Nothing But the Movies
Occasionally, you see – I do, anyway – films so different from each other that you could almost forget they belong to the same medium. I had that experience recently, with two works that I’m very glad I saw, even if one of them is a little hard to recommend.
In Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), which is set in a small town in the Deep South and has a mostly black cast, the words “civil rights” do not pass any character’s lips; but the movie is a powerful reminder of why that movement mattered so much, and an even more powerful evocation of attitudes that no legislation could penetrate. Above all, it’s a deeply human and moving story. Ivan Dixon plays Duff, an itinerant laborer who, in spite of himself, is so smitten with a schoolteacher, Josie (played by the singer Abbey Lincoln), that he decides to settle down with her. That’s when his troubles start, not because he isn’t suited to marriage – it turns out that he is – but because he must now hold a steady job; in this town, for a black man, that means swallowing a daily dose of humiliation, and as Duff tells his preacher father-in-law, “It’s not in me.” As Duff loses one job after another for refusing to take crap from racists, his frustration grows, to the point where his marriage suffers; he starts to treat his wife in ways that are beneath him, because he is, after all, not a saint – he is nothing but a man. The ending pulls off the trick of being positive but unforced. Dixon and Lincoln are both very good, and the supporting players inspire a round of “Oh, him!” – black actors I recognize from 1970s TV shows and movies, but younger here than I’ve ever seen them. There was Mel Stewart, Archie Bunker’s neighbor on All in the Family; there was Yaphet Kotto, later of Homicide and other fame; there was Julius Harris, from too many shows and films to count; and in the credits, though I missed her, is Esther Rolle from Good Times.
And now for the film I loved but am reluctant to recommend: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is an attractive widow living in an apartment in Brussels with her high-school-age son. This experimental, three-hour-plus film has a form but not a plot. The action, if it can be called that, is divided into days. For long, often wordless stretches we watch, sometimes from beginning to end, as Jeanne performs the chores that take up but don’t fill her days: washing dishes, making meatloaf, shopping. The only activities treated elliptically and discreetly are Jeanne’s appointments with men – sex clients – in her home. Perhaps you’re starting to understand why I’m not urging you to rush out and rent this.
And yet. Jeanne Dielman’s extremely slow rhythms operate as a kind of hypnosis. (The moment I became aware of the magic at work here was when I paused the DVD to heat up something in the microwave and felt as if I were still watching the film, or had stepped into it.) Stripped of the surface conflict that is the currency of most movies, Jeanne Dielman creates an atmosphere so hermetic that you feel the slightest accident – a slip of a kitchen knife, say – might stop your heart; watching Jeanne peel potatoes is excruciating, and not for the reason (i.e., boredom) you might think. If you make it to the end of Jeanne Dielman, there is a payoff and a half. In the meantime, as you watch Jeanne’s solitariness, listen in on her limited communication with the son she clearly loves, and see the stoicism that ever so slowly cracks, you begin to feel an inexplicable affection for this character whom you barely even hear speak.
* * *
Just to prove I actually live in the twenty-first century I saw this year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist. I enjoyed it, at least while I was watching it; but from the distance of a few days, I’d say the prize went to the wrong movie. Of the nominees I saw, I’d give it to The Tree of Life.