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September 29, 2005

Founding Fathers Double Feature

George Washington
David Gordon Green - 2000
Criterion Region 1 DVD

Peter H. Hunt - 1972
Columbia Region 1 DVD

Sometimes there are titles that look like they should be part of a double feature, even if the films really don't belong together. Maybe it's a cheap shot, like pairing Breakfast at Tiffany's with My Dinner with Andre or The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend with The Ugly American. In any case, I saw the two above titles, wondering what they could say about being an American.

The junction of film and politics has made the news recently with air hostesses calling for a boycott of the film Flightplan. I haven't seen this film, and probably won't until it comes to cable. In spite of all the previous films that have shown air hostesses in less than flattering light, someone has the belief that this particular film will do serious damage to the professional standing of air hostesses. What makes this more appalling is that 9/11 is invoked. You have to wonder if the protest is actually genuine and not a way to create publicity for Flightplan. No such objection has been made following Red Eye or Soul Plane. How this relates to the two DVDs I have seen is in raising the question about what it means to be an American and what it means to represent ourselves on film.

I realize that I may be in the minority, but I was not enamored with George Washington. Perhaps I am being to facile by describing it as Harmony Korine as filmed by Robert Bresson. I can recognize and appreciate the craftsmanship and austerity. The people don't resemble any of the small town people I have met in Wyoming or Colorado. In his notes, Green talks about wondering about the historical George Washington, yet what connections he has in mind were not conveyed in the film. I am glad that the Miami Public Library has George Washington as the DVD includes the short A Day with the Boys.

Directed by Clu Gulager, this eighteen minute film was a thematic influence on Green. Made in 1969, the short is about a gang of boys, about ten years old, rolling down hills, playing "war", and generally goofing around with each other. The film was produced by Universal at a time when some theaters still showed short films before the feature. Not only did Gulager enlist Laslo Kovacs to photograph the film, but it was a nominee at Cannes. The film is dated by Gulager's overuse of the various techniques that were in vogue in the late Sixties, such as freeze frames and use of negative color. While the narrative suggests the topical Viet-Nam war, it also suggests Lord of the Flies. Among the boys is one chubby little guy, Clu's son, John, who will be heard from more this January when his feature directorial debut is released.

1776 is more interesting for its subject matter than as a film. Most of the time, the film looks stagy. Even when Abigail Adams is running out in a field, the Broadway origins of this film seem just outside the frame. I can't watch William Daniels, even in 18th Century garb, without thinking of St. Elsewhere. 1776 is valuable in this time of dubious political discourse and absence of thoughtful dialogue. The DVD is a relatively complete version of the film as I understand from the Internet Movie Data Base. The film was screened for Richard Nixon by his friend, producer Jack L. Warner. The song "Cool Considerate Men" was edited out. The song was sung by members of the Continental Congress that felt that they had much to lose in supporting a revolution, and the lyrics mention moving "ever to the right, never to the left". The basic civic lesson is that the Declaration of Independence was the result of both passion and compromise. The secondary lesson is that the founding fathers were a randy bunch that couldn't resist a double entendre.

While there are some good songs and performances, 1776 suffers from having the original stage director responsible for the film. Peter H. Hunt, not to be confused with the Peter Hunt who worked on James Bond films, went from 1776 directly to a long career in television. Hunt was unable to reconceive this play in the way that someone like Bob Fosse could make Caberet a truly filmic experience. As a musical, 1776 is of the template of the big stage musicals like My Fair Lady. Films based on Broadway musicals were well on the way out by 1972 following film flops like Hello, Dolly! and Camelot. Especially after Camelot, one would think Jack Warner would have learned his lesson. Hunt was so protective of his material that 1776 exists as a recreation of a stage musical, but has little life as cinema.

At least Thomas Jefferson has been served well by film with Blythe Danner in 1776 and Thandie Newton in Jefferon in Paris. Not only should we have films about the founding fathers, but more film makers should honor the founding babes of our country.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 29, 2005 08:09 PM