film genre/movement characterised by a painful naturalism, static camera aesthetic and quirky observations of middle class characters in their mid to late twenties. If Baumbach conveys the sensibilities of a 1970’s Woody Allen then Gerwig infuses the episodic narrative with a Mumblecore naturalism since her continual on screen presence creates an offbeat, beatnik vibe that is both infectious and reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s now iconic Annie Hall. 

Nonetheless, Baumbach and Gerwig’s co-creation of Frances as an ‘un-datable’ New York woman rejects the coming of age orthodoxy by using the alter ego of Sophie (the best friend archetype) to explore a singularly Mumblecore psychosis of twenty something anxieties realizing commitment, personality and ephemeral relationships. Given the despondency Frances is faced with throughout her attempts to kick-start a career in dance, the denouement is surprisingly upbeat and judged with a sensitivity that makes one internalise the memories of such maladjusted yet earnest characters. Baumbach has acknowledged the influence of the French Nouvelle Vague on his films, explicitly stated in the plethora of intertexts in The Squid and the Whale, but he has also said it was Rohmer and not Godard to whom he felt more of a personal cinematic affinity. Before Midnight, Linklater’s latest film, also reportedly owes a considerable debt to the cinema of Rohmer and Truffaut. You could argue that The Squid and the Whale (Godard), Margot at the Wedding (Rohmer) and Frances Ha (Truffaut) form a loose trilogy of French new wave homages by Baumbach and that perhaps the real Mumblecore feature is in fact Greenberg and not Frances Ha. Nonetheless, all three are memorable love letters to both French and American independent cinema. Frances Ha also has one of the best soundtracks of the year that will have you instantly listening to Modern Love on a never ending loop of hyperbolic salutations. 

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012, US) – Eclipse of the Son [Spoilers ahead!]

I’m still convinced that as Ryan Gosling gets older he’s going to eventually look like Jimmy Stewart; it’s that curvature of his elongated face and dewy eyes. Much has been made of Gosling’s performance in this latest feature from director Derek Cianfrance and it is suggestive to the film. Gosling is a performer who is superb at conveying emotions through effective uses of silence. In fact, Gosling would be perfect in both a western by Sergio Leone as a gunslinger and a shadowy gangster in any Melville’s polar films. In other words, the less dialogue for Gosling, the better. This was proven by a near wordless performance as The Driver in Refn’s 2011 Drive. Gosling takes a similar approach in The Place Beyond The Pines, playing a disaffected and incorporeal young man who finds it insufferable to make a concrete connection between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of adulthood. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver, who gets his thrills from entertaining crowds of enthusiasts at a travelling funfair. Luke is a drifter with no attachments other than his bike, which he considers to be family. He indulges his solitary existence in the transient, nomadic nature of the travelling funfair. The absence of any kind of family around him points to a potentially tough childhood, which is explored allegorically in the final third. The Place Beyond The Pines is essentially an old fashioned melodrama, framed against familiar social thematics including absent fathers, corruption, power and history. Luke’s story turns out to be the first in a triptych narrative that transforms from an opening tale of desperation into one about class and exploitation. The narrative shift from Luke to Avery Cross, a police officer, played by Bradley Cooper strays into Sidney Lumet territory of corrupt cops but Ciafrance weaves into this overly familiar genre convention, the idea of class. When Cross shoots Luke as a result of a bank robbery that goes awry, the elevation of Cross into a local hero sees him become embroiled with some of the corrupt cops in his precinct. However, it is only later does it become more evident that Cross has a powerful father as a judge and he uses his privileged status to turn in his friends in order to further what turns out to be an ambitious, if not cynically opportunistic, political career. This is one of the more ideologically complicated statements as we witness a perpetual cycle of class struggle and more specifically exploitation in which power and status silence those like Luke who live and die on the margins of a vacant American society.

The final part of the film is arguably when the film falters. Although the central theme of fathers and sons comes to vivid fruition, the casting of the two teenage boys and their characterisation is uninspired to say the least, reminding me of an inept pilot for a new series about disaffected youth in the 1990s. While the presence of Luke is rendered symbolically in the last two parts, it is the character of Romina (Eva Mendes) who provides a narrative bridge in the triptych. Romina, who works as a waitress in a diner, is a social outsider and her ethnicity (likely Mexican) underlines separateness yet she is by far the most dignified of the broken characters we encounter. It is a dignity threatened by the insecurities of the men around her. Given the genre context of the melodrama, if Romina comes to embody an ideal about family then both Luke and Avery are deconstructed as fathers and men who cannot function within the realm of family as the past prevents them from doing so. What this means is that a crisis of masculinity emerges discordantly from the three parts and culminates in a moment at the end, which seeks to articulate a view of fathers and sons predicated on class. What I find disconcerting is when films longer than two hours are automatically labeled with the tag of ‘epic’ when in fact ‘epic’ means something entirely different in film. The epic was and still is considered a useful genre category but now the term has become associated with porridge like cinema of The Avengers kind. What I admire about Ciafrance’s approach is that he takes his time with the storytelling but the way some characters are introduced and not even explored seems to be one of the recent detrimental effects of contemporary TV Drama upon film narrative. What gives this American independent film a certain edge is the masterfully atmospheric score by Mike Patton, which imbues much of the drama with a tone of dread, and uncertainty that recalls the work of Badalamenti for Lynch. Altogether, The Place Beyond The Pines makes for a superior American melodrama.