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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—28 May 2010

Film Against Itself: William Wellman's 1933 Wild Boys of the Road goes to great pains, in its opening quarter, to establish that its titular hellions are in fact conventionally good kids at heart. They don't hit the road out of rebellion, but what they consider duty, a duty they know their parents won't allow them to fulfill. That is, they leave home looking for work that their folks, laid low by the Depression, can't get.

Of course, once the boys actually hit the road, their survival instincts and new sense of community—they find themselves part of an ever-growing, farther-wandering pack of sorts, one that includes a fair number of girls, a handful of refreshingly not-too-horribly-stereotyped African American kids, and so on—feed an inchoate sense of rebellion that cries for respite from injustice. And although the cops have mixed feelings about squelching the ad hoc dwelling place the kids have squatted in somewhere between Cleveland and New York, they do their duty anyway...and the wild boys find their strength in numbers. And they fight back, pelting their oppressors with rocks.

And the picture becomes what it seems to have been wanting to become the whole time: a full-blooded cry in praise of the anarchic spirit, a dead-serious, socially purposeful all-American answer film to Vigo's Zéro de conduite, from the same year. Wellman was nicknames "Wild Bill" largely because of his personal behavior, but here you can see that the handle also related to his creative temperament. The fluid camerawork and editing and above all the conviction of the actors on both sides give the riot scene an exhilarating directness that's still bracing and intoxicating today.

Of course it can't last. Pre-code or no, this is a Hollywood picture, and at some level it has got to sober up. And that's okay. And in fact, when, later in the film, at a hearing before the judge, when the de facto ringleader of the boys, Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro, in a really remarkable performance) breaks down and once again shows the vulnerability and sweetness that we saw at the picture's outset, it's a relief and a release; we're able to exhale. We expected this, and it's done in a way that serves an arguably legitimate emotional function.

It's what happens next that's kind of funny and sort of, even after all this time, at least mildly appalling. The judge who's been hearing the case (Robert Barrat) gets up from behind his desk, the better to address Eddie directly. As it happens, this compassionate lawgiver is about to not only hand Eddie his freedom but a job and a means to return to his home. As he rises, we see the bottom half of a poster announcing the NRA, which did not then connote the delightful National Rifle Association but rather, ta-da, the National Recovery Administration, just enacted and formed that very year by President Roosevelt. The camera tilts up to follow his movement, keeping him in the frame until he exits, stage left as it were...

...and then the camera continues its tilt until the entirety of the NRA poster is in the frame. Just in case you were wondering about the nature of the agency that has affected the miracle that's going to bring Eddie's life some semblance of normalcy again.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not Amity Shlaes or any such wretched creature. I'm as pro-New Deal as any proud and proudly old-fashioned liberal out there. I think it's perfectly fine that First National and Warner Brothers wore its progressive politics on its sleeve, and I think it's hilarious that certain lunatics on the right are still noticing and complaining about it. (I won't do the piece the favor of linking to it, but if you want to have a good laugh at the expense of the mentally ill, go seek out actor Michael Moriarty's Big Hollywood piece about how Casablanca is commie propaganda.) But—with that one camera tilt, Wild Boys is transformed from a gangly, imperfect but thoroughly engaging work of cinematic are into a semi-antique PSA of sorts. This feel continues with a happy denouement that includes a completely incongruous, even by the standards of studio happy ending, cartwheel from one of the characters. Does it ruin the film, make it abject, as another shot, from a quarter-century and so much appalling history later, was famously condemned accused of doing?

Such is our question. And for an exercise, what is your favorite, or least-favorite, cinematic self-cancellation?

