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Archive for January, 2012

Released in 2011, The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) and Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese) are not films that I am likely to write about on this blog. My tendency is to choose films that we can use to study the past, and I prefer to write about films whose stories take place at the time of their release. Certainly there have been, and will be exceptions to this, but the goal of this blog is to look at the past through the lens (forgive the pun) of the films that were made at a particular time, as films tend to tell us more about the social, economic and political climate of the time they were made than they do about the time they depict (ergo, a 1938 film, telling a 1938 story, is fodder for discussing the issues of 1938). But this is precisely why I am writing about The Artist and Hugo. Not only do they evoke and pay homage to films of an era that is of interest to me, they effectively comment upon our (2011) ways of absorbing and interacting with media.

I very much appreciated Maureen Dowd’s analysis of The Artist and its popularity. Her December 6, 2011 New York Times column, “Silence Is Golden”, suggested that the film is a refuge from our world of constantly chattering media devices. She avoided the temptation to also see the film as an (effective) attempt at recreating the cinema of the years just before the Great Depression, and as a return to the halcyon days before economic collapse; (woe to the characters in the film who will soon experience what we are now experiencing, and on a much greater scale). Still, it is an inescapable fact that much of the film’s appeal rests in its ability to transcend time, and to tell its story with the seemingly simple cinematic techniques of 1927. (Please note my use of the word “seemingly” in the preceding sentence – it is substantially more difficult to tell a psychologically complex story without the use of sound.)

Due to economic necessity, Michel Hazanavicius certainly used the tools in his digital toolbox to create many of the visuals, but he gives the impression that The Artist is a film that could have been made late in the silent era. Martin Scorsese, however, takes a very different approach. While Hugo romanticizes the filmmaking pioneers and techniques of early cinema (pre-1908), the film clearly is not made with the techniques of the time. Instead, Scorsese pulls out all the stops and uses every toy available to the 2011 filmmaker. Hugo is very self-conscious about its use of digital imaging and processing for the re-creation of a romanticized 1930′s Paris, even using 3D to literally beat the audience over the head with this fact. One cannot mistake this for a 1930 film. And yet for all of the digital bravado, Scorsese takes the opportunity to resurrect Georges Méliès, cinema’s preeminent trick-film pioneer, and to revel in the visual effects he created with little more than stop-motion and multiple-exposure in his photographic toolbox. Hugo is a technical showcase that glorifies the filmmakers who created worlds of wonders with primitive technology, and whose achievements lay mostly with their innovation.

I have often commented that one of the problems with digital filmmaking is that the magic is gone. While 21st-century filmmakers can and do create incredible images and cinematic sequences we no longer wonder how they did it. We know. They ran it through a computer. And yet so many movies are content to use the special effects as their main selling point, and fail to develop their characters and situations in a satisfying way. Both The Artist and Hugo pull the past into the present, and show us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Their popularity attest to that as well.

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Thought to be a lost film, Breaking Home Ties was recently restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, and had its US re-premiere at the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival. While the film successfully portrays a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in a positive and sympathetic light, it does not do so without reinforcing some of the negative stereotypes and concerns that many Americans had about the immigrant population.

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Produced by Siegmund Lubin’s Betzwood Motion Picture Studios in Philadelphia, Breaking Home Ties was a response to the rising anti-semitism promoted by the Henry Ford-sponsored Dearborn Independent and the revival of the KKK, and was released 18 months after passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. Responding to increasing concerns about immigrants and the effect they were having on American society, the act, which was also known as the Emergency Quota Act, restricted immigration from Europe. As a result of the legislation, the number of immigrants to the United States fell from 805,228 in 1920 to 309,556 in 1921-22.

Breaking Home Ties is the story of David, a young Russian man who flees to America when he believes (mistakenly, it turns out) that he has murdered his best friend in a jealous rage. He works hard and becomes a successful lawyer, while his family, not knowing his whereabouts, also move to New York City and quickly fall into poverty. Through a series of Dickensian coincidences, David is reunited with his parents and the friend he believed he had murdered, and they all live happily ever after.

The filmmakers clearly intended to portray David as a smart and hard-working individual who would be an asset to American society. As a lawyer he takes on cases defending the down-trodden, and contributes generously to charitable causes. However, he is constantly haunted by the fact that he, himself, is a fugitive from justice, and struggles with his own guilt. Although the film ends with David learning that he did not murder his friend, the view that many immigrants are criminals who were forced to leave their home countries is not only acknowledged, it is not effectively countered.

The portrayal of David’s parents is even more problematic, and could be viewed as fodder for anti-immigrant activists, which would run counter to the intentions of the filmmakers. Firmly rooted in the middle class in St. Petersburg, the family comes to America and quickly falls into poverty. They are shown having difficulty adapting to life in New York, both socially and economically, and falling into illness. David’s father, who does not understand English, causes a traffic accident by steering his pushcart the wrong way on a one-way street, and his mother and adopted sister become increasingly frail and unable to help support themselves. David’s parents eventually become residents at a newly-formed Hebrew Home for the Aged, which is supported by private donations. Although they will be reunited with their son who is able to provide for them, David’s parents were destitute, and became dependent upon social services. In the parlance of the time they were charity cases, and an economic burden.

Breaking Home Ties has much to recommend it, and it is an effective drama that elicits empathy for David and his family. However, it does not avoid reminding its audience of some of the perceived problems with immigration, and reinforces some of the stereotypes that led to the passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921.

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