Monday, May 25, 2020

There have been few more controversial Supreme Court cases in the modern era than 1973's Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States and set off a culture war that has been raging ever since. At this point I'd wager most folks know where they stand on the issue of abortion, but fewer know the real story of Jane Roe (nee Norma McCorvey) and how she unwittingly became one of the most contentious figures in American politics.

In the new documentary, AKA Jane Roe, her story finally takes center stage, away from the glaring lights of the culture war, with its many complicated facets on display. When she was recruited as Jane Roe in the early 70s, McCorvey was working as a prostitute when she became unexpectedly pregnant. Unable to procure a legal abortion, she sought help from underground abortion doctors, but decided against it when she saw the filthy, dangerous conditions of the back alley clinic. She never got the abortion she sought, but her struggle became the flashpoint for the abortion rights movement as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, winning the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy for generations of women after her.

The film examines McCorvey's early life, growing up gay, sexually abused, and destitute in the rural south. After helping to codify the right to an abortion into American law, she was mostly ignored by the pro-choice movement. She was too unpredictable, too rough around the edges, too crass to be an effective spokesperson, they thought. And so Jane Roe became more of a symbol than a real person. That is until she was recruited by an evangelic anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue, who paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars to renounce Roe v. Wade and become an anti-choice crusader.

AKA Jane Roe serves as McCorvey's own candid "deathbed confession," acknowledging that her conversion to anti-choice zealotry was a scam and that she had, in fact, been manipulated into betraying the very cause that bore her name. It's a portrait of a complex, complicated woman who never asked for the national spotlight in which she found herself. Here was a woman who lived a life of abuse who was neglected by the very movement she helped to victory, manipulated by bad-faith actors on the opposing side, and forced to end a long term relationship with her beloved partner, Connie, by the right-wing evangelists who saw her as little more than a trophy. In that way, the documentary almost plays as a personal tragedy set against the backdrop of national political unrest.  And while I wish director Nick Sweeney had asked some harder questions of the dying McCorvey, who dismisses her time advocating against abortion as using the very people who were using her, her troubled life tells a very different story.

Why did she throw millions of women under the bus after such a sweeping victory? It can't have just been for the money, can it? Sweeney sifts through decades worth of personal reflections, interviews with friends, family, and the anti-abortion leaders who sought to use her for their own ends, to paint a startlingly complex portrait of a woman with a troubled and complicated legacy. As her final statement before her death in 2017, AKA Jane Roe dispels the right-wing myth of her anti-choice conversion once and for all, but it also leaves just as many questions as it answers. Perhaps that's the way McCorvey would have wanted - fiery, flawed, and never quite ready for prime time, she was not a typical activist or a camera-ready symbol of resistance. She was a fully formed human being filled with troubles, pains, and contradictions of her own. In other words, she was perhaps the most indelible symbol of the very women Roe v. Wade ultimately helped; the regular people whose struggles the cameras rarely capture in the ongoing political battles surrounding abortion. In AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey finally gets to tell her story in her own words and on her own terms, and the results are as fascinating, as frustrating, and as full of life as she was. It's a moving, must-watch experience.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

AKA JANE ROE | Directed by Nick Sweeney | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Hulu.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A still from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (1896)

While the Netflix original series, Hollywood, is playing revisionist history with the origins of the motion picture industry, other distributors are working hard to get cinema's real overlooked pioneers the spotlight they deserve.

Spinning off from their successful box set, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Kino Lorber has released several new collections focusing on individual filmmakers. First up, Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of last year's documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a true pioneer who became the first woman to direct a film and run her own studio. Volume 1 focuses on Guy-Blaché's years at Gaumont, one of France's leading studios in the early days of cinema. Here we are treated to some of Guy-Blaché's earliest films, including several that she has only recently received credit for. Most notably among them is 1896's The Cabbage-Patch Fairy, in which a fairy checks on a cabbage patch full of babies. At only 1-min long, the film is considered the first narrative film, a departure from the actualities and scenes of daily life that were common in the earliest days of cinema. While there isn't a plot, it does conjure an obviously fictional scenario that sets it apart from other films of the period. Guy-Blaché would revisit the idea with less success in 1902's Midwife to the Upper Class, establishing the idea of cabbage patch babies as an early trademark.

