Friday, February 29, 2008

One Last Bit Of Black History

By Odienator

De Lawd, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit not to grant me the opportunity to get to know my grandparents. By the time I was 5, they were all gone. My paternal grandfather shuffled off his mortal coil before I had the chance to put mine on, and his wife not too long after that. My maternal grandfather died when I was 1-1/2, and I've no recollection of him whatsoever. I find him living in my memory only in the stories my mother and aunts used to tell me about the things he told them and the things he did. I am especially fond of a parable of sorts he told about this old lady who came to a wake with a bowl of soup. When I recall that story, I see my grandfather in my head, based on a picture my Mom had of him, and I imagine what he'd sound like as he told it to me.

With my maternal grandmother, I was granted a little Mercy from above. She lived long enough for me to etch her permanently into my brain, but only in one fleeting memory and two that overflow with detail. It's only fitting that, for someone who loves movies, my fondest and most vivid memory of my grandmother was her telling me about a movie.

In my grandmother's house was a windy, steep set of wooden stairs that led to the second of three floors. Right off the stairs, to the left, was my grandmother's room. Her door was open, and I found her sitting in a room that smelled of incense and sounded like Mahalia Jackson. My grandmother was very religious, and she burned candles and was always listening to gospel music. I was angry when I visited her, my behind still stinging from my mother popping me on it because she overheard me saying "shit." I was upset that my Mom beat my ass, so I went to do what kids always did--I went to tattle on her. I had no power over my mother, but HER mother certainly did. My mother was like a Hebrew National frank: she was about to answer to an even higher authority. I stormed upstairs, and into my grandmother's room, fixing to get my mother in serious trouble!

I found my grandmother sitting on her bed, reading her Bible. She patted the bed next to her and I hopped on it. I can still smell the incense in the room and hear Mahalia singing the song I make so much fun of, In The Upper Room. She had very long, very dark hair that she'd put up in a bun. She was half Cherokee Indian, I was told, which explained not only her hair but her physical features as well. She was obviously Black, but obviously something else as well.

"Mum," I said, as we called her what her children always called her, "your daughter hit me!" She said, in a stern voice, "alright, well I'll take care of her." She then asked me if I loved my mother and I said "No! Not right now." "Let me tell you a story," she whispered to me. "You should always love your mother and this is why."

Now, I was a hyper kid. I couldn't sit still, and any amount of sugar turned me into the Tasmanian Devil. But if you told me a story, I'd sit with rapt attention. I think this is why I was always being told stories by my aunts. They were great stories, and I have gleefully robbed their style and shaped it into my own. This is also why movies mesmerized me. I sat through the entire screening of Gone With the Wind on its 35th anniversary release. That was 1974, the same year my grandmother told me the one story I remember from her.

My grandmother, who must have known I loved movies, told me about a movie she watched years ago, about a mother whose daughter didn't love her. As a result, the mother died of a broken heart, and when the daughter came back to see her, it was too late. All she could do was lean on the casket and tell her mother she was sorry. "But the mother was gone," she told me, "and she couldn't hear her." "Wow," I said. She told me that the mother had the grandest funeral ever given a cullud woman, and that her friend Lana Turner was there. I remember her saying Lana Turner, because I thought she was related to Tina Turner. "So you should always love your mother," Mum concluded, "and tell her all the time. Because she won't hear you when she's gone."

That's where the memory ends.

When I was about 7 or 8, I discovered that Lana Turner looked nothing like Tina Turner. On WPIX in NYC, they used to run Madame X, a 1966 throwback to the women's weepies of the 40's. Lana Turner was on trial, and Keir Dullea was her lawyer. He defended her in a murder trial with no idea that she was the mother who had given him up. I watched this every time it came on. At the end of the movie, Turner buys the farm. While melodramatic music played, I sat there and cried like a baby.

