Pressure Point (1962)

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Co-directors Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer created a powerful and terrifying portrait of the psychology of indoctrination in the overlooked film Pressure Point. Set shortly after WWII, Bobby Darrin plays an American Nazi in prison for his role in a small riot. Bobby Darrin’s performance is as horrifying as Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho, and he proves everyone wrong who thinks that singers shouldn’t try to act.

Bobby Darrin’s character is known only as “the patient.” All the action of the film comes in the form of the relationship forced on him with the prison psychiatrist who is known only as “the doctor.” The doctor is played by Sidney Poitier in one of the strongest performances of his career. A Black psychologist was not a normal occurrence of the time as the patient makes very clear through his antagonism and attempts to manipulate his psychiatrist, wrongly assuming that the doctor is an easy target because of his skin color.

The patient refuses to cooperate with the doctor, but the doctor is so skilled at putting the pieces together of whatever his patient tells him, no matter how false, exaggerated or manipulative the patient’s words may be. Through the patient’s body language and choice of words (even when the doctor knows his patient is lying), the doctor is able to put together his patient’s story. Throughout the movie, we don’t just see what the patient tells the doctor, but we get to see what the doctor perceives. We see parts of the patient’s childhood and early adulthood. We see the whole process of his Nazi indoctrination.

When we do see the doctor and the patient together (what is actually happening instead of what the doctor is piecing together), what we see is how successfully the patient has been brainwashed by Nazi beliefs and how successful he can be at brainwashing others. Despite all his obvious racist actions and words toward his doctor, he finds an inroad to begin attempting to indoctrinate his doctor. The doctor narrates the whole story through a conversation he has with another doctor years later. At the point in the story when we realize that the patient is trying to indoctrinate his doctor, the doctor tells the other doctor in narration, “I was always scared of him, but that was the first time I knew why.”

Although both doctor and patient are fully aware of the patient’s racist attitudes against the doctor, the patient appears to candidly address the harsh realities of being a Black man in America in his attempt to plant anarchist seeds in the doctor whose life is undoubtedly touched by the harsh realities the patient is referring to. Of course, the doctor is perceptive enough to avoid those attempts at indoctrination, but when he explains the moment when he realized why he was afraid of his patient, he expresses his respect for the power of manipulating words and attitudes. He understands the dangers of listening too closely to the ideas of people who pursue control over others.

As a movie about the psychology of indoctrination, Pressure Point has a very important message for America right now. We are living under a presidential administration with close ties to white nationalist organizations, a love for “alternative facts” and a willingness to call anything “fake news” that attempts to find real facts in the midst of its lies or to call it out and hold it accountable for policies and words that are harmful to all people. It’s an indoctrination that didn’t begin with Donald Trump (I have no idea where it began), but it is certainly finding its voice and its power through him. As a nation, we need to understand how we’ve been led (through Internet, reality TV and countless other sources) to accept at face-value whatever is convenient and to reject anything true that we don’t like. The greatness of Pressure Point is its captivating way of showing the psychological process of indoctrination in a way that thrills us and also educates us so that we can see where we may be vulnerable.

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Safety Last (1923)

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The picture of Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock of a skyscraper is one of the most famous scenes in movie history. But many (if not a majority) of the people who recognize this scene have never watched the movie in its entirety. Hollywood artists have depicted the scene in paintings and murals. The two main characters of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo are seen together at the movie and Hugo‘s audience gets to see both the scene from Safety Last and the kids’ reaction to it. That wonderful reaction of Hugo and his friend is a reaction of shock, awe, fear and joy. That multilayered reaction is a pretty universal one to this great scene, but it’s only possible when seen in the context of the full movie.

Harold Lloyd is generally thought of as the least of the three great silent comedians behind Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Overall, I would agree with that, yet I would argue that Safety Last, unquestionably Lloyd’s best film, is actually a better movie than any of Chaplin’s or Keaton’s silent films. The whole movie builds up to the famous scene, but it is a complete and surprisingly profound story that leads up to the greatest action sequence in film history.