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Consequences of Feminism (1906)
The set also includes some of her most incisive work in the form of comedies that poked fun at social issues of the day. On the surface, Alice Guy-Blaché's 1906 silent short, The Consequences of Feminism, seems like a warning about the dangers of feminized men. Guy-Balché  creates a world where men inhabit stereotypically feminine roles - doing the laundry, watching the children, gossiping in their hat-making circles; while the women smoke cigars, read the newspapers, and sexually harass the men without consequence. Therein lies the sly genius of this film. The Consequences of Feminism isn't a warning against feminism, as it initially appears to be.  By the end of the film, the men have had enough, and stage a revolt to take back their "rightful" place. It is, in fact, an argument for the necessity of feminism, a bold choice for 1906. By casting men in the feminine roles, Guy-Balché shows men just what it was like to be a woman in that time. By turning the stereotypes on their head, she cleverly subverts the conventions of the time, arguing that if men wouldn't stand for this sort of treatment, why should women? It's certainly a compelling argument. And even in the more enlightened 21st century, its subversive social criticisms still ring true.

Volume 1 also includes some rare glimpses into the world in which they were created, with Alice Guy Films a ‘Phonoscène’ in the Studio at Buttes-Chaumont, Paris (1905) providing a unique window into the early filmmaking process, and several "phonoscenes" of singer Félix Mayol. It's really hard to distinguish between Alice Guy-Blaché's Félix Mayol photoscenes (and she made several) because they're all just a few minutes of him standing on a stage singing, but the chronophone syncing of sound to picture, especially in 1905, is jaw-dropping, and their value as historical record is hard to deny. Guy-Blaché wasn't trying to be a filmmaker here so much as a historian, documenting popular performers of the era for posterity. And not only can we see him, but we can hear him - a voice echoing down through the centuries. It may not sound like much, but in many ways it's truly stunning.

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ (1906)
Volume 2 focuses on Guy-Blaché's years at Solax, the production company she founded with her husband after moving to America. As head of the studio, she helped establish the house style for all films made there during her tenure. This also shows a period of creative growth for the filmmaker; not only does she excel in domestic comedies, but she begins to branch out into other genres such as westerns (Parson Sue) and historical epics like The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ, with somewhat mixed success.

Her passion play wasn't credited to her until recently, but her attempt at a historical epic is surprisingly dry, taking a "stations of the cross" tableau aesthetic that isn't half as interesting as the comedies she was making around the same period. It's impressively mounted and and the sets are well constructed, but it's so strenuously respectful and static that it never really blossoms. She just doesn't feel like she's comfortable with the material, and the results are surprisingly passion-less, handsomely mounted and clearly laying the groundwork for the epic film but otherwise rather cold and distant.

Comedies were the Solax house speciality, and Guy-Blaché proved herself quite adept at them. Liquor gets mistaken for lime juice in her 1911 comedy, Starting Something, in which a series of people accidentally get gassed in quick succession. This early Solax film showcases Guy-Blaché's razor sharp comedic timing, and her use of repetition here make Starting Something a consistently funny short, building up dramatic tension but putting everyone back exactly where they started every few minutes. It just gets funnier and funnier as it goes along, and Guy-Blaché's refusal to switch things up mid-film makes the comedic action all the more potent. She also began to tackle three hankie dramas around this period. Take The Coming of Sunbeam, for example, a 1913 melodrama that features a grumpy old man suddenly finding out that he has to care for his young granddaughter after the untimely death of her parents. Resistant at first, he soon comes around and the two become inseparable, that is until she falls gravely ill. Reminiscent of Guy-Blaché's Falling Leaves from the previous year, but without it's more lyrical grace notes, The Coming of Sunbeam is still a beguiling little film, and the central pairing of the old man and the little girl is hard to resist.

There are so many gems to discover here, and both discs represent a veritable treasure trove of some of Guy-Blaché's most indelible work. These are must-own discs for any serious student of cinema, not only is Guy-Blaché one of the pioneering women of the art form, she was also one of its principal movers and shakers, starting off as a secretary and becoming one of the most influential figures in early film, helping to steer it away from amusing novelty to serious art form. This is an A+ collection that belongs on every cinema lover's shelf.

Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers - Alice Guy-Blaché Volumes 1 and 2 are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


John Huston | USA | 1967

You have to give John Huston credit for his commitment to making idiosyncratic passion projects, but even in a career as varied as Huston's, the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye stands out.

Starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor as a cuckolded military commander and his free-spirited wife, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a disarmingly horny exploration of sexuality and desire that makes the most of its post-Production Code leniency. Brando, frustrated by his wife's constant infidelity, finds himself drawn to a young private (Robert Forster in his screen debut), who is known for going horseback riding naked in the woods around the base. Forster, in turn, has eyes for his CO's wife, and often lurks outside their house to peep on Taylor's dalliances.

Originally released in a golden-tinted version (the figurative "golden eye" of the title), the film was eventually given a wide release with a more typical color palate to appease mass audiences. Warner Archive's new 2-disc Blu-Ray release gorgeously restores Huston's original vision alongside the general release version. The golden version gives the film a heated, otherworldly quality, as if its characters are wondering around in some sort of erotic dream, lost in a tangled web of their own unexplored desires. You have Brando slowly losing his grip on reality, Taylor flaunting her infidelity while completely dominating her husband - a figure of authority to everyone but her, and Forster as a young enlisted man who has much greater confidence than his commanding officer. It's an odd, dream-like film, and its unusual structure is occasionally uneven, but it's hard not to respect its bold vision. It's almost as if this is the film Huston's character from The Other Side of the Wind was making; a troubled, thorny, deeply personal exploration of the darkest recesses of the human psyche, and the results are hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Robert Wise | USA | 1948

Robert Mitchum and Barbara Bel Geddes star in Robert Wise's 1948 western, Blood on the Moon, a surprisingly gritty oater that casts Mitchum as a hired gun who slowly begins to realize that he may be on the wrong side of the conflict.

Recruited by an old friend to help run a local cattle baron out of business by preventing him from removing his herd from an Indian reservation by the legal deadline (thus forcing him to sell the cattle for pennies on the dollar), Mitchum unwittingly finds himself falling for the baron's beautiful and headstrong daughter (Bel Geddes). As his relationship with her deepens, begins to understand that he isn't sticking up for the little guy at all, and is in fact the villain in someone else's story. It's an interesting twist on the lone gunslinger archetype, long before the trope would be subverted by the revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and 70s.

Wise was an incredibly versatile filmmaker, fitting right in across various genres, from horror (The Haunting, The Curse of the Cat People), to musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), to science fiction (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), so it should come as no surprise that he was equally adept at westerns as well. It's that workman-like adaptability that made him one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his time, although he is rarely given his due by auteurists. He had a knack for getting under his characters' skin, and in Blood on the Moon, Mitchum manages to find a sense of moral ambiguity to his amoral gunslinger that elevates the film above your typical western B-movie. Wise's commitment to a surprising amount of violence for 1948 gives the film actual stakes, and you can feel the conflict within Mitchum boiling over as the world he thought he knew no longer seems to make sense.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and BLOOD ON THE MOON are now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Biospherians (left to right): Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, SallySilverstone and Bernd Zabelposing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990. Courtesy of NEON.

In 1991 a group of enthusiastic dreamers built what would become known as Biosphere 2, a massive internalized ecosystem meant to emulate Earth's atmosphere, in an attempt to study what it would be like to live in an enclosed ecosystem on another planet. Depending on who you ask, the mission was either a spectacular success or an abysmal failure, but regardless of the ultimate outcome it makes for fascinating viewing in Matt Wolf's new documentary, Spaceship Earth.

The group started as a commune of hippies in the 1960s who brought their talents together to build their own desert community before branching out by building a ship and going on to build and design everything from hotels to art galleries around the world thanks to the funding of a generous family benefactor. Inspired by works of science fiction, they turned to their most ambitious project yet - a sprawling recreation of Earth's atmosphere where eight intrepid explorers would spend two years sealed into an entirely self-contained environment to simulate life on another planet. The project was met with much anticipation from the public, and ultimately a great deal of controversy as disagreements arose over their methodology, calling into question the legitimacy of the experiment.

