[1972] The Emigrants

I still have no idea where Småland is without looking at a map, and even when I do, it’s not immediately obvious what I’m looking at. I’m told it’s an historical province located in the Southwest of modern-day Sweden. I’m also told that provinces have no administrative functions but serve as cultural heuristics for fellow countryfolk. Outside Småland, Swedes have certain opinions of Smålandians. Folks who live in Jönköping and beyond, or whose heritage emanates from the adjectives that describe its place, Småland is something else. It really makes one think about what’s important when it comes to identity and place. I’m curious if assumptions from 50, 100, 200 years ago still hold. Which brings us to place, identity and otherhood in 1971’s The Emigrants: American critics saw enough in this movie to nominate it for Best Picture even though I’m sure most of them couldn’t pick out Småland on a map, let alone Chisago County, where our characters wound up after a very long journey. (To them and, at over 3 hours, to us.)

It’s curious because, to this point, the Academy hadn’t paid very much attention to non-English speaking film, outside Best Foreign Language film. In 41 years up to the 1971 awards, The Emigrants was only the 3rd non-English film to grab a nomination: Z in 1969 and La Grand Illusion in 1937, and still one of only 13 ever. The trajectory of The Emigrants and its language-successor, Cries & Whispers feels very “anointing the other,” in a quest to promote diversity. This pattern was self-indulgent and short-lived: the next foreign-language film to earn a Best Picture nomination was 1995’s Il Postino and 2019’s Parasite was the first foreign-language winner. What do these examples prove? Very little, except that if we look even a little bit outside American cinema, there’s dozens of other countries’ film industries to dig into, which all have incredible origin stories. The theory of American film exceptionalism is more a story of quantity over quality.

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[1972] Deliverance

There’s not a lot of nuance in the other. There’s you, and then there’s the people who are not you.

In your world, there’s you, your team, your group. In this group are people that agree with you, people that agree with people you agree with, and so forth. It’s both expansive and inclusive, but it’s insulated; and it requires an outgroup, whose shores seem to constantly be receding. The outgroup is, of course, definitely wrong and it’s important to say so. In castigating the other as “wrong,” you’ve given up nuance. Deliverance is the ultimate ingroup/outgroup movie on its surface, and lots has been written about its city slicker versus backcountry savagery.

This is the least interesting discussion we might have about Deliverance, a movie filled with nuance and shifting group dynamics. It continues to be unfair to paint parts of America with a broad a brush as Deliverance does. In the late 1960s / early 1970s, lots of America was not urbane, urbanized in the eyes of our four “protagonists.” And just because some parts of American culture are different than others does not ascribe to them inherent value. This is not to apologize for *that* scene in this movie as a gross over-generalization. It’s just to say that there’s a lot more to the humanity that’s been overloaded onto the city slickers and underfunded re: the rural folks. Continue reading

[1972] Sounder

The worst thing that can happen to a great movie is, in hindsight, for its release to have been in 1939, 1943, 1961, 1962, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1991 or 1997.

Let’s talk about The Godfather, widely acclaimed as a top film of all time. The casting – almost perfect; the writing – too accurate; the adaptation – who remembers the book? The Godfather, the movie, benefits from almost every detail: the early 1970s determined the rise of the mafia movie and The Godfather was (is) the strongest, all(!) the actors had already developed impressive résumés (no need to develop unknowns),  the important scenes resonate with us (still) and we can never look at equus the same way. The parts all add to an absurd sum. The Godfather transcends genre, convention and, really the plasticity of awards shows. Of course, in infinite, alternate universes other movies could have won Best Picture. In those same universes, though, no one would have thought to have made any movies ever. That being said, it’s a damn shame that Sounder was released in 1972.

Released during the Second Golden Age of Filmmaking, Sounder tells the story of a poor, black family growing up and together in the poorest of times to be a poor, black family – 30s Depression. Its brilliance, and what allows us to examine Sounder from a different angle is that Sounder is not exploitative. It doesn’t aim to make an example of blackness or poverty, save to tell the story. And the story itself is largely inconsequential – the details matter inasmuch as to develop the theme. Sounder, it turns out, is not an obfuscated Faulkner reference, but a pup, and one who provides much-needed comfort and support to the family. He is the only constant in a world of changing variables: sometimes there’s no food, sometimes there’s no family, sometimes there’s unthinkable cruelty (as was the case in 1930s Louisiana); but there’s always Sounder. When Sounder is feared lost or dead, the family knows that he’s not. Sounder is faith and spirituality embodied and emboldened. It’s inspiring work.  Continue reading