Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hellzapoppin'

Directed by H. C. Potter, Joseph A. McDonough, Edward Cline
1941
The United States of America


Deep within the bowels of Hell, demons stuff victims dressed in lavish fashions into giant barrels labeled “Canned Guy” and “Canned Gal.” As they sharpen their pitchforks, turn women in expensive dresses on spits over open fires, and torment the eternally damned, they sing a happy song.

Hellzapoppin/Ol’ Satan’s on a tear
Hellzapoppin/They’re screamin’ everywhere
See the Inferno/of Vaudeville
Anything can happen/And it probably will!!


Suddenly a taxi appears and two beleaguered men fly out onto the ground after a tidal wave of ducks, dogs, and other animals inexplicably crammed into the back seat. One looks up and mutters to the other: “That’s the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!” These two unfortunates are vaudevillian legends Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They have arrived in Hell for possibly the most nightmarish reason of all: making a Hollywood film. For they have been given the grim responsibility of making Hellzapoppin’, perhaps the most subversively anarchic comedy to ever spring from the forehead of the Hollywood studio system. Is it any wonder why at the beginning we are treated to a title card reading: “......any similarity between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”


Hellzapoppin’ was an “adaptation” of a musical revue written by Olsen and Johnson that had been a smash hit on Broadway, running for more than 3 years for 1,404 performances. At the time, it was the longest-running Broadway musical in history. The revue was a model of controlled chaos. As reporter Celia Wren recounted: “The smash hit "Hellzapoppin" was a smorgasbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness: sight gags; comedy songs; skits abandoned partway through; cameos by audience stooges; an absurdist raffle; and in a trademark stunt, a man who wandered through the theater hawking an ever-larger potted tree.” So Olsen and Johnson were confronted with a problem: how do you adapt a musical with no real plot that heavily relied on an interactive circus atmosphere?


The answer was to make a movie about Olsen and Johnson trying to make a movie of Hellzapoppin’. Confused yet? Let me explain.


After the opening number in Hell, it is revealed that it is all a Hollywood sound stage. They are confronted by a director (Richard Lane) and a nervous screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) who want to pitch them a script for the film. The suggested film is about a love triangle between three “disgusting rich” aristocrats: “young fella” Woody Taylor (Lewis Howard), playwright Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige), and wannabe actress Kitty Rand (Jane Frazee). Kitty is putting on a Red Cross benefit at her estate and Olsen and Johnson are hired as prop-men. As Woody, Jeff, and Kitty play their game of romantic musical chairs, Olsen and Johnson run about trying to gather all of the outlandish props that the show will need. Later, when they realize that Kitty will marry the wrong man if the show is a success, they sabotage the benefit with a menagerie of pranks and tricks. Other notable characters include Hugh Herbert as Quimby, a detective and master of disguises who bounces around the film spreading chaos wherever he goes like a mythical trickster, Mischa Auer as Prince Pepi, a lecherous European aristocrat who poses as a fraud for free food and sympathy, and Martha Raye as Betty Johnson, Chic’s man-hungry, vivacious sister.


To add to the mayhem, there is another layer to the narrative: an easily distracted projectionist played by Shemp Howard who literally runs the film from his booth. Throughout the film he interacts with both Olsen and Johnson in the framing narrative and Olsen and Johnson in the film-within-the-film. Many of the film’s best gags come from their interactions: he repeatedly fails to keep the camera focused on the principle characters (instead turning the camera to beautiful women), he gets reels mixed up and throws the unfortunate duo into a Western, and, in the film’s most ingenious gag, gets the film stuck, thereby trapping half of the characters onscreen in the bottom half of the frame and the other half in the top half of the frame. These gags are not only effective; they also demonstrate the duo’s ability to appropriate the capabilities (and limitations) of the cinematic medium for comedic purposes.


It’s an unwritten rule that a musical is only as good as its musical numbers. So, thankfully, Hellzapoppin’ does not contain any musical misfires. Two numbers in particular almost knock the house down. The first is Watch the Birdie, an impromptu ode to photography wherein Raye almost steals the whole damn picture away from Olsen and Johnson. As she sings and swings with all of the skill and abandon that only a lifelong vaudevillian can muster, footage of people diving into a pool is paused, reversed, and played over and over again.

 
The second number is a show-stopping Lindy Hop performed by the black employees of Kitty’s estate. Much like a similar sequence in the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937), the Lindy Hop number gave a chance for otherwise disenfranchised black performers to demonstrate their ferocious talents.


Also like many of the Marx Brothers’ films, Hellzapoppin’ devotes a couple of musical numbers to the bland romantic couples who, for the most part, serve as dull straight-men (and women) to the madcap antics of the film’s stars. But surprisingly, Hellzapoppin’ managed to make these segments memorable as well. One early sappy love ballad is frequently interrupted by title cards announcing: “Attention Please! If Stinky Miller is in the audience -- GO HOME!”


Another ballad is intercut with sequences of choreographed synchronized swimmers, predicting similar numbers in future films starring Esther Williams. But even more fascinating is how the filmmakers transitioned between shots of the singers and shots of the swimmers: they would frequently take a close-up of an inconsequential object, like a white rose or a fan, and do a fade-in of the swimmers arranged in a similar pattern.


These sequences speak to the underlying genius of Hellzapoppin’: it is just as much a piece of cinema as it is an adaptation of a theatrical musical. Instead of simply moving from one to the other via an edit or a tracking shot, the filmmakers utilized a technique that would have been nearly impossible to replicate on stage. But in fact, most of the film could be described that way. I couldn’t imagine a film like Hellzapoppin’ existing (and succeeding) in any other medium. Ingeniously metafictional, distinctly cinematic, ruthlessly creative, joyfully anarchic, and most importantly, deliriously entertaining, Hellzapoppin’ is a treasure of the American musical comedy tradition.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Steel Helmet

Directed by Samuel Fuller
1951
The United States of America


In his landmark study The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris wrote of Samuel Fuller:

[His] ideas are undoubtedly too broad and oversimplified for any serious analysis, but it is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating to critics who can rise above their political prejudices...It is time the cinema followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.

With all due respect to Mr. Sarris, there is nothing primitive about Fuller’s greatest films. His 1951 Korean War film The Steel Helmet may have only been his third film, but it demonstrates a clarity of vision, a ruthlessness of purpose, and a single-minded skill the likes of which eluded many of his contemporaries who were industry veterans.


Largely inspired by his service during World War Two fighting with the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, The Steel Helmet follows a rag-tag patrol of US Infantry who are tasked with capturing a Buddhist temple and establishing an observation post. First among them is the cynical Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), the sole survivor of his unit after they were captured and executed by North Koreans. A bitter, grizzled veteran of World War Two, he is rescued by a South Korean orphan (William Chun) that he quickly nicknames “Short Round.” Despite his wishes, Short Round follows Sgt. Zack as he meets up with Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic whose unit was also wiped out.


In a foggy jungle (in reality a tiny set that Fuller tricks the audience into thinking is a sprawling jungle via tight close-ups and clever frame compositions), they meet up with a straggling patrol led by the inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Once together, they have their first fire-fight with a small group of North Korean snipers. It is here that the ingenuity of Fuller’s technique comes into focus: the fighting is portrayed as a dirty, terrifying, and intimate affair via close-ups, realistic fighting (weapons jam, enemies are largely obscured and unseen, and the violence occurs in occasional spurts interspersed throughout panicked calm), and a palpable sense of fear.


In creating The Steel Helmet, Fuller had deliberately wanted to portray an accurate cross-section of the US Infantry. Therefore the patrol is made up of characters who defy the traditional war genre stock characters like the ingenue farm-boy and the tough-talking, cynical Joe Whats-His-Name from Brooklyn. There’s the war-weary Nisei Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), an ex-conscientious objector who lugs around his old priest’s hand organ named Private Bronte (Robert Hutton), a soft-spoken radio operator who lost all of his hair to Scarlet Fever nicknamed Private Baldy, and a mute pack mule caretaker known simply as Joe.


Once at the temple, Joe is killed by a hidden North Korean soldier who is quickly taken prisoner. Sgt. Zack wants blood, but Lt. Driscoll’s superiors want a prisoner for interrogation. For the next few hours their prisoner tries to sow discord among their ranks. He asks Thompson how he can fight for a racist country that deprives him of rights and freedoms. He asks Tanaka how he can kill other Asians for a country that locked up Japanese citizens in camps during World War Two. Both of these scenes caused great controversy with the US Army which had provided the production with stock footage. In fact, The Steel Helmet was reportedly the first American film to acknowledge the Japanese internment camps. Ever the hard-hitting reporter, Fuller refused to back down from these controversies.


In one last moment of scandal, Sgt. Zack guns down their prisoner for mocking Short Round after he is killed by sniper fire. The Army was appalled by Fuller’s implication that Americans executed POWs, but he fought back by having his former commanding officer, Brigadier General George A. Taylor, contact the Pentagon and confirm that such instances were historically accurate.


The film climaxes with a devastating North Korean assault on the temple in which most of the patrol is killed. The sequence is both a breath-taking piece of film-making and a semiotically charged phantasm. The entire film was shot in only ten days for $104,000. As per the film’s shoestring budget, Fuller was forced to transform 25 extras from UCLA into the rampaging North Korean Army. For scenes that he couldn’t replicate with stock footage, Fuller filmed the extras in long distance shots and swift medium close-ups that obscured his actors’ faces. Much like how Sam Peckinpah managed to create the French Army in Major Dundee (1965) by filming a small group of costumed extras several times in different locations, Fuller tricks the audience into thinking that they are watching an entire army.


One of the reoccurring symbols in The Steel Helmet is the massive, towering Buddha located in the temple. It is Fuller’s semiotic invocation of the Buddha that proves that he is not an enthusiastic amateur. Utilizing what Christian Metz referred to as “bracket syntagma,” wherein individual shots are grouped together to create certain associations,  Fuller transforms the Buddha from scene to scene. When the soldiers first arrive, the Buddha seems like an imposing enigma from an unknowable culture. When they make camp, Fuller’s continuous framing of the Buddha in the background of shots transforms it into an omnipresent spectator. When their prisoner finally dies, the Buddha’s bleeding hand makes him an angel of mercy. And finally, as the temple is obliterated by artillery shells and gunfire, the Buddha becomes a stoic monument of the impermanence of humanity against the implacable nature of infinity.



Fuller’s means may have been primitive, but his creations were not. The film was a hit when it was released, grossing more than $6 million and becoming the first independently produced film to play at Loew’s State Theater in New York City. The Steel Helmet also brought Fuller to Hollywood’s attention, scoring him a contract with Fox.


From there on Fuller would direct some of the most daring and iconoclastic films of the late Hollywood Studio System. Fuller’s ultimate masterpiece is widely considered to be The Big Red One (1980), a film that followed the exploits of his beloved 1st Infantry throughout World War Two. But I still feel inclined to declare The Steel Helmet as his best war film. With its go-for-broke mentality and sweaty aesthetic, The Steel Helmet is as good a war film as was ever made about the “Forgotten War.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

მონანიება (Repentance)

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze
1984
Georgian SSR


A smartly-trimmed mustache lies nestled in his philtrum. Thin, frameless glasses dig into the ridge of his nose. A black shirt and leather suspenders stretch over his plump frame. His lips straddle a cavern from which escape sweet lies, manic ramblings, and operatic arias. Stretched into a smile, they betray the empty promises of a hollow man. In the evening he will charm you. In the morning he will arrest you. And for reasons apparent only to himself, you will disappear.


For years Varlam Aravidze served as the mayor of a small town in Soviet Georgia. His death was marked by public mourning and a pompous funeral. But the next morning his rigid corpse seemingly materializes in the garden of his son Abel’s house. The body is quickly reburied. But again, the next morning the body appears in Abel’s garden. The exasperated police take the only option they can think of: arrest the dead body so it can be held for an inquiry. This Kafka-esque farce continues for several more days. The body is reburied and dug up again night after night. Finally the grave is covered in a massive metal cage. But still, the body returns.


One night the perpetrator is finally caught in the act. She is revealed to be a local pastry chief named Ketevan Barateli. She is swiftly brought to trial where she freely admits to exhuming Varlam’s grave but refuses to admit guilt. “As long as I live Varlam Aravidze will not rest in the ground,” she declares. And so she begins the flashback which will engross most of the rest of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, a brave and powerful film that seeks nothing less than the catharsis of an entire nation in the wake of decades of Stalinist control. Originally shot in 1984, the film was shelved for several years by Soviet authorities. Premiering at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, the film was seen by an estimated 60 million Russians and was celebrated for being one of the true masterpieces of post-glasnost Soviet filmmaking.


The journey through Ketevan’s past as she witnesses the rise of the despotic Varlam is painful and heart-breaking. At first Varlam, played by esteemed Georgian actor Avtandil Maxaradze, appears as little more than an oafish buffoon. His inauguration plays like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film: as his speech is swallowed up by a booming brass band he is soaked by a burst water main. He receives pleas from Ketevan’s artist father Sandro to save a historic church with apparent compassion and sympathy. One night he arrives at Ketevan’s house with two assistants - who are dressed like they just came from a reception given by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - bearing gifts of flowers and caged birds. A swish of Varlam’s cloak materializes a playmate for Ketevan out of the aether in the form of a young Abel. Varlam and his assistants belt out jaunty opera tunes before jumping out of the window onto horses which whisk them away into the night.


That night monstrous dreams plague Sandro and his wife; dreams of dark corridors, fields of mud, and above all the smiling figure of Varlam being speed through the Georgian countryside  in a blue automobile. In the morning Sandro is suddenly arrested by soldiers clothed in medieval metal armor. As Sandro is removed, one soldier clumsily plays the piano while another spirits away the paintings on his walls. The same paintings, one should mention, that Varlam was so enthusiastic about praising the night before.


Soon much of the entire town vanishes. The once charming Varlam has morphed into a gibbering madman, spewing out nonsensical rhetoric during speeches like “Four out of every three people are our enemies!” Without warning, Sandro’s church is demolished in the night. And finally, the men in metal armor come for Ketevan’s mother.


Certainly Varlam was a composite of numerous 20th century dictators, what with his Hitler mustache and Mussolini build. But it is his similarities with Joseph Stalin, Georgia’s home-grown tyrant, that warrant the most attention. After all, for all of its fame as a Soviet film, Repentance is first and foremost a Georgian work of cinema. The film is steeped in metaphors for the rise and rule of Stalin. Much like Varlam, Stalin was well-known for his chameleonic abilities to change his personality depending on the situation. As Julie Christensen writes, “Another central link between Varlam and Stalin, as the Georgians understand him, is the changing face of the evil dictator: concerned patriot, enlightened ruler, scheming maniac, and sadistic pervert. Stalin was well-known for his ability to don masks and change his identity, and [Maxaradze’s performance] centers around that motif.”


