AMERICANA: MEET JOHN DOE AND GO GO TALES

January 18, 2011

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Two versions of the community-made man. Gary Cooper’s John Doe and Willem Dafoe’s Ray Ruby are nothing without their coterie of speech-writers, money-men and erotic dancers.  Meet John Doe (1941) and Go Go Tales (2007) each speak to the anxieties of being propped up by the labor of others, with main characters haunted by the possibility of losing their support and having to go it alone. They are paeans to American industriousness, satires of American greed and excess, and hum with the patter of the American workplace. Meet John Doe was recently released on a disappointing DVD by VCI (DVD Beaver has the specs here) and Go Go Tales is currently screening at Anthology Film Archives in NYC. It’s also available on an Italian Region 2 DVD.

John Willoughboy (Cooper) is a burnt-out ex-ballplayer with a bum elbow, in the days before Tommy John surgery. Living the hobo life with The Colonel (a zealous Walter Brennan), he’s hoping to make a quick buck at a newspaper when he sees a lineup outside. What tabloid journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is after though, is a flesh and blood dope to embody the outraged John Doe whose letter of civil disobedience she forged in order to pump up circulation and save her job. Soon she builds up John into a folksy voice of the people, promoting neighborliness into a kind of small-town socialism. His immense popularity, represented in nationwide John Doe Clubs, is co-opted by his backer, millionaire D.B. Norton, in a scheme to install a pseudo-fascist state.

The film is strongest early-on, replete with Capra’s pungent dialogue and rich caricatures. The punchiness starts in the opening, with The Bulletin’s old motto, “A free press means a free people”, jackhammered off to make way for The New Bulletin’s tagline, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” This visual joke is more relevant than ever, and sets up the knockabout opening where a baby-faced, Mickey Rooney type axes the staff in pantomime, with gestural throat slashes underlined by whistles. Capra captures the impersonal devastation of this corporate takeover in a few flicks of the assistant’s wrists.

Ann, desperate to salvage her job, invents the John Doe letter, whose anti-government, DIY tone loosely echoes the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement (aside from the community organizing he supports). Soon Willoughby is speaking to millions of people around the country, as Ann hones Doe’s image around the philosophy of her late father. The political message Capra is trying to send gets increasingly slippery, as he is both satirizing the gullibility of the American people, who immediately believe in this rather dopey Doe, while still managing to lionize the work ethic and morality of those same citizens. The latter impulse drains the former of any impact. Capra had trouble reconciling these ideas, and filmed five separate endings, and was never satisfied with any of them. In his autobiography, he said:

For seven-eights of the film, Riskin [screenwriter Robert] and I felt we had made The Great American Motion Picture; but in the last eighth, it fizzled into The Great American Letdown.

Whether or not the film coheres thematically (I agree with Capra, it does not), the figure of Doe is surprisingly similar to the character of Ray Ruby in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. Ruby is the proprietor of Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, a struggling NYC strip club facing massive debts and a restive work force. Ruby is the manic and disarmingly sensitive patriarch of this whirling world of sequins and exploding tanning beds. His wild hopes rest on the American standbys of gambling and conning: playing the lotto and convincing his brother to stay invested.

Doe and Ruby face similar threats, the hellish bureaucracy posed by The New Bulletin’s maxim is transposed by Go Go Tales into the screeching landlord’s (Sylvia Miles at her harpiest) gentrifying threat that she’ll sell Ruby’s building to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Both Doe and Ruby will themselves into believing that they are self-made and impervious to these deprivations,  but they are heavily indebted to a web of investors, politicians and relatives to stay afloat.  This denial also fuels their finest qualities, creating a naive, idealistic belief in the power of community. In Doe’s case it’s a nationwide mission of charity whose tenets he adopts for himself, and for Ruby it’s the idiosyncratic camaraderie of his Lounge’s denizens. There are his raspy host Bob Hoskins, berating the tourists who idly pass the door, his whimsical Irish accountant/partner-in-crime Jay (Roy Dotrice), and a web of bar squatting wiseguys who provide a never-ending squall of vulgar cracks. Near the end, as the strippers and bouncers put on their weekly talent show of Bronx-accented Shakespeare and interpretive dance, Ruby gives a rousing speech that exposes the philosopher inside the crabby capitalist, and is one that Capra could have used as the sixth ending to Meet John Doe:

Everyone in this room has a chance to become more than they think they are. Freedom of expression, creativity, passion, love for each other, that’s what this is all about.

NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES ON FILM: THE EXILES (1961)

May 4, 2010

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TCM’s month-long series, RACE & HOLLYWOOD: NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES ON FILMbegins tonight with a trio of John Ford Westerns (Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn). We’ll be following the program back here at Movie Morlocks with a week-long group of posts related to the topic. Suzi Doll kicked things off yesterday with an inquiry into Anthony Mann’s DEVIL’S DOORWAY, and now I’ll be looking at Kent Mackenzie’s recently rediscovered The Exiles, which screens on Thursday May 27th at 9:30PM (it shows again on June 23rd at 1:15AM).

The Exiles follows a Native American husband and wife, Homer (the Hualapi Homer Nish) and Yvonne (the Apache Yvonne Williams), as they separately navigate an aimless night in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. Having left the reservation for the city, they are slowly adapting to their new surroundings. Homer opts for the easy camaraderie of the Native American immigrant community, rolling from bar to bar with a group of debauched loners, led by the highly strung Tommy (Tommy Reynolds). Yvonne, visibly pregnant and left to her own devices, goes to the cinema to see The Iron Sheriff, and then wanders down the main drag, daydreaming about her uncertain future.

All three actors are non-professionals playing versions of themselves. In 1957, Mackenzie was hanging out in the bars in Bunker Hill, and befriended the three actors. He had already completed a short documentary about the neighborhood entitled Bunker Hill-1956 (about the working class community soon to be displaced by re-development), while a student at USC. Now he was planning another doc based on the re-location of Native Americans to urban areas, inspired by an article in Harper’s Magazine by Dorothy Van de Mark about government attempts to take over Indian land. As the project developed, and he heard Homer, Yvonne, and Tommy’s concerns about the image of Native Americans on film, he invited them to help write the script, do their own narration, and be partners in the production (shooting started in 1958, but due to budget shortages and other delays, was not completed until 1961). His original conception of a straight observational documentary shifted to include the slender narrative of The Exiles, similar to the re-creations of Nanook building an igloo that Robert Flaherty staged in Nanook of the North.  Mackenzie was heavily influenced by Flaherty and the WWII docs of Humphrey Jennings, closely observed, anthropologically minded films that used artifice to heighten reality. Mackenzie and his cinematographers, Erik Daarstad and John Morill, considered it a documentary in that tradition, although today a direct line can be drawn to the films of Lisandro Alonso, who also makes films made in concert with the laborers he constructs slight narratives around.

Filmed in high-contrast black and white, with a layered soundtrack completed entirely in post-production (there are some rough sync issues when it comes to dialogue), it has a dreamlike quality, enhanced by the affect-less tone of the voice-overs.  They are stream-of-consciousness reveries, run-on sentences of modest hopes and stolid resignation. Homer compares the unspooling of time outside of jail to inside, and can’t find much difference. The images that run underneath are distractingly beautiful, tableaux of a cop twirling his nightstick in front of a late night haunt, a cigarette sparking as a Tommy joyrides down a tunnel, and the blazing marquee with Sterling Hayden flashing his six-gun. The actions, however, are banal. Mackenzie, along with his actors and crew, are attempting to capture the imperceptible rhythms of a night on the town. It is clear that the characters are disconnected and adrift, but what drives the movie are the little moments, like Tommy’s assertive flirtatious patter, the slow-burn before a bar fight, and the surprisingly tender manner in which Homer hands one Tommy’s castoffs her coat. Yvonne ends her night with an understanding neighbor, offering comfort and a bed for the introspective, oft-abandoned wife.

I believe Kent Mackenzie is able to sidestep the problematic position of another white filmmaker speaking for Native Americans (and one who  presents characters who could be perceived as stereotypical “drunken Indians” – which Amy Taubin hammers the film for this in her Artforum review) . In closely collaborating with the actors on the final product, it forefronts their voices along with Mackenzie’s, and, as Native author (and one of the film’s presenters) Sherman Alexie argued in the NY Times, “The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.”

It had rarely been seen since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1961, despite good reviews, having only been picked up for the educational market by Pathe Distribution in 1964. A few 16mm prints were struck, and by the 1970s it was only being shown in a few classrooms, all but forgotten. Kent Mackenzie died in 1980, having produced one more feature, Saturday Morningwhich filmed a group of 20 American students as they debated topics of “self and sex”, as the skeptical NY Times review described it.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive and Milestone Films rescued it from obscurity, with an assist from Thom Anderson, whose magisterial film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, which charts the hidden (and misrepresented) history of the city on celluloiddevoted a portion of its running time to The Exiles and it’s realistic portrayal of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood.  With this minor bit of notoriety, Milestone helped to fund UCLA’s work, and the results are stunning. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Cinema Scope, says it is “the most gorgeous restoration of an American independent film I’ve ever seen”, and I don’t disagree.