One day PIX decided to really give me something to cry about--they ran the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. My older cousins watched with me, and my eldest cousin warned me that it was going to be very sad. Of course, I thought, it's got Lana Turner in it! (Imagine my surprise when I saw The Postman Always Rings Twice.) When the movie was over, my cousins were crying, but not as hard as I was. I had made the connection that this was the movie my grandmother told me about, and at that moment I seared that memory in my brain, holding on to it for dear life. The moment of revelation was astonishing, something I'd never experienced before. I was too young to fully understand most of the plot, but when Susan Kohner leaned against Juanita Moore's coffin, it felt like a bolt of lightning went through me. I missed my grandmother. I wasn't just crying for Annie Johnson.

PIX ran Imitation a lot, and as I got older I acquired an additional set of emotional responses as I understood the plot. The Lana Turner version was a remake of the Claudette Colbert-Louise Beavers original from 1934, itself based on a best selling novel by Fannie Hurst. It was directed by Douglas Sirk, a director I would grow to love simply because his movies were never about what they appeared to be. He was always running a side hustle, sneakily slipping it in when nobody was looking. Todd Haynes got it right in his homage to Sirk, Far From Heaven, and Fassbinder did too, with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a remake of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows that owes more to its source material than Sirk's detractors will give it.

On its surface, Imitation of Life is about an actress named Laura (Lana Turner), her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Steve Archer (John Gavin), and her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). Laura has living with her a Black woman she befriended named Annie (Juanita Moore), whose daughter Sarah Jane, is light enough to pass for White. As a kid, Sarah Jane rejects her Blackness, constantly saying that she's White. The movie seems to treat this as a small story in service to the Lana Turner arc. Annie has characteristics of a Mammy character, though something in the movie feels off about that description. In fact, if one pays close attention, the entire main story seems off.

The White story at the front of Imitation of Life is shallow. The performances are good, but these people are in a bizarre dance of repetition. As she becomes more and more successful, Laura keeps pushing away the men who love her, Steve keeps hanging around, and Susie has moments of pure annoyance. Meanwhile, in the background, Sirk is going "pssst! Look over here! This story's more interesting." At first, it's not evident; we think the movie is primarily about Laura's rise to stardom as a glamorous actress. But by the end of the film, Sirk has switched the story completely, and we realize it's been about the secondary characters of Annie and Sarah Jane all along.

Imitation of Life is fascinated with identity, both in its story and in its scene construction. Sirk is always reminding us of the passing for White story, even when the characters aren't on the screen. There are mirrors everywhere in this film, and every character has at least one scene where he or she is reflected in something. Whenever Turner turns down someone who loves her, she has a mirror scene. When Sarah Jane's White boyfriend finds out she's really Black, the majority of the scene is reflected in a store window. When Annie comes to see her daughter for the last time, they are both reflected in Sarah Jane's apartment mirror. And when Annie is on her deathbed, her reflection is seen in glimpses of the picture frame that houses Sarah Jane's picture. Sirk, being an emotional masochist, makes that picture the center of attention when Annie dies.

Sirk also has his cin-togger shoot people's faces in artificial shadow quite a bit, then has them emerge into light. When Turner kisses the writer (Dan O'Herlihy) she has thrown Steve over for, Sirk shoots the kiss with their faces in total darkness, then has the characters turn directly into the light. Since the film has a glossy, bright sheen to it most of the time, these moments call attention to themselves.

Sirk couldn't just do a movie about Annie and Sarah Jane. The studio wouldn't have funded it and nobody would have gone to see it. Instead he makes the front story so paper thin that we have no other choice but to focus on the more ominous back story. He even has stronger musical cues when things happen in the Annie-Sarah Jane arc of the story.

When Annie is on her deathbed, Oscar nominee Juanita Moore milks it for all it's worth. I've heard her character being called a Noble Negro, but this isn't true; Noble Negroes suffer so that the White characters can learn something. Annie suffers and dies so that a BLACK character can learn something. As that Black character, Oscar nominated White actress Susan Kohner is a real bitch, but oddly enough, she's the most developed character in the film. She's the one character who undergoes the biggest change, and the character most affected by what happens. She has the makings of a tragic mulatto, but it's her emotional response that drives the movie's final point home. "I killed my mother," she tells Laura, and as much as you want to feel hatred for her (and I did), you also feel some pity at the price she paid for hiding her identity. And the funeral they throw Annie is grand indeed. White horses pulling her casket down the street as a band plays music. Mahalia Jackson shows up to sing during the service, and that's the moment in the movie I lose it. No matter how many times I've seen it, I still lose it.