Film noir is replete with self-cancellation, my least favorite of which is probably The Postman Always Rings Twice. While the ending is actually true to James Cain’s novel and essential to understanding the title, its absolutely bathetic in the film.
“Film Against Itself”? Would that happen to be a Shellac reference, Glenn? Anyhoo, Howard Hawks liked to say that anyone could tell which scene in “Scarface” was imposed upon the film, that it stuck out like a sore thumb. If they enjoyed 95% of the movie, he reasoned, they shouldn’t have much trouble disregarding a bad 5%. I tend to be of the same mindset. For me, the real problem is when a film contains especially gauche moments that don’t seem like the product of interference, but an unfortunate detour of otherwise sound reasoning. For some reason, “Michael Clayton” is the first example that comes to mind. Maybe this is a good time to re-read Wood’s “Incoherent Text”…
Something with the same effect as that poster: the New Deal camp where the Joads end up in Grapes of Wrath, especially the dialog between Fonda and the caretaker (Grant Mitchell, who played Farro’s dad in Wild Boys) about who runs it (the people), where are the bosses (ain’t none), why aren’t there more of them (if you find out, tell me). But like Ben Sachs says, it’s easy to ignore eye-pokes when they’re isolated like that. (What don’t you like about Michael Clayton, though?) That riot in “Wild Boys” is incredible, both for its energy and the bluntness of the rape. (I hope Ward Bond got a bonus for wearing that hat, though.) That shot of the kids closing in on Bond is amazing. Yesterday I was thinking about the scavenger hunt for the Forgotten Man in My Man Godfrey, and how someone today guessing what the term means wouldn’t get past “someone who’s poor”. The whole context of the war, the bonus marchers, etc., which didn’t even rate mentioning in ’36, has fallen away. I also bet that scavenger hunt and the closing number in Gold Diggers of 1933 (which as a pop art expression of social ills is just about unbeatable) hit the nail on the head for plenty of folks back then.
Favorites: “It’s a Wonderful LIfe”, which avoids having its main character commit suicide only through an act of god, reveals how easily Bedford Falls could turn into a cesspool of moral confusion and meanness, and then still manages to pull off a convincing happy ending. “Fort Apache” – A last minute self-cancellation that works brilliantly, and is the most forceful and disturbing evocation of Ford’s ‘print the legend’ ethos. I also like how Frtiz Lang’s “Clash by Night” seems to be leading up to a horrifying tragedy, and then at the last minute seems to shrug its shoulders and say, “Oh, never mind.” Least Favorites: Since the ending is perhaps the entire movie’s raison d’être, it’s arguably not a self-cancellation, but I like the first half of “Woman of the Year” so much that I always just turn the movie off about fifteen minutes before the end to prevent that idiotic coda from spoiling my mood. “The Caine Mutinty”: You know that movie you just saw, where Queeq seemed like a psychopath who was going to get his entire crew killed? Well, you’re just a friggin commie is what you are, because Queeq was a fine, upstanding officer, and how dare you suggest otherwise.
>“Fort Apache” – A last minute self-cancellation that works brilliantly, and is the most forceful and disturbing evocation of Ford’s ‘print the legend’ ethos. A-fucking-men. Also, “Voyage to Italy”, which people tend to think is intended as an actual miracle, rather than one that’s just playing out in the minds of its characters.
@ Ben: you know me too well. Speaking of Shellac, is it just me, or does the guy who does the recitation on the opening of “1000 Hurts” sound EXACTLY like Philip Baker Hall, to the extent that one is convinced that it IS Philip Baker Hall?
Actually, Glen, the guy at the beginning of “10,000 Hurts” is the employee of a magnetic tape manufacturer. He records the technical specifics for every roll they put out; you hear it at the beginning of each one. (It’s a recording precaution, I believe.) Getting him on the album was a total analog-geek joke—Steve Albini being, he’d admit, the biggest of them all. When my band recorded at Electrical Audio (not to toot my own horn, but okay I will), I was amazed by how much technology I assumed was obsolete was regularly put to use. Albini has said that when they stop making that tape he’s going to stop recording music. In a way, I think of him as the Frederick Wiseman of rock music.
Don’t think it’s fair to compare Wild Boys of the Road (which I would argue is too truly interesting and beautifully-made a film to be marred by a single tilt) and Kapo. Pontecorvo’s famous camera move, if I understand the argument by Rivette, etc. correctly (which I admittedly may not), was not an isolated tumor fighting against the rest of the film, but instead was merely the most blatant indicator of the faulty philosophy behind the film as a whole, which was not without other problems.
@Glenn: I was TOTALLY convinced it was him. I’m kind of let down now that I know it’s not. =/

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