Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean"

The following routine from Abbott & Costello's The Naughty Nineties (1945) is one of my all-time favorites.  

The routine was performed eight years earlier by Louise Fazenda in the Warner Brothers musical Ready, Willing and Able (1937).

Video Problems Corrected

Technical issues prevented site visitors from playing video clips on recent articles.  The problem has been corrected.  I apologize for the inconvenience.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

French Farce Sparks Debate

The French comedy The Intouchables (2011) has broken box office records throughout Europe and has won multiple awards, including three Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix awards and a César Award for Best Actor.  But this crowd-pleasing film has run into a controversy now that it has arrived in the United States. 

The film's slight plot gives no hint of controversial subject matter.  Philippe (François Cluzet), a wealthy man who is quadriplegic as the result of a paragliding accident, is conducting interviews at his mansion to find a live-in caretaker.  Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese immigrant from the Paris ghettos, has just been released from prison after completing a six-month sentence for robbery.  He applies for the caretaker job only because he needs a signature on the rejection slip to qualify for unemployment benefits.  He is surprised when Philippe, who likes Driss' candor and fervor, accepts him for the job. 

The film finds a great deal of humor in a culture clash that develops between these two very different men.  In the end, the odd couple have a profound effect on each other’s lives.  Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote, "Driss' infectious bonhomie makes him indispensable to Philippe, encouraging him in romance and generally blowing fresh air into the stolid household with his crude but warmhearted manners."  In turn, Philippe teaches Driss about the pleasures of fine art, the exhilaration of paragliding, and the rewards of personal responsibility.  The story is based on the true-life relationship of a wealthy French quadriplegic and his Algerian caretaker depicted in a 2004 documentary called A La Vie, A La Mort.

Stephen Cole of Canada's The Globe and the Mail, described the film as a "brazen hybrid" of Driving Miss Daisy (mutually rewarding friendship develops between a wealthy, infirm widow and her black caretaker) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (true story of a paralyzed man who rises above his disabilities).  The film, though, is probably more of the former than the latter.  Roger Ebert wrote, "It might help to think of The Intouchables as a French spinoff of Driving Miss Daisy, retitled Pushing Monsieur Philippe."

So, what is the controversy?

Kate Taylor of the Globe and Mail wrote, "American critics have been very uncomfortable with the depiction of Driss as someone utterly lacking in cultural knowledge and basic manners. . ."  As an example, Taylor brings up a scene in which Driss "disrupts an opera performance with loud, derisive laughter."   This is what caused him to laugh.

 It is a man dressed as a tree.  Can you blame him for laughing?  

Jon Frosch of The Atlantic complained that the film “leans … heavily on regressive culture-clash shtick and unimaginative stereotypes.”  More heated criticism came from Weissberg.  He did not bother to mince words when he wrote, "Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor.  It's painful to see Sy, a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."

The filmmakers, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, have insisted that it was their intention to make a statement about cultural co-existence.  Toledano vehemently disagrees with Weissberg's assessment of the dance scene.  “[It's] the scene where he dances that won Omar his César,” he said, “It’s an act of friendship, the guy has no arms and legs, so Driss is his arms and legs.”

Driss in fact gets everyone at the party to dance and he clearly does this as an act of friendship.  He comes across admirably in the scene due equally to his smooth moves and his good intentions.

French journalists have responded to the criticism by accusing American journalists of being overly sensitive with issues of race and being obsessed with political correctness.  François Durpaire, author of "L'Amérique de Barack Obama," cannot see how these critics have reason to accuse the film of expressing unfair bias towards the character of Driss when the character is not portrayed in a negative manner.

I wrote in "The Funny Parts" about the way in which the comic servants of the Commedia dell'arte and the superstitious black slave characters in minstrel shows became entangled together in silent film.  Something similar happened in this situation.  Two tropes joined together into one.  Let us examine those tropes separately.

The idea of a rich man welcoming a poor man into his home and the poor man changing the lives of the people in the home goes back to Jean Renoir's Boudu saved from Drowning (1932).  The story, which originated in a 1919 play, was designed to mock class differences.  This premise turned up in other films, including My Man Godfrey (1936) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).

Boudu saved from Drowning was a pointed satire.  Boudu, a despondent tramp, is ungrateful when a well-to-do bookseller stops him from drowning himself in the Seine.  The bookseller's family adopts the unmannerly tramp with the intention of making a good gentleman out of him, but he resists every effort to tame him.  In the end, he is irredeemable, unchangeable, and uncompromised. 