Harold (the character Harold Lloyd plays) is a reluctant criminal; we see him released from prison in the opening scene and find out that his crimes were the result of his attempt to stay alive during the Great Depression. After being released from prison, he is reunited with his fiancé and obtains a job instantly. As he struggles at his job, it becomes apparent that he learned how to be a successful criminal in prison. The illegal activities that got him in prison were matters of survival, but after serving his sentence he had become accustomed to crookedness, deceit and dehumanization as the perceived ways to get ahead in life.

So from the beginning of the movie Harold’s got a job and he’s got a girl. The trick is keeping them both. Everything Harold does throughout the movie is an attempt to keep his job and his girl. When he runs into a problem that makes him unsure how to keep one or the other, he turns to the means he learned in prison. He’s a good guy, and his motives are clearly good, but he needs to learn that the ends don’t justify the means. And he does learn this, but he learns it in a very hard way. He chooses a death-defying feat that he has no experience in instead of being honest about his struggles.

Like I said, Harold does learn that the ends don’t justify the means, but the other characters of the movie have to learn something else first. They have to learn that Harold’s lies and insubordination are his learned way of coping, not intentional acts of aggression. Once they learn this, they become the same  people that come to his aid when he begins his feat of epic foolishness. But even though Harold has learned about himself and others have learned about him through this act, the movie is relentless in its action, so that we never know whether or not everybody learned what they needed to in time to save Harold. Every step he takes is one that could cause him to plummet to his death, but every step includes a window that he could find his escape through. Every part of the stunt which  lasts about 15 minutes is intense and thrilling. No car chase, gunfight or other fight sequence in the movies has ever been as thrilling as these last 15 minutes of Safety Last.

Harold’s whole journey in the movie is an attempt to live in the free world after being institutionalized. The movie deals with the concept of institutionalization better than any other movie except for The Shawshank Redemption. Through all the action and the comedy of the movie, we are taken on a spiritual journey with Harold as he learns to understand what is truly right and wrong and who he truly is instead of how the prison he was confined in defined him.

Lifeboat (1944)

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Most of John Steinbeck’s writing does not seem well fitted for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. John Ford was the most common director to adapt Steinbeck’s novels and short stories. But after returning home after WWII, Steinbeck wrote a story that he intended to become a movie, and he wanted Hitchcock to direct it. Set entirely on a lifeboat, Steinbeck wrote about situations like what he experienced at war. Hitchcock was able to create all the tension and suspense he had done in his previous masterpieces Rebecca (1940), Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Yet filming this story was a milestone in Hitchcock’s career as it was his first (and best) film set entirely in the same space, something he did later with Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).

What makes Lifeboat such a powerful movie is the sense of claustrophobia it creates much like Christopher Nolan’s WWII movie Dunkirk last year. We are immersed into exactly what the characters experience. While Dunkirk immersed us into a battle of the war itself, Lifeboat takes us to sea and introduces us to all the fears and moral dilemmas associated with being trapped as these characters are.

Connie Potter (Tallulah Bankhead) is a journalist covering the war and is the first person to board the lifeboat. She’s already on board in the opening scene. We see that she has boarded with her camera, film, typewriter and even her mink coat. When soldiers escaping from the same ship begin to climb aboard, they’re obviously offended by her pursuit of comfort in such harrowing circumstances. She’s obviously putting her comfort before the needs of anyone else, not even offering help to those who need to be on board. But there’s much more to the tension than that offense. Could she be working in connection with enemy forces? Questions like these mean that every decision the crew makes is a decision of life and death, but they never know which decision means life and which decision means death until after they’ve made their choice.

Once Connie loses all the belongings she brought on the lifeboat with her, she begins to shed her self-centeredness and actually becomes the one most concerned with the survival of the others, but this transformation is completely believable and never sappy. Her own need awakens her to the needs of others and makes her want to lead the crew to safety for the sake of the whole crew, not just her own wellbeing. But then there’s Willie. A German captain floats by just about ready to drown, and they let him in. But the crew is divided on whether they should throw him overboard or let him join them. Like all the others, the decision is a life or death matter for the whole crew, but no one really knows which is the right one.

The moral dilemmas these crew members face are the center of the action and suspense, again making this a landmark moment in Hitchcock’s career. He would continue this theme of suspense flowing out of moral confusion in some of his other best movies like Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958). Lifeboat is different from all other Hitchcock films, though, in its appeal to all emotions. As the master of suspense, Hitchcock always tried to incite “high anxiety” as the title of Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody implies. Hitchcock’s dark sense of humor brings feelings of enjoyable discomfort in almost every one of his movies. But in Lifeboat, he explores the whole gamut of human emotion.

