#369. Shameful Nations

We all have that one thing we’re ashamed of. Whether it’s a guilty pleasure, like enjoying a children’s television show, or something more sinister, like breaking the law, individuals will usually have something in their life they want everyone to forget. While many of these shameful things can be common for a large number of people, when a society forms around a group of people, there are inevitably individuals the group would rather outsiders just outright ignore. These individuals can bring shame to the entire group, either through their actions or by their strongly-held beliefs. Unfortunately, because these anomalous individuals are often seen representing the whole group, shame is brought to everyone. This can be scaled up from something as small as a workplace, to as large as a nation. This week’s two films highlight shameful nations and the individuals and groups who formed them.

Year: 1932
Rating: Passed
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Crime doesn’t pay, but when criminals become popular, there’s a bigger problem with society. If people don’t feel remorse for their crimes, and if they’re lauded for standing up to a system keeping them down, then the laws that hold everything together will have a difficult time supporting a civilized nation. While criminals can be part of larger organizations, the famous mobsters of the 1920s were personalities who often made headlines all by themselves. Individuals like Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Carlo Gambino made the police and law enforcement of America look foolish by breaking numerous laws and getting away with it. In shaming the legal system, these individuals in turn shame the entire nation these laws were enacted to protect. And yet, these gangsters provide entertainment via their hijinks.

Loosely based on the real-life gangster, Al Capone, Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) is inspired by the sign outside his apartment which states, “The World is Yours.” Working underneath Italian mob boss John “Johnny” Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony is helping the Italians take over the south side of Chicago. Of course, just being a lackey isn’t enough for Tony. Not only does he start pursuing Johnny’s girlfriend, but he makes a move to take over the north side of Chicago from its Irish gangs. To aid in achieving his goals, his friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) helps Tony kill Johnny after a botched assassination on Tony’s life. However, when he learns his beloved sister is in a relationship with Guino, Tony goes insane and kills his friend, which inevitably results in the police coming in and taking Tony down.

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation
Year: 1915
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 195 minutes / 3.25 hours

While history is written by the victors, there can be embarrassing or shameful events in this history which are difficult to gloss over. Especially as time marches on and sentiments change, what was once condoned as appropriate behavior is condemned by future generations. These shameful events in a nation’s history cannot and should not be overlooked, lest the nation repeats them. For the United States, much changed in the wake of the Civil War, but the shameful veil of racism still seems to hold onto many of its residents more than a century later. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan disgrace an entire nation that considers itself “enlightened.” Unfortunately, early Hollywood did not help with this, since films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) bolstered a rebirth of the KKK that still exists today.

The lives of a family from the North and a family from the South are intertwined during the Civil War. Both families send their sons to the front lines of war, but the daughters and wives end up working in the hospitals. When one of the Southern boys, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is captured and taken to a Union hospital, he is stricken with the daughter of the Northern family. Similarly, the eldest Northern son falls in love with one of the Southern daughters. When Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, everyone returns home and tries to rebuild. While the Northern family makes sure Reconstruction policies are enforced in the south, Ben Cameron observes the freed slaves abusing the government and not taking their responsibilities seriously. After starting the Ku Klux Klan, Ben manages to bring the freed slaves back in line and restore order to the southern governments.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 shame-filled societies

#368. Howard Hawks

It is rare to find a director who can direct across the spectrum of film genres. Often, a director’s style will dictate their genre. I mean, we’re not likely to see a horror film by Michael Bay. And while versatile directors like Christopher Nolan can span many genres, there are still a few outside their style. That being said, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Christopher Nolan comedy, as I’m sure it would be mind-bending and visually stunning. Steven Spielberg might be the one modern director who can successfully direct movies in any genre, but back when the film industry was just getting started, a few directors could “do it all.” One of these directors was none other than Howard Hawks. Back then, the ability to direct across all genres was likely more out of necessity than it was for resume padding. This week’s two films highlight some of Howard Hawk’s versatility as a director.

Sergeant YorkSergeant York
Year: 1941
Rating: Approved
Length: 134 minutes / 2.23 hours

Despite a large number of notable films, Howard Hawks never won an Oscar for Best Director during his career. He was nominated once for Sergeant York (1941), likely due to the peak of his career. In the lead up to the war movie that is Sergeant York (which itself was nominated for Best Picture), he directed two comedies, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), as well as the drama, Only Angels Have Wings (1940). Of course, he directed many other classics after Sergeant York, including the musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the western, Rio Bravo (1959), and the John Wayne adventure, Hatari! (1962). Hawks even managed to direct a sci-fi film with The Thing from Another World (1951), thus proving that he can direct pretty much any major genre that exists.

While Alvin York’s (Gary Cooper) hellion lifestyle has caused his mother much consternation, once he met Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), he started to turn his life around. Promising to marry her once he can obtain a farm, Alvin works relentlessly at raising the necessary money, only to have his hopes and dreams dashed when the offer is pulled out from underneath him. Before he can right the wrong, Alvin is struck by lightning and finds God in the process. Shortly afterward, Alvin is drafted into the Army for World War I, despite his newfound abhorrence to killing. However, in the heat of battle, Alvin realizes he must kill in order to save his comrades. Using his skill as a sharpshooter, Alvin saves the day and returns home a hero. After he turns down offers to cash in on his fame, he finds that his hometown bought the farm he was eyeing and gave it to him as a gift.

Year: 1932
Rating: Passed
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

What’s interesting about Howard Hawks, aside from the numerous genres he could direct, was that his career started back in the silent era. Being able to successfully transition from the realm of silent films to the “talkies” is no small feat, especially considering how many directors and actors from that time failed to adapt to the technology that was permanently changing the way audiences experienced movies. While he only directed seven silent films, they also shared the diversity in genre he kept up during his career (four comedies, one drama, one romance, and one film noir). When sound became available, it wasn’t long until Hawks was directing classics like the crime drama, Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932). In fact, this film was so well made, the 1983 remake was partially dedicated to Howard Hawks.

During the prohibition era in Chicago, Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) is helping mob boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to take control of the south side of the city. While Tony is an excellent lackey, he eventually goes against Johnny’s wishes and starts to take on the Irish gangs who control the north side of Chicago. As his success continues, Tony’s confidence rises enough to the point where he starts wooing Johnny’s girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley). Of course, with Tony’s out-of-control ambitions left unchecked, Johnny sends an assassin to kill him. Escaping the threat on his life, Tony and his friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) kill Johnny, making Tony the new leader of the mob. Unfortunately, when Tony learns Guino is with his sister, he kills his friend, setting off a series of events that has him hiding in his house and fighting the police. Will Tony live long enough to make the world his?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 highly-praised Howard Hawks classics

#284. Don’t Do Drugs

If there’s anything the “war on drugs” has taught me, it’s that “drugs are bad.” While their educational approach may have worked to keep some people from drugs, it did little to curb the enthusiasm of people already hooked. What’s unfortunate about illicit substances is the glamorous lives that certain drug users indulge in (a la The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)). Obviously, those in the business of drugs (like in Blow (2001) or Scarface (1983)) are more likely to partake of their product, but certain criminal organizations, like the mafia, know the dangers of getting involved with drugs (like in Goodfellas (1990)), and do their best to abstain from them. Still, the allure of a chemical high appeals to the common masses, so it’s up to film to show the horrifying consequences of drug abuse. This week’s two films show us why we shouldn’t do drugs.

Year: 1996
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.56 hours

The drug culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s was perhaps epitomized by films like Easy Rider (1969). This, along with the comedic stylings of Cheech and Chong, showed that some drugs are practically harmless. The stoner comedies of today reinforce this fact but don’t show any consequences of extended use. When harder drugs are used, the slippery slope truly comes into play. There’s a lot someone will do to keep up a habit, but when they realize their life has become controlled by the controlled substance, they find it difficult to remove themselves from it (either by the company they keep or the sheer difficulty of going clean). Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is a good example of this, whereas Pulp Fiction (1995) brings us the reality of the overdose. Unfortunately, films like Limitless (2011) and Trainspotting (1997) show that a few choice benefits make the decision to do drugs worth it.

While there are undoubtedly many terrifying moments in Trainspotting that should drive us away from doing drugs, it’s the dark-comedy nature of the film that somewhat lessens the impact of the consequences of illegal drug usage. Scenes like “the worst toilet in Scotland,” or the hallucinations of a dead baby crawling over the ceiling certainly do their part to drive the audience away from drugs. However, the comradery of these four heroin addicts makes the experience seem welcoming and social. In reality, the risks of contracting HIV, being arrested for robbery (to fund an expensive drug addiction), and outright overdosing are very high and hold very severe consequences. After many attempts to get clean, the main character, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), finally has enough motivation to leave his drugs behind, along with most of his friends.

Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream
Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

Addiction is a powerful drug. By the time we realize we have a problem, it’s often too late to change things. The long road to recovery can only be completed with an admittance that we have a problem and a support system to help us reach the clean and happy ending. A common theme amongst the works of Philip K. Dick was that of drug use, which was most undoubtedly pulled from his own life experiences. A Scanner Darkly (2006) focused on drug users, law enforcement, and the companies that profit from said drugs, all tied together in a trippy package. What’s more startling is when the addiction is portrayed in a more realistic setting. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a friend or loved one continue to go back to the comfort of their addiction. Robert ZemeckisFlight (2012) drives this point home, but the true consequences of addiction were best portrayed in Requiem for a Dream (2000).

The world of a junkie is an interesting place. Time no longer holds any relevance as everything seems to be traveling in slow motion or unbearably fast. Requiem for a Dream follows four addicts on their downward spiral to ruin. The intriguing thing about addictions is that sometimes they aren’t to illegal substances. Even household activities like watching television are artistically represented in the same way getting high on cocaine is. However, even if it seems like everything is working out well and nothing could go wrong, consequences lie just around the dark corner. Requiem for a Dream begins to get intense as the effects rear their ugly heads. From prostitution to prison to hospitalization, the results of a life of addiction are painfully evident at the end of this film. If ever there’s a film to get people to stop doing drugs, Requiem for a Dream is it.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 cautionary tales