In the same way, it is Driss' standing in society that matters most in The Intouchables.  His race is incidental, which the filmmakers make clear by substituting the original story's Algerian immigrant with a Senegalese immigrant.  But it is not as if the Driss character is used to convey a great social message.  Driss undergoes more of a refinement than Boudu in Boudu saved from Drowning but less of a refinement than Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play Pygmalion.  Not that he needs much refinement.  He doesn't need elocution lessons like Eliza.  He doesn't need a shave or stylish new clothes like Boudu.  More important, he is not the irrepressible hedonistic beast that Boudu is.  Boudu is quick to seduce the family's maid.  In contrast, Driss fails miserably in his feeble efforts to seduce Philippe's lovely assistant (Audrey Fleurot).  It must be said in his defense, though, that the assistant turns out to be a lesbian.

The Intouchables has been so successful because, simply, it is a feel-good film about friendship.  Bill Goodykoontz of USA Today found that, although the story is lacking in tension and progresses in a safe and predictable manner, Cluzet and Sy are "so infectiously likable" that the film rises above its story problems.

Durpaire believes that, if this film is racist, then many of Eddie Murphy's films are racist.  This black man from a low-income background is entranced by his splendid new living quarters, including a luxury bathtub.

Where have I seen that before?

Oh, right, Murphy's Trading Places (1983).

Detractors are also bothered by the fact that Driss follows in the tradition of the subservient black character who is entirely too virtuous and helpful.  This brings us to the second trope - the Magic Negro.

Rita Kempley wrote in a 2003 article "'Magic Negro' Saves the Day, but at The Cost of His Soul, "Morgan Freeman plays God in Bruce Almighty; Laurence Fishburne a demigod in The Matrix Reloaded, and Queen Latifah a ghetto goddess in Bringing Down the House. . . Every one of the actors has to help a white guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending.  Bruce (Jim Carrey) won't get the girl.  Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become the next Messiah.  And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't get his groove on. . . It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives.  For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters.  Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance." 

Spike Lee asked, "How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?"  He noted that The Legend of Bagger Vance takes place in Depression-era Georgia.  He said, "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing!"

Other magical black characters who benevolently aided and abetted white men include Whoopi Goldberg's psychic in Ghost (1990) and Don Cheadle's guardian angel in The Family Man (2000).

This trend can be traced back to the 1930s.  Hattie McDaniel was memorable as Mammy, the outspoken and duty-bound servant, in Gone with the Wind (1939).  She acted as the moral conscience of Scarlett O'Hara.  She was critical when Scarlett ate food too fast, when Scarlett dyed her hair, and when Scarlett pursued a married man.  She declared, "It ain't fittin'. . . it ain't fittin'.   It jes' ain't fittin'." 

This character type was extended to war movies produced in the early 1940s.  Thomas Cripps, author of "Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era," found a soulfulness in the black soldiers portrayed in these movies, including Sahara (1943), Bataan (1943), Crash Dive (1943) and Lifeboat (1944).  Here is a scene from Lifeboat.

Joe (Canada Lee), a black steward, stands as the group's conscience.  His moral superiority is made clear when he refuses to join the other lifeboat passengers in murdering a duplicitous German prisoner of war and chooses instead to back away from the savage act.

This scene from Crash Dive shows Ben Carter providing sympathetic counsel to gruff James Gleason.

This scene from Sahara sets an example for Jim Brown's classic death scene in The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Nothing is more tear-jerking than a soldier sacrificing his life for his fellow soldiers.

 Lastly, here is a clip from Bataan.

Jonathan Kim of ReThink Reviews wrote, "Magic Negro films seem to come from filmmakers who want desperately to show how much they like black people, yet they know so few actual black people that they end up creating idealized, unrealistic caricatures."

A good writer follows a line of logic when he creates a character.  It is a reasonable assumption that a poor person, who isn't preoccupied by materialism, would be more in touch with their spirituality.  It follows that spiritual people would be more connected to the larger reality and would be able to appreciate the transcendent nature of the world.  True, this prevalent belief in a spirit world was mocked in silent films, in which black people were quick to be frightened by strange apparitions in haunted house farces.  But these spiritual black characters aren't mocked in the context of these war films and the other characters in the films look upon them with respect and affection.  This was a vast improvement to the way that blacks were treated in early films.  Take for instance the 1915 Lubin comedy Monkey Business (1915).  The plot was summarized by The Moving Picture World as follows: "Gerald expresses a pet monkey that he has captured in Africa to his fiancée.  On the way the monkey escapes, and when the crate is opened a little pickaninny has taken Jocko's place."  It cannot be more dehumanizing to equate a black child to a monkey.  Racial harmony is not advocated by the Lubin cartoon A Strenuous Ride (1914), which, according to The Moving Picture World, depicted a "big coon" being chased through a neighborhood by a bulldog. 