Wolf doesn't ask too many hard questions - dismissing many accusations leveled against the group out of hand without delving too deeply into them. The suggestion that the group was some sort of cult is mostly laughed off, and the lack of real scientific method that went into the experiment is fairly glossed over in favor of a more awe-struck examination of the participants and the utopian vision that drove them. For those of us who were either too young to remember it or not even born when it happened, there's an undeniable air of discovery to this odd little piece of history, and it's hard not to find their goals admirable, if perhaps a bit naive.

The film takes a turn with a bit of modern relevance when the wealthy backers eventually take over the product, led by none other than Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump and the architect of his unlikely 2016 presidential run. That's the point at which Spaceship Earth becomes the most fascinating - a portrait of idealism brought crashing back down to earth by capitalist greed. There are clearly many more avenues to explore here, and Wolf leaves several very big stones mostly unturned, but it's hard to resist the sheer boldness of the project, whose data (especially regarding climate change and greenhouse gasses) has been suppressed for the last two decades by Bannon. It's a mildly diverting documentary that makes for some intriguing quarantine viewing, painting a big picture but ultimately failing to ask big questions. Clearly this is a story worth telling, but the glossing over of the shortcuts taken by the participants ultimately leaves more questions than answers, and leaves us wanting to know the rest of the story.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPACESHIP EARTH | Directed by Matt Wolf | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Hulu.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Wonder Bar is an odd entry in Busby Berkeley's impressive run of pre-code musicals for Warner Bros. For one, it's a huge downer, with its murder/suicide plot ending the film on a strangely sour note for a Depression-era toe-tapper; and it simultaneously manages to combine one of Berkeley's best musical numbers with one of his absolute worst.

Coming on the heels Berkeley's legendary 1933 run of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight ParadeWonder Bar (along with his last, and lesser known, film of 1933, Roman Scandals) feels at once tired and inspired, with its typical showbiz plot surrounding the scandals and drama in a Parisian nightclub, making it one of the biggest mixed-bags of the legendary choreographer's career. Al Jolson stars as Al Wonder, night-club owner and entertainer extraordinaire, who presides one the titular nightclub and all its comings and goings. He's in love with one of his Dolores del Río, as is fellow performer Dick Powell, but she's dealing with the fallout of her own relationship with onstage partner, Ricardo Cortez, who's planning on running off with Kay Francis.  Warner stalwarts Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert provide comedy relief as two henpecked American businessmen attempting to ditch their wives for a night on the town.

Of all the pre-code Warner musicals, Wonder Bar is perhaps the most overtly sexual, with its cheeky double entendres practically jumping right off the screen; not to mention it features the most blatantly queer moment I've seen in a pre-code film, in which a man taps on another man’s shoulder to “cut in” with his dance partner, and instead waltzes off with the man, leaving the woman standing on the dance floor. Jolson then turns to the camera and shrugs “boys will be boys.” It’s a funny moment without being a punchline, and impressive for the way it treats such a thing as normal in gay Paris in a major Hollywood production in 1933. It also features one of Berkeley's most dazzling musical set pieces in "Don't Say Goodnight," a dizzying masterpiece that features hundreds of dancers, 60 massive columns moving independently, and an octagon of mirrors that multiplies the dancers into infinity.

But then comes "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule," a cringe-worthy parade of racist stereotypes featuring Al Jolson in blackface as a former slave who goes to heaven with dozens of children as blackface angels. It's racist even by 1933 standards (watch out for the giant dancing watermelon), and even discounting the racial stereotypes it isn't even particularly clever by Berkeley's standards. It lacks the sparkle of his best comedy numbers like "Hollywood Hotel" (from Footlight Parade) and "Pettin' in the Park" (from Gold Diggers of 1933 , and is generally a lackluster climax for a film that summarily wraps up with a murder/suicide that's supposed to be a happy ending for its characters.

As it stands, Wonder Bar is a fascinating curio, structured like a high class soap opera in the vein of Grand Hotel sprinkled with a good dose of naughty pre-code humor, but once "Don't Say Goodnight" is over, the story doesn't seem to have anywhere to go. The cast is capable, and Berkeley delivers a knockout around the midpoint, but the screenplay can't seem it unravel its tangled romantic subplot, and the climactic 10-minute long blackface number is a hard sit that adds nothing to film. Worth watching for Berkeley aficionados and fans of classic musicals, but it lacks the escapist flair of his best work with its strangely downbeat ending.

Cinema Obscura is a regular feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover.