Monthly Archives: February 2008

Lumet loves Lattices: The Pawnbroker

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(photo from K. Silam Mohammad’s lostintheframe.blogspot.com)

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“The Pawnbroker” stars Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor who becomes a pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem in the early-60’s. This places the action 20 years out from WWII, roughly the same time that has passed since the first Desert Storm — not a long time.  It must have been even more powerful to see this harrowing film in the 1960’s than it is today.

Steiger has a sheer presence that makes minor quibbles, like his hard-to-place accent, inconsequential. The weight of experience is so heavy upon the main character, Mr. Nazerman, that he can only respond to people in the most perfunctory manner. All social niceties have left him. Thus when the pimp who is laundering money through Nazerman’s pawnshop mockingly calls him “Professor”, Nazerman simply hangs up the phone. Or when a junkie, trying to sell a gimcrack radio, berates him as a “filthy blood-sucking kike”, he barely glances up as he replies “Still at the same address?”. Seeing this disregard for social convention is a guilty pleasure, like watching Michael Imperioli of The Soproanos pull out a gun in order to get faster service in a donut shop. It brings you over to Nazerman’s side, a dangerous place to be, because when the emotions do come out, they will be titanic.

Lumet uses grids and latticework as a symbol of confinement throughout the film: the metal protective metal grid inside the pawnshop, often casting shadows on the characters, the fancy cross-hatched room divider in the pimp Rodriguez’ pad, the railing on the patio of the social worker’s apartment, the barbed wire in the flashbacks to the concentration camp. And who can blame Nazerman for staying within the lines?

Ultimately though, Nazerman discovers that his business is being financed through prostitution, he flashes back to images of his wife (girlfriend?) in Nazi “Joy Division” sexual slavery, and he has a breakdown. The final scene is of Steiger plunging his hand through the sharp ticket-holder spine, then wandering the streets of Spanish Harlem, staring at his stigmata, shortly after his assistant has been killed in a botched robbery attempt.

The power of Steiger’s performance isn’t in the shaking and grimacing though, it’s in his non-reactivity. Being non-reactive is a high-status trait, and we find it intriguing that Nazerman, essentially a schlemiel who is at the behest of petty crooks, can carry himself with such authority. Perhaps we fellow schlemiels can model ourselves after him in some way.

Yet there is an underlying tension of knowing that, in order to achieve this equanimity, he must essentially kill the parts of himself that are human, and this cannot last for long. How tempting it would be for an actor of lesser stature to give up on this theme, to instead portray the character as angry or simmering, and to try to force meaning into the dialog that Steiger wisely treats as throwaway. Steiger rejects poignancy and is a master of self-control. Thus when he breaks down it is all the more terrible.

Minor notes and other gulity pleasures: Interiors are shot with that old klieg-light style that makes every character look like an escaped prisoner pinned against a prison drainpipe. The apartment furnishings inside Brock Peter’s apartment are authentic Saarinen pedestal items (Saarinen claimed he wanted to provide a “solution for clearing up the slums of legs in US homes”) and Eames chairs. Peter’s manservant looks like a photographic negative of himself, instead of a black man in white clothing it’s a white man with silver hair in black clothing, an early Andersen Cooper type.

1940’s meet the 1960’s: “Go Man Go!”

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A charming time-capsule starring another charismatic but forgotten actor, Dane Clark (not the execrable Dane Cook), alongside a young Sidney Poitier, “Go Man Go!” features a bebop score by Slim Galliard, who was a favorite of Jack Kerouac. I wonder what the connection with “On the Road” is — I remember the phrase “Go Man Go” as an exhortation Sal Paradise shouted out to improvising jazz musicians.

Slim Galliard makes an appearance, playing a piano with his fingers upside down for a small gathering of Globetrotters. I love Kerouac’s description of a Galliard concert:

‘… we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ’bout a little bourbon-arooni.’ In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums.”

“…Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, ‘Great-orooni … fine-ovauti … hello-orooni … bourbon-orooni … all-orooni … how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni … orooni … vauti … oroonirooni …” He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can’t hear. His great sad eyes scan the audience.”

What kills me is “ovauti“, it makes sense next to “o-rooni” but it’s so weird, where is it coming from? It’s perfect though.

That’s the 1950’s part of this movie, the 1940’s part consists of stereotypical interactions between Clark as Abe Saperstein, Bill Stern (as himself) a hard-bitten but honest sportswriter, and the evil Potter-like sports magnate Mr. Willoughby. The Bowery-Boys-style slang they use — “Hey ya mug! Ya gonna be a chump all your life? Of course you’re invited!” — is the direct precursor of today’s crushingly unimaginative board-room Ebonics appropriation: “Quarterly earnings doubled? Girl, go on with your bad self!”. It was probably just as hard to listen to back then.

The 1960’s part of the movie is best shown in the final scene, Abe Saperstein, arm-in-arm with the Globetrotters, walking triumphantly towards the camera, in a hopeful message of racial healing. Shades of Blackboard Jungle. I can’t recall another movie from the 1950’s that was this hopeful and unabashed about race. Today’s derivative ironic culture cannibalizes sentiment like this.

