11/24/2020 1:00:00 PM

As people around the country are about to celebrate Thanksgiving away from their loved ones, I suppose that many of us are contemplating the meaning of the holiday in the abstract, formed from memories of Thanksgivings past. The cultural trappings are one thing, but the understanding of what sets this day apart from Christmas or Passover or Eid is something entirely different. I suppose that Thanksgiving is notable for being an entirely secular national holiday that is observed as reverently as a religious holiday. When I was young, it embodied a spirit of generosity. I wonder if that’s still the case. What it has come to mean is family with a capital F, with all its contradictions and heartbreaks and glories.

There are a couple of movies that The Film Foundation has helped to restore that bring the spirits of past and present to mind. When I was young, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, restored by the Library of Congress, was written off as a lesser film by many people, including Hitchcock himself. It was a dry run for North by Northwest, it had too many ideas in it, the lead and the villain were miscast, and so on. At this point I’ve seen the film many times, and it seems to grow with each viewing. Robert Cummings’ defense plant worker, wrongfully accused of committing sabotage and killing his best friend, goes on a cross-country journey much like Cary Grant’s in NBNW, but along the way he is met by good Samaritans who discard all doubt as they recognize the goodness he emanates—a long haul trucker, the members of a circus troupe and, most movingly and magically, a blind man who lives alone in the wilderness played by a wonderful old theatre actor named Vaughan Glaser.

In the matter of family, I’m thinking of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, restored by UCLA, in which family is the bedrock and the stumbling block, the crucible and the sustaining power. It’s family that drives Gena Rowlands’ Myrtle to madness, and it’s family that grounds her and lights her from within. The miracle of Cassavetes’ film is that it embodies these opposing forces and states all at once. Myrtle waiting anxiously for her kids to come home from school…Peter Falk as her helpless touching husband trying to decree that everything be normal again, Falk’s mother (played by Cassavetes’ own mother) casting a cold eye on her daughter-in-law one minute and later urging her son to go easy on her, the entire extended family rendered speechless as they watch Myrtle fly off into the stratosphere once again…it’s all the chaos and swirling and criss-crossing impulses and emotions of family in one movie, joyous and unkempt and terrifying, and you just want to dive right into it because that’s where life begins.

Happy Thanksgiving…and happy belated 106th birthday to Norman Lloyd.

- Kent Jones

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11/18/2020 10:00:00 AM

In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote an untitled poem that he included in his remarkable Spring and All. When his first volume of collected poems was published 15 years later, he had given what is now his best-known poem a title. “To Elsie” is named after Elsie Borden, a disabled woman who grew up in an orphanage and who worked for the Williams family in New Jersey. The poem famously begins: “The pure products of America / go crazy…” And it ends, less famously but so hauntingly: “No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.” Dr. Williams’ great work was a beacon for the young Allen Ginsberg when he wrote his longer clarion call “Howl” in 1955: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical / naked…” And, a few lines from the end, “O starry-spangled / shock of mercy the eternal war is here…” Ginsberg was read closely and later befriended by Bob Dylan, who sounded the call in a rougher and rowdier register in “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and, later, in a more plangent tone in “All Along the Watchtower.” And roughly concurrent with Dylan, from another side of America, came Sam Fuller’s bargain-budget Shock Corridor, restored by UCLA with the help of The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In Fuller’s independently made tabloid vision of America-as-madhouse, the pure products have all gone crazy, as Robert Polito observes in his Criterion essay on the film. The best minds have all been destroyed by madness, the hard rain is already falling and there is no way out of here. A reporter pretends to be a madman in order to gain admittance to an insane asylum to investigate a murder. In the asylum, he encounters a nuclear physicist who thinks he’s a little boy, a traitorous Korean War vet who thinks he’s a Confederate General, and a black man who has integrated a Southern university who thinks he’s the founder of the KKK. In the end, the reporter himself actually does go mad…and wins the Pulitzer Prize. Shock Corridor was not greeted warmly when it was released in September 1963. Two months later, the President was assassinated, and the endless high-profile convulsions of the decade began.

But when did the convulsions begin? And did they ever really end?