If we accept the interpretation that Varlam was a Stalin stand-in, then the film takes on a greater, richer meaning than it would if it was a simple treatise on despotism and man’s capacity for cruelty. An essential element of Georgian culture is their treatment and veneration of the dead. Continuing her astute analysis of Georgian society in Repentance, Christensen elaborates: “The past and its remains are holy...[Ketevan], a Georgian woman, denies Varlam proper treatment of a dead hero and violates his grave.” The third part of Repentance deals with Abel and his son Tornike coming to terms with Ketevan’s revelations about their patriarch. Unable to cope with the guilt, Tornike commits suicide and Abel personally steals Varlam’s body and unceremoniously throws it off the side of a cliff. These scenes involving the confrontation of a dictator’s true legacy and the decanonization of his status as a cultural hero provided catharsis for Georgian audiences in a manner other Soviet countries could not appreciate as fully.


Of course, to view Repentance as a mere metaphor would be to rob it of its simple visceral pleasures. The film is full of heart-breaking images such as Ketevan and her mother searching for Sandro’s name among messages scrawled into logs by prisoners upstream. Abuladze delights in warping the boundaries between different times, spaces, and cultures. The soundtrack will sway between austere classical music and blaring pop. In one scene a blindfolded Lady Justice stands in a prison courtyard next to a political insider merrily playing a white piano. In another Sandro and his wife lay buried up to their chins in dirty muck in the countryside. Elsewhere Varlam’s ghostly spectre peels the skin from a fish in a dark church while Abel begs for Absolution.


While the rest of the world’s socially-conscious cinema seems to be trapped by the limitations of stark realism, Abuladze dares something more. In Repentance, the sword of surrealism is wielded in the name of social commentary and Georgian justice.


Friday, November 29, 2013

泥の河 (Muddy River)

Directed by Kōhei Oguri
1981
Japan


There are films about children and there are films about childhood. The former merely contain child actors. But the latter are about the world that children inhabit, the emotions and experiences that accompany growing up; the mysteries borne of misunderstandings, unanswered curiosities, and the temporarily inexplicable. Films about childhood ask questions but scarcely provide answers. For the life of a child is one of censorship and confinement. They have yet to figure out the world because the world hides things from them. But they see. They listen. And they think.


The great films about childhood consistently rank amongst the best ever made: René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Small Change (1976), Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) to name a few. Perhaps this is because it takes a true master filmmaker to penetrate that realm without seeming exploitative or needlessly sentimental. So when films like Kōhei Oguri’s Muddy River appear, it is our duty and privilege to acknowledge them.


Quite simply, Muddy River is one of the best Japanese films about childhood. As Oguri’s directorial debut, he demonstrates the kind of wisdom and restraint that eludes most veteran filmmakers. The film was praised upon release by international critics, earning him several awards and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (inevitably losing, perhaps justifiably so, to István Szabó’s Mephisto). But now the film languishes in obscurity, being almost impossible to find on VHS or DVD. But Muddy River surges with a timeless vitality. If and when it finally receives a proper release, audiences will be amazed by its enduring artistry and wonder why it hasn’t been canonized as one of the great Japanese classics.


Almost a decade after the end of World War Two, 9-year-old Nobuo Itakura lives next to the mouth of the Kyū-Yodo River in Osaka. The first blossoms of what would become known as the “Japanese post-war economic miracle” have begun to bloom: the city has been largely reconstructed, new families are springing up, and Nobuo’s parents are able to run a small yet respectable noodle shop. But the scars of war live on in those, like Nobuo’s father Shinpei, unfortunate enough to have survived the fighting. “There must be lots of people out there who wish now that they’d died in the war,” he wearily comments one night. This statement, overheard by a sleepless Nobuo, seems prophetic. For the next day three such unfortunates drift their way in Nobuo’s life.


Nobuo meets the first, a young boy his age named Kiichi, on a bridge one rainy day. They swiftly become friends and Kiichi invites him to his houseboat, a ramshackle piece of junk that miraculously stays afloat. Nobuo is shocked by what he sees: desperate poverty the likes of which he never imagined. Kiichi’s shoes are full of holes, they have to ration clean drinking water, and they have almost no food. Kiichi’s widowed mother, Shoko, has been forced into prostitution, bringing clients to her private room at night while her children sleep just a few walls away. Kiichi’s older sister, Ginko, seems spiritually crushed, perhaps aware that she is doomed to follow in her mother’s footsteps.