“Go Man Go” also has something to say about acting. In an early scene real-life Globetrotter “Sweetwater Clifton” speaks some lines about how he likes soda pop (the origin of his nickname). He delivers them woodenly, although with charm. This is the low end of the acting scale.

Raising the bar, Dane Clark as Abe Saperstein, shows real conviction, but he’s always hitting something when he acts. “I’m going to get us into big arenas if it’s the last thing I do!’ (SMACK). It’s as if the director fired him up before every scene (“Now this time really mean it!”) without thinking what the cumulative effect would be. Clark’s “average Joe” always seems to be in a harangue.

The best actor in the movie is Sidney Poitier, in a relatively minor role, who pops up from time-to-time to speak a few impassioned lines. He does so with quiet conviction, and having seen the other actors telegraph and flail, one gets a sense of the star quality of Sidney Poitier.

A couple of minor points about this movie: it is exemplary in showing what I like to call “old-time small basketball court syndrome”, action shot in a remarkably cramped gym. Another film that features this is “Angels with Dirty Faces” where the players are dodging trapezes and other non-basketball equipment as they play on a tiny court.

“Go Man Go” made me think of why, although everyone knows Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, no one knows who did it in the NBA. It turns out that Charles Cooper was the first drafted, Nat Clifton was the first signed, and Earl Lloyd the first to play in a game, all in 1950. Even though it’s complicated, I would think this deserves a little more recognition. Is it because basketball is not “America’s Game”?

Sontag vs. Kael: Opposites Attract Me

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Craig Seligman begins by saying “I didn’t want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me.”, a statement which reflects my primary objection to this book: too much Craig Seligman. Perhaps because they are closely integrated with well-thought-out literary criticism, I found his personal asides to be distracting and sloppy.

“She [Sontag] is not a likeable writer — but then she doesn’t intend to be. She’s elitist and condescending towards those less-informed than she is (i.e., everbody) and gratingly unapologetic about it.” By using this “shoot from the hip” style, Seligman is simply emulating his heroine Kael.

Pauline Kael is my favorite film critic, not because of her approach to criticism which is undisciplined and ideosyncratic, but because she is right almost all the time. I too find Meryl Streep to be fluttery and anemic, and I love Kael’s line about Richard Chamberlain: “He keeps us conscious that he’s acting all the time. His toes act in his shoes”.

This approach to writing falls apart quickly though when the instant conclusions don’t resonate. In contrast I was very affected by a lecture I attended, given by Susan Sontag in 1986 at the Toledo Museam of Art (Ohio not España) where she spoke about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. I realize that she has been criticized for grandstanding on this subject, and for not being well-informed, but she came across as very caring and aware of the daily suffering of people that was so easily ignored in the Reagan 80’s (and today).

I had just returned from visiting Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia, then made a brief unsuccessful attempt to find off-the-books work in London. I had been rattling around in an apartment heated by coins, where two of the roomates were droning, chanting Bhuddists , being amazed at the daytime despairing gray streets of Thatcher’s England. I was not eating regularly and lost a lot of weight and cut my hair very short. You’ve been there. When I got back to the US my friend said I looked like a ghost.

In my attenuated state Sontag’s words about the forgotten people of the Balkans struck home “They are just like us, they raise their children, and sit down to dinner at night…” something like that. It seemed like she was paying attention.

Sontag has also been criticized for her statement after 9/11:

“Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?”

This prompted the misguided Andrew Sullivan to create the “Sontag Award” for those who oppose the war on terrorism. Is this the signal example of the old vs. new public intellectual? The real scandal is the death of half a million Iraqi children, prior to 9/11, due to U.S.-sponsored sanctions:

from a 60 Minutes interview (5/12/96)

“Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

It’s shocking to think that Sontag was branded a traitor simply for stating that the attack was a response to specific actions. She did not say it was morally right. She correctly points out the shameful lack of outrage and press coverage for the deaths of a far greater number of innocents than that which occured at the WTC. Immediately following 9/11 this was a very difficult thing to say and shows a great deal of bravery.

Sontag and Kael weren’t opposites, Kael was a brilliant pop writer for whom judgments about personal style were paramount (her own style excepted). She wrote about popular culture within the bubble of popular culture. Sontag’s imperious personal style may have been an important defense mechanism against the oppressive male high culture crypt-keepers of the day. She compares favorably to glamour feminists like Steinem and Naomi Wolf, whom Camille Paglia so effectively skewers. You’ll find no white stripe in their tresses.

If you remove the personality factor, and look into the substance of Sontag’s writings, to me she comes across as brave and warm-hearted. “Opposites Attract” is, in fact, inapposite: Kael and are not opposite personalities — for Sontag personality was oblique, an accoutrement, her inner thoughts revealed only in the context of her writings, and in the times in which those writings were created (e.g. 9/11). Analyzing ideas in this manner is a challenging task, and just as Edmond Morris did in his Reagan biography “Dutch”, I think Seligman may have taken the easy way out.

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