My grandfather told this parable: One day a woman showed up at a wake with a bowl of soup. As she was heading toward the casket she was stopped. "Ethel," another mourner said, "what the hell are you going to do with that soup?" She said, "I was bringing some for Tom." "But Tom's dead!" said the mourner. "Yeah, I know," said Ethel, "but if he can smell all those damn flowers, he can eat some of this here soup."

The moral, my grandfather said, was "give me my flowers while I can smell them, because I can't when I'm lying in my casket." I think that was the message my grandmother imparted to me, in a way I could understand, that is, through a movie. It's indicative of how I see and relate to movies, and how I wanted to bring movies to Black History Mumf. I didn't want to do a scholarly analysis, because that bores the shit out of me and I don't pull the wings off my movies. Instead, I wanted to somehow convey the nostalgic and emotional response I have to movies, past and present. That's how I absorb what I see on the screen. I don't go looking for answers, I bring them with me and hope that something in a film will touch an emotional nerve based on my own experiences. I'll leave the theoretical analysis to the arts majors.


So that's all folks. Black History Mumf is officially over, and I can return this lovely blog back to Steven Boone. Thanks to Boone for letting me do this crazy experiment, and for all the people who have read my month-long ramblings. I appreciate all the posts and all the conversations I've had with people, privately and out here at Big Media Vandalism. I'm sure this isn't the last you've seen of the Odienator here.

For now, I tip my fedora and bow out gracefully. Thank you all.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Great stuff, Odie. It's been a pleasure reading it all.

odienator said...

Thanks, Matt. I miss it already.

Steven Boone said...

Miss what? Brother, this is as much your blog as mine now.

Sirk's deceptive style is yours, too. Surfaces, layers, reflections and always a beautiful bait-and-switch that leaves the reader in tears. As for Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder's shots in that movie are like your sentences: clear, bright, direct, quietly devastating.

Your deceptive "surface" is the fact that you're a hilarious mofo.

[Grandiose portion --->] While you (temporarily?) deprive the world of novels, screenplays and memoirs, at least I now have 29-entry digest of your brilliance to point people to.

This is the first time in my life that Black History Month (sic) has actually inspired me.

Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed all of this month's posts. Great work.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your Black History month odienator!

It was great to read about the films you covered from your unique and very personal vantage point

In all honesty, I often get tired of reading about films from the white/male perspective so I try to look for alternatives and you provided one in February that I definitely appreciated.


odienator said...

cinebeats, thanks for the comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the series.I put a lot of heart and Soul (notice, there's no (TM) after Soul--that's because mine's REAL!) into it. I've gone back to read some of your stuff (it's how I found the link I put in my Mahogany review), and you too have a distinct take on things that I've enjoyed. Thanks again!

Brother Boone, you got thirty pieces from me (you'll see when I post a one page link to them all later). They always shortchangin' a bruva. :)

Seriously, your kind words mean a lot. If this short, one-man attempt to elevate Black History Mumf doesn't get me on Oprah (not like that, damn!), hopefully it'll get me on 106th and I can blast BET on BET! With my luck, they'll shoot me in my ass.

Ali Arikan said...

A big hand to you, Odie. This was a brilliant project.

Anonymous said...

a fantastic month of material, huge respect.

Bill said...

Here's hoping we can make every month Black History Mumf

Machelle said...

Wonderful! I am so grateful.

Phil said...

Yes. Thank you very much. The insights, memories, and humor have brought a lot of good things to my attention, and helped me see some things I thought were familiar in new ways.

There are now a dozen films in my Netflix queue that I have not seen and that would not have gotten there otherwise. Imitation of Life is near the top. ...and if I ever meet a guy selling bootleg Soul Train DVDs, I'll be sure to look down the street, both ways, carefully, before making a purchase.