- Kent Jones

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11/11/2020 11:00:00 AM

A few days ago, as the election results were becoming clearer, movie lovers started to circulate relevant scenes and images—for instance, the dueling Inquirer headlines in Citizen Kane, “KANE ELECTED” and “FRAUD AT POLLS!” A few days earlier, when we saw the footage of the Biden campaign bus almost run off the road in Texas, some of us were reminded of another film reference: the carload of young Jeff Smith supporters sideswiped by the Taylor machine truck that brings the furious “David and Goliath” montage in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to a stirring close.

Today, I’m thinking of a different moment from another Frank Capra movie. It Happened One Night, which The Film Foundation helped MoMA to restore, is one of Capra’s most popular and successful films and also one of his greatest. It’s a poem of the open road. It’s a romantic comedy of enlightenment in which the man and the woman learn from each other and come together on a level playing field. And it’s a film of unparalleled warmth. The interlude on the night bus, from the singing of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” through the moment when Colbert and Gable give all their money to the starving boy and his mother, is one of the most moving passages in American cinema.

“Something that kind of disappoints me is that most of the new technology from the ’80s onwards has been about the atomization of society,” said Brian Eno in a recent Times interview. “It’s been about you being able to be more and more separate from everybody else…To be alive now is to see the possibilities of ever-increasing separateness.” The last four years have embodied some kind of culminating point in this commerce-fueled and social media-facilitated drift away from the frequently maddening but potentially creative messiness and intimacy of common life. Right now, it feels like the helium is leaking from the balloon—after all, there’s a limit to the number of ways and times you can declare your own difference. This sequence from It Happened One Night embodies a spirit directly opposed to ever-increasing separateness: human solidarity.

- Kent Jones

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10/28/2020 12:00:00 PM

The first title that was restored under the banner of The World Cinema Project in 2007 was Ahmed El-Maânouni’s Trances, or El Hal, from Morocco. The film had a very particular meaning for Martin Scorsese, who caught it for the first time in 1981 on the USA Network. It was part of a then brand new show called “Night Flight,” which ran through the late night hours and mixed music documentaries, regular segments like “New Wave Theater,” early rock videos and episodes of old Monogram movies with Bela Lugosi and cartoons from Fleischer Studios and Ub Iwerks—in the old rock clubs, the DJs used to put segments together between bands that were often comprised of films of that vintage together with music by, say, The Residents or Pere Ubu. Marty was cutting The King of Comedy by night with Thelma Schoonmaker when he saw Trances that first time, and it really obsessed him—the sound and the image.

The classification of Trances as a documentary doesn’t quite do it justice. Because the film doesn’t just document the music of the legendary band Nass El-Ghiwane, but actually responds to it: one artistic form generates another. This is broadly true of any good music documentary, but the hallucinatory flow of El-Maânouni’s images is an intimate response to the flow of the music, itself a response to the collective spirit of the nation during the first years of independence. The band, which became known as “The Rolling Stones of Morocco,” began in theatre: the band members were part of the Municipal Theatre of Casablanca in the early 70s, and their first songs were created for the company’s stage productions. Laarbi Batma, Boujemaa Hagour, Omar Essayed and Allal Yaala (Moulay Abdelaziz Tahiri joined later and Maalem Abderrahmane Baca joined in 1974 following Boujemaa’s death from lung cancer) came from all over Morocco, and they sang of everyday life, the hardships of men and woman trying to make a living—no small thing in a de-colonized monarchy. The name they gave themselves roughly translates as “disciples of the Ghiwanes,” a brotherhood of Sufi storytellers, and they drew from Berber rhythms, Melhoun sung poetry and Gnawa dances. They played only traditional acoustic instruments: bendir, sentir, frame drums, ghimbri, tambourines, derbouka, and, from the west, a fretless banjo. But as Scorsese says, the sound of their trance music is so big and powerful that you’d swear you’re hearing electric guitars. As you can see in the film, the connection between Nass El-Ghiwane and their audience ran so deep that the authorities stepped in to contain and often shut down the concerts—they’d never seen anything remotely comparable.

If you don’t know this film and the music that inspired it into being, you should sit down and watch and listen: it sings the spirit of common life at an exalted level.

- Kent Jones

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