And yet Nobuo and Kiichi become inseparable. Though initially apprehensive about their mother’s reputation, Shinpei and his wife Sadako welcome Kiichi and Ginko into their home with open arms. There are many quiet moments of soft comedy during this sequence wherein Ginko tries to get Kiichi to behave properly in spite of their “uncivilized” upbringing. Shinpei throws out a couple of friends who come to their shop for noodles only to mock Kiichi and Ginko’s mother for being a whore. Sadako quickly comes to treat Ginko as the daughter she never had, giving her a pretty (and expensive) dress and taking her to a bathhouse.


Time passes and little moments come and go: Nobuo witnesses what may or may not have been a man drowning himself in the river, a barge captain throws Nobuo and Kiichi a melon as they pass by their houses, and the two of them go to a local festival only to accidentally lose their spending money. In one scene, Shinpei takes Nobuo to visit his dying ex-wife in her final moments. These scenes may seem superfluous to those accustomed to more traditional cinematic narrative techniques. But they are just as essential to the film as any other. After all, is childhood ever a straight, streamlined chain of events? More often than not childhood is composed of distractions, daydreams, and seemingly innocuous vignettes that for whatever reason become burned into our memories.


And then there is the hardest emotion for children to swallow: sadness. One night Kiichi invites Nobuo onboard his house and lights a series of crabs on fire. Such an act of cruelty seems out of place and repellent. But as Nobuo tries to save one, he accidentally spies Shoko with a client. They make eye contact for a brief moment. And then we realize, in the pit of our stomach, that with the boon of a customer Kiichi and his family will have to move on. And the next day, to Nobuo’s confusion, the boat, and his friend, are gone. Why did Kiichi incinerate the crabs? Was it to repulse Nobuo and make their separation easier? That is one explanation. But the true answer remains elusive. All that remains is the pain, the loss, the loneliness.


Throughout the film Nobuo and Kiichi catch glimpses of a legendary giant carp that inhabits the murky bottom of the Kyū-Yodo River. Declaring it their secret, it becomes one of the impetuses for their friendship. In Japanese culture, the carp, or “koi,” is a symbol of strength and masculinity that is frequently associated with young children. It is believed that this tradition stems from an ancient Chinese legend wherein carp transform into dragons if they manage to swim upstream and jump over a waterfall located at the Dragon’s Gate. Many try, but most fail. 


In post-war Osaka, some boys were blessed with enough prosperity to escape poverty and become mighty dragons. But many, like Kiichi, were swept away downstream until all that was left of them were memories. Muddy River is one such memory, resplendent in its beauty, agonizing in its honesty.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Sleep with Anger

Directed by Charles Burnett
1990
The United States of America


In the backyard of his comfortable home nestled in the bosom of South Central Los Angeles, Gideon throws a handful of feed into the chicken coop. Though nowadays he can most certainly afford to buy his chickens from the market, his Deep South beginnings betray him. The sun is bright and the brown ground scuffs his bare feet. In the living room, his wife Suzie leads a group of pregnant women in breathing exercises. The only sounds to be heard are her gentle voice, the exhalation of air, and the scurrying of her grandson Sunny upstairs. Next door a young boy noisily blows on a trumpet in the attic. The squawks and honks elicit the laughter and jeers of neighborhood children. For Gideon and his family, such is just another afternoon in the black middle class.