We feel the hopelessness of some who think they will never get off the lifeboat mixed with the hopefulness of those who continue to plan and expect great things from their lives after this experience is over. One of the people on board is a woman who tried to meet her husband while he was on R&R so that she could show him their baby, but after her rescue on the lifeboat she’s traumatized to the point of delusion (something most of the characters experience at some point or another). So we feel the trauma, the disorientation and the deep sense of loss and grief associated with these traumas. But there are also attempts on the lifeboat to find some semblance of normal life, and in these attempts we even have times where we feel joy, warmth and camaraderie with those on the boat.

What John Steinbeck and Alfred Hitchcock created in Lifeboat is an opportunity for viewers to feel some of what Steinbeck felt at war. It puts us in the position of Connie, the journalist, confronting us with how willing we are to empathize with people caught in situations where every decision is a matter of life or death. If we’re quick to disagree or be offended with the decision made or suggested, we may not be able to grow as people like Connie did. That kind of growth is exactly what this movie is aimed at for its viewers and exactly what it can accomplish if we watch it with an openness to confront how we view the world around us and how we judge the actions and decisions of others.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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Most movie versions of the Robin Hood legends are so full of swashbuckling that the richness of the story and its picture of justice are all but lost. But Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) captured everything that a Robin Hood story is supposed to be without compromising the swashbuckling in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Eroll Flynn at the center of some of the greatest action and some of the most captivating drama ever filmed.

This version of the story’s Marian, played by Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit), is initially averse to Robin because she’s been raised to believe that only Normans like her are real English people. Since Robin is a Saxon, she assumes that he’s nothing but a thief, murderer and troublemaker. Of course it’s Robin that opens her heart, but in this movie version he opens her heart to much more than himself and the possibility of romance between a Norman and a Saxon. He opens her heart to empathy for the less fortunate, the equality of all people and the need for justice.

Marian awakens from the sleep of assuming that her ways and her people are always right because Robin shows her the results of the oppression her people has caused. When she sees the depth of the poverty and suffering that the Saxons experience at the hands of the Normans, she tells Robin that he’s very odd. He retorts by asking, “because I care that people are suffering injustice?” And Marian finishes the conversation by saying, “No. You’re odd because you want to do something about it.”

Marian’s worldview was shaped by the assumption that her leaders are always right. So even once she realized that they weren’t, it was very difficult for her to begin fighting for what was right even though she now understood that her life had been built on unjust lies. Not until she stops understanding the Saxons as her people and can view all people as her people can she truly join Robin in his genuine pursuit of justice.

The type of awakening to justice that Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood allows to witness through Marian is exactly what is needed in much of America right now. We’ve seen horrible images and heard horrible sounds of children torn apart from their parents at the borders and a president who ridiculously reversed his own policy through an unnecessary executive order that shows no compassion for people but only his desire to prevent people from thinking any differently about him than how he wants them to think. As we’ve seen all this unfold, we’ve seen a large group of Christians that wants to hypocritically condemn these actions but stand by their beloved hypocritical president at the same time. We’ve seen another group of Christians, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who simply doesn’t care as long as the law is being followed (pay no attention to the fact that there never was a law saying this should happen). Just like Sessions, they hide behind their interpretations Scriptures that talk about obedience to authority without any context to what those passages are actually saying.

Just as Maid Marian realized she was wrong for following such a corrupt and oppressive governmental system and that she needed to begin siding for what is right, so much of the American Christian church today needs to recognize the hypocrisy, terrorism and compulsive lies of Donald J. Trump for exactly what they are and run as far from them as possible in order to be true to words of the Bible they claim to hold so dear. To do this is to care for the “least of these” as Jesus himself commanded, even if it violates law or presidential policy. Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is a very nice parallel to what it will look like if these Christians finally turn from the evils of Donald Trump and live lives of love, charity and justice as commanded in the Bible.

Boys n the Hood (1991)

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John Singleton’s Boys n the Hood is possibly the most important, most thoughtful and best coming-of-age story ever put on film. It centers around the two relationships that form the life of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.). First is his relationship with his father Furious (Lawrence Fishburn), and second is his relationship with his gang-influenced neighborhood.