Sidney Poitier played saintly caretaker roles in several films, including The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963) and To Sir, with Love (1967).  Poitier can best be compared to Sy when he helps a blind, uneducated white girl to escape her impoverished and abusive home life in A Patch of Blue (1965).  Cripps wrote, "Poitier spent his whole career in this position. . . [He] actually carried the cross for Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Yet, the most magical caretaker of this period was not black.  The mammy was outshone by a nanny in the Disney classic Mary Poppins (1964).  Mary Poppins, in her working class garb, comes into a wealthy family's home and brings the family closer together.  Several plot points of Mary Poppins just so happen to match plot points of The Intouchables.  Mary Poppins applies for the nanny job after it has been vacated by a series of nannies, all of whom quit the job out of sheer exasperation.  It is implied in The Intouchables that Philippe had been unhappy with his past caretakers and none of them lasted too long.  When Mary Poppins arrives at the home, she finds a queue of disagreeable looking candidates waiting to be reviewed for the position.

Mary Poppins

 The Intouchables

Mary Poppins, like Driss, sadly leaves once her work is done.

And let us not forget that Mary Poppins flies.

Mary Poppins

The Intouchables

The great success of Mary Poppins shows that an audience will find a guardian angel appealing regardless of their race.  

The two tropes came together in Bringing Down the House (2003), in which the person who schools uptight rich folks in the ways of enjoying life is an outspoken black woman (Queen Latifah).  The film did well at the box office, but critics did not respond favorably.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, critics generally came to conclusion that the film was "filled with outdated and offensive racial jokes."

The fact that the Driss character is from Senegal is a subordinate trope.  In recent years, other films have shown Senegalese characters opening up distressed white characters to the joys of life.  In The Visitor (2008), a widowed college economics professor (Richard Jenkins) is drawn out of his lonely existence by an immigrant couple, one of whom is a Senegalese jewelry designer.  A Senegalese immigrant (Sanaa Lathan) changes Matthew Broderick's misanthropic worldview in Wonderful World (2009).  In Goodbye Solo (2009), a Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) works hard to talk a depressed old man (Red West) out of ending his life.  The film was promoted with the line, "Two men form an unlikely friendship that will change both of their lives forever."

None of those films were accused of being racist.  The Visitor shows Jenkins' well-to-do academician being moved by a dark-skinned immigrant's musical ability.  No critic complained that the immigrant was a performing monkey teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down.'  In 2008, John Anderson of Variety called The Visitor "this year's humanistic indie hit."  It is possible that The Intouchables was viciously attacked only because of its great commercial success. 

Film critics who are politically correct hate films in which a black person helps a white person because this is a "Magic Negro" film and, even more, they hate films in which a white person helps a black person because this is a "White Savior" film.  Kim wrote, "White Savior films are also meant to show how much the (probably white) filmmakers like brown people by showing how much they want to help them, but this often makes it seem that what brown people really need to improve their lives is for the right benevolent white person to come along."  It hardly makes it worth it for filmmakers to integrate the races in films.

The portrayal of a group is wrong if it dehumanizes the group and makes it easy for others to disregard the group's interests.  Fathers rights groups protest the "dumb dad" television commercials because they desensitize people to men trying to maintain a vital role in their children's lives after divorce.

The History Channel's recent mini-series Hatfields & McCoys was designed to explode myths perpetuated by films and newspapers about the notorious Appalachian feud.  Lisa Alther wrote in "Blood Feud": "The hillbilly stereotype spawned by the Hatfield-McCoy feud - of an uncouth bearded bumpkin in a slouch hat and overalls, holding a rifle in one hand and a jug of moonshine in the other - in part justified the exploitation of coal miners and lumberman in the southern Appalachians and the destruction of their environment."  Alther believed it was because Americans had come to regard the residents of the Appalachians as brutal savages that they had little concern when those people were later starved and maimed.

Driss might be uncouth, but that in no way means he is bumpkin.  He may hold a bag of M & M's in one hand and a marijuana joint in the other, but that in no way makes him a savage.  The character of Driss is well-drawn and the filmmakers make sure to humanize him.  Just as important, Philippe never treats Driss as if he is serving in a subordinate capacity.  The two men are genuine friends who do their best to help one another.  I do not find in any way that The Intouchables diminishes the social standing of black people or expresses racist sentiments.

Other thoughts

Rescuing a person who is trying to drown themselves has caused problems for a number of comedians, including Laurel & Hardy (Come Clean, 1931) and Abbott & Costello (Lost in Alaska, 1952).

Charlie Chaplin reverses the premise of Boudu in City Lights (1931) when his beloved tramp character stops an unruly, drunken millionaire from drowning himself.  Still, as in Boudu, the tramp is welcomed into the rich man's mansion.  Chaplin, much like Murphy in Trading Places (1983), adapts quickly to his new surroundings.