But all is not well. Sunny’s father, “Babe Brother,” the youngest of Suzie’s two sons, is unreliable and neglectful: he spoils his child, forgets about his mother’s birthday, and weasels his way out of helping Gideon fix his roof. And so, Gideon is angry with his son’s laziness and dishonesty. Junior, Suzie’s eldest, resents the “special treatment” he is convinced his parents gave Babe. And Babe is frustrated by his family’s suffocating demands. Though far from dysfunctional, the threads keeping this extended family together have begun to fray. Anger and resentment have started to creep into the recesses of their everyday lives. And elsewhere strange omens abound: Gideon’s dreams are filled with images of burning fruit and flaming feet, objects in the kitchen knock themselves over onto the floor, and their toby, a kind of protective charm passed down through the generations, goes missing.


And then comes a knock at the door.


In his pocket, a ratty address book. In his hand, a hat. On his lips, a smile brimming with honeyed affection. His name in Harry, and it’s been thirty years since last they’ve met. And though Gideon and Suzie are eager to welcome their old friend into their home, they have no way of knowing the evil that has crossed their doorway. And so the trap is sprung in Charles Burnett’s piercing meditation on African-American folklore simply titled To Sleep with Anger.


The title comes from an old saying: “Never go to bed angry.” Perhaps originating from Ephesians 4:26, the saying explains that couples should never go to sleep if they have unresolved issues or differences. To do so would only allow that anger and frustration to fester and take deeper root. Indeed, as the title would suggest, To Sleep with Anger watches as Gideon and Suzie’s family is corrupted from within by their enigmatic guest.


At first Harry is warmly amiable and friendly, though perhaps a bit rustic and superstitious. When somebody accidentally touches his feet with a broom, his goes pale and immediately throws salt over his shoulders. During a card game with Babe Brother he pulls out a knife to pick his thumbnail. He delights in showing Sunny the rabbit’s foot tied to it, explaining that it is meant to replace his toby which he “lost years ago.” He even helps Junior with his work around the house.


But ever so slowly, a more sinister side of Harry begins to seep out. He harasses and humiliates an old “blues singer” girlfriend who has converted to Christianity. His suggestion of holding a fish fry leads to the introduction of an assortment of drinkers, gamblers, and degenerates who seem to materialize onto their front porch. Eventually his poisonous words convince Babe Brother to abandon his family. Finally, the tensions borne of Harry’s presence leads to arguments, fighting...and murder.


Much of To Sleep with Anger originates from the personal experiences of director Charles Burnett. Though born in Mississippi, he was raised in Los Angeles where he managed to attend UCLA’s graduate film program. Burnett, alongside other UCLA students from the 60s to the 80s, such as Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, would help start the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of African-American filmmakers who would create a distinctly Black Cinema. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), his Master of Fine Arts thesis, was a penetrating glance into the African-American culture present in Los Angeles’ Watts district. To this day it is viewed as one of the masterpieces of Black American cinema.

But if Killer of Sheep took a Neorealist view of urban culture, To Sleep with Anger is positioned firmly within the Gothic. The film isn’t an observation, but an indictment of a community trapped between the contemporary and the traditional. Indeed, Harry has been described by Burnett as a character archetype from rural African-American lore: “He’s a [trickster] that comes to steal your soul, and you have to out-trick him. You can bargain with him. But you have to be more clever than he is.” If Gideon and Suzie’s family personifies those black families who sought to transition into the American middle class, then Harry is their Southern roots come knocking with temptations of superstitions, blues, and corn liquor. Harry is the embodiment of the ambivalence felt by many African-Americans (including Burnett himself) towards a past that provided a rich cultural milieu at the expense of slavery, servitude, and oppression.


These struggles are repeatedly pronounced via juxtapositions within Gideon and Suzie’s household. Watch how Burnett’s direction alternates between the realistic and the fantastical. Listen to the soundtrack’s struggle between pious church music and seductive blues guitar. Observe how simple superstitions like folk remedies and the observance of omens betray outward attempts at modernization. To Sleep with Anger is a thick, multi-textured film that begs for multiple viewings. To see it only once is to merely glean over the surface of one of the richest experiences in American Black cinema.