In the movie’s opening scene, we see Tre around age 11 in a fight at his school, where he was very much in the right. But he had made an agreement with his mother that if he ever got into a fight, he would have to go live with his father. He was scared to go live with his father, but his mother’s decision was not a punishment for getting into a fight but the necessary action of a mother. She made the agreement with her son, because she understood his involvement in fights as evidence that he needed his father to raise him, to teach him how to be a man. And this is exactly what we see happen throughout the rest of the movie.

Through his own actions and experience, Furious teaches his son how to become a good man in difficult surroundings. He shows him how the gang mentalities that have infiltrated the neighborhood are the results of systemic racism, but he never allows anyone, especially his son, to use that as an excuse to give into the hopelessness or violence of the hood. Furious teaches that the police are to be feared and respected, both for the good they are supposed to do as well for the racial bias and brutality more often experienced in the hood than any good, recognizing that Tre could be a victim of police brutality at any time just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the perfect touches of the film is how every time police officers are present, the camera always ironically emphasizes the words on the police car that say “to protect and serve” while showing police behavior that does the opposite.

Because everything that Furious teaches his son is based on his own experience, the fact that Tre was born when Furious was 17 is the anchor of every aspect of the father-son relationship. Their talks about sex are very frank but surprisingly conservative. Tre is surrounded by teens that have become parents. He knows he would never be one of the fathers around him who abandons his child/children and their mothers, but he also knows that an unwanted pregnancy would be devastating to his dreams of getting out of the hood. Just as Furious teaches Tre an appropriate fear for the gangs and the police, he also teaches him an appropriate fear of sex. The best line in the movie is when Furious says, “any fool with a d*** can make a baby, but only a real man can be a father.” Whenever the two are together, Furious lives this and shows his son how to as well.

The other formative relationship for Tre, his relationship with the hood, is the test of how well he applies everything he learns from his father. His dismissals of the most notorious gangster in the neighborhood, Doughboy (Ice Cube), shows how well he’s trying. His genuine love and respect of his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) looks completely different from any of the romantic/sexual relationships in the hood. But the fact that Doughboy’s brother is Tre’s best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is where the rubber meets the road for Tre. The scenes that keep us asking whether or not Tre will listen to the voice of his father when confronted by the voice of the hood when it comes to all he experiences in his friendship with Ricky are handled in way almost like a thriller. We are so invested in Tre’s wellbeing that his deliberations over life-altering decisions are some of the most intense and exciting moments the movies have ever brought us. Boyz n the Hood transcends both coming-of-age and gangster film genres by taking us directly into the life of a kid living in the hood who wants to stay separate from that same hood. Its political and racial implications are very important for the America we live in 27 years later. Its philosophical and spiritual implications are universal, confronting all viewers with the questions of how and why we make the decisions we do and what are the voices we listen to and value that inform those decisions.

 

The Band’s Visit (2007)

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On Sunday night, the 72nd annual Tony Awards were held for the best shows of the 2017-18 Broadway theater season. The big winner was a new musical based on the delightful 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit. The movie opens with a disclaimer that what we’re about to see are things that happened that don’t matter much. I can’t help but imagine how much better Hollywood would be if it approached true stories in this way instead of the heavy-handed way it usually does with the tag “based on a true story” used to hype its self-importance.

Because The Band’s Visit makes no pretentious of importance, it charms us, entertains us  and eases us into its profound message always buried deep beneath the surface of the enchanting comedy we’re given. The events the movie depicts center around a military band getting stranded, certainly living up to the disclaimer that the events don’t matter much. But because the band is an Egyptian military band stranded in Israel, the seemingly unimportant events show how sometimes the things that seem most trivial can have an impact far beyond what we realize.

The Egyptian band members are forced to accept the hospitality of the Israeli restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). They don’t speak each other’s language, but everybody involved knows enough English to get by during this encounter. Perhaps the most inventive aspect of the movie made entirely in non-English-speaking countries is something that can be best appreciated by native English speakers. Of course we get English subtitles whenever the Egyptians are talking amongst themselves and whenever the Israelis are talking amongst themselves, but we also get English subtitles whenever Egyptian characters and Israeli characters are speaking to each other in English. We need this because the people of both original languages speak a broken English that is very different from the other’s broken English. The English language is their only way to communicate with each other, yet they have each learned the language differently and express themselves so differently that the Israeli-English and Egyptian-English we hear spoken throughout the movie sound like two different languages.

These differences in how the Israelis and Egyptians express themselves in English is highlighted through the English subtitles we see that express the intent of what the characters are trying to say more than the words they use that are based on their limitations of speaking a second language. These differences are the very heart of the movie as its source of some of the funniest moments in any movie I’ve ever seen (particularly the moment when an Egyptian character tries to woo an Israeli character by impressing her with his skills in the English language proclaiming, “You have eyes”). These differences are also the source of all the genuine warmth that The Band’s Visit has to offer. These characters work very hard to bridge gaps to be able to communicate with each other. The movie doesn’t introduce us to any of the political conflict of the Arab-Israeli world, but that conflict is the backdrop for introducing us to a group of people on both sides of the conflict who did not allow their politics to determine how they view each other. All through a seemingly unimportant accident, lives intersected that aren’t usually supposed to intersect.

One of the winners of Sunday night’s Tony Awards described the story of The Band’s Visit very simply as a picture of Arabs and Israelis getting along with each other, something we desperately need. He’s absolutely right, and the simplicity of the story is its power. Because it doesn’t take itself seriously and allows the importance and the humanity of the story to all flow out of its humor, director Eran Kolirin made a movie that, despite its opening disclaimer, is very important in an extremely subtle, artistic and hilarious way.

Holiday (1938)

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In the adaptation of Phillip Barry’s play Holiday directed by George Cuckor (GaslightA Star Is Born), Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond) plays a woman blinded by love, but not in any way like most movies, especially most screwball romantic comedies in the 1930s. She’s so blinded by the love she has for her sister that she sees her sister how she wants to see her rather than seeing her for who she really is. Both Linda (Hepburn) and her sister Julia (Doris Nolan) are trapped in their family’s slavery to riches and high society. Linda wants out so badly that she assumes her sister does too, especially when Julia introduces the family to the man she intends to marry who has the same ideals as Linda. The problem is both Linda and Julia’s fiancee Johnny, played by Cary Grant (Notorious) assume that Julia wants the same freedom from a culture that prizes wealth above all else, but when she’s offered the opportunity to obtain that freedom, they realize she doesn’t want it at all and that she doesn’t really love Johnny the way they thought they she did.

This is a problem for Linda because she’s so blinded by her love for Julia that goes to great lengths to make sure that the wedding between Julia and Johnny happens despite all the objections of their father and despite her own romantic feelings for Johnny. She’s willing to sacrifice everything she wants to give her sister what she thinks her sister wants. These predicaments are all founded on the division within the Seaton family (Linda’s & Julia’s family) that most of them don’t even realize is there.

The head of the Seaton family tells Julia that “there’s a spirit of rioting in the world that I don’t like, it doesn’t care about money, it’s un-American.” He’s right about that spirit’s existence, but he doesn’t realize how much it has taken hold of his family, and most of all he doesn’t realize that it’s a rebellion that needs to happen and that he’s the one who’s wrong. Linda and her brother Ned (Lew Ayres in one of the greatest movie depictions of an alcoholic) are the rioters. When Julia (who, like her father, doesn’t like the “spirit of rioting”) brings Johnny into the picture, that “spirit of rotting” is given free reign to take hold of the family. Of course, most of the family won’t allow it, but when Linda does through turning from the blind devotion of her sister and transfers her affections to the man she spends most of the movie trying to get to marry her sister, freedom is achieved.

The title refers to Johnny’s philosophy for his life. Because of his unfortunate life circumstances, he’s worked since he was 10 building up enough money in savings for a holiday beginning in his 30s to extend as long as the money lasts. He’s not going to be bound by money. But the holiday isn’t laziness. It’s introspection, it’s a spiritual search for who he is with the intention of working again some day knowing that his money won’t last forever. But once he starts working again, he believes that he’ll know more of who he is and what he’s working for. The movie brilliantly and comically shows characters on a spiritual journey to freedom from materialism and the stubbornness and even unintentional hatred of those trapped by materialism.