MMC! returns to the work of Ben Maddow, this time with him in the role of writer/director and working in collaboration with Helen Levitt as producer and Sidney Meyers as editor. Maddow’s short film The Steps of Age (also known as The Stairs, 1950) was sponsored by the National Association of Mental Health, produced by the Department of Mental Health for the State of South Carolina, and organized by the Mental Health Film Board, and it focuses on the strain of aging and retirement through the figure of Mrs. Potter (Rose Spencer), a 62 year-old woman challenged with a listless husband forced into retirement and then the difficulty of moving in with her daughter’s family. The short ultimately promotes the need for empathy, respect, and appreciation by Mrs. Potter and her daughter (played by James Agee’s younger sister Emma), along with an acceptance of old-age and the changing roles that accompany it. The Steps of Age garnered a Documentary Short Oscar nomination, losing to Edmund Reek’s Why Korea? (1950).
Our next stop on the way to MMC!’s forthcoming Criterion Collection proposal brings us south of the Santa Monica Pier to the original Muscle Beach and to Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner’s Muscle Beach (1948). Strick had met Irving Lerner and other left-wing filmmakers through connections with a youth theatre company in New York. After enrolling to study physics at UCLA (because “that’s where movies were made”), Strick signed up as an aerial photographer searching of U-boats off the Atlantic coast during World War II. He worked as a copy boy at The Los Angeles Times upon his return to civilian life and shot Muscle Beach on weekends with the assistance of Lerner and using an army surplus bombsight camera with a “bottle-glass” lens and rigged up with a viewfinder made from “sellotape and paperclips.”
Muscle Beach is a warmly satirical look at an emerging subculture of bodybuilders, gymnasts, and exhibitionists. Originally constructed in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration as a park on a public beach, Muscle Beach in the 1940s has become a standing joke in trade magazines and a source of innuendo in Hollywood gossip columns. The short responds to this view with a lighthearted celebration of soaring feats, flirty sunbathers, and playing children, buoyed by music composed and sung by folk singer Earl Robinson with lyrics by screenwriter and poet Edwin Rolfe. Muscle Beach played in competition at Cannes in 1949, won a prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1951, and became a cult favourite among film clubs.
Our second stop along the way the MMC!’s next proposal brings us to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and In the Street (1948), a short documentary made by a trio of brilliant American polymaths: critic and novelist James Agee, photographer Helen Levitt, and painter and screenwriter Janice Loeb. The three friends shot the film in 1945 and 1946, near where they lived, with Levitt editing the short into its final version. Originally titled I Hate 110th Street, a phrase captured in an image of children’s chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, In the Street began with footage originally shot by Agee that directly engaged with his subjects, capturing the vitality of children mugging at the camera with gleeful abandon. Levitt’s approach for additional footage mirrored her trickery in still photography. Pointing her camera at Agee or Loeb, her sister-in-law, as decoys, she used a right-angled viewfinder to catch her true subjects unawares. While Agee’s footage anticipates the direct cinema movement, Levitt’s sideways gaze reveals urban life at its most unmediated, save for her expert framing. Theorist Siegfried Kracauer hailed the documentary as “reportage pure and simple,” presenting a collection of seemingly random experiences infused with an “unconcealed compassion for the people depicted” and a tenderness that never converts them into “anything but themselves.” The short was also a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, who never tired of imitating its young participants.
In anticipation of our next proposal for the Criterion Collection, MMC! will lead the way a series of “Son of Wholphin” posts focusing on a group of short films that will set a path to and through our next feature subject. We start with People of the Cumberland, a documentary short from 1937 directed by Elia Kazan, William Watts, Eugene Hill (credited as Jay Leyda), and Sidney Meyers (credited as Eugene Hill). The film concerns a progressive adult education project, Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, located in the mountain community of Monteagle, Tennessee. Demonstrating the School’s impact on the impoverished coal mining region, the short pivots toward the growing labour movement and advocates for a “new kind of America” free from economic exploitation and privation. The film was made under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration, a New Deal agency, and as part of the Federal Arts Project program. Written by Erskine Caldwell and Ben Maddow (credited as David Wolff), the short is an excellent document of its time and a rousingly populist essay thanks to the narration of Richard Blaine and the footage shot by Ralph Steiner.
FOR MAURY DANN, EVERY DAY IS “PAYDAY”
In a rare starring role, Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a hard-living country singer traveling the Deep South honky tonk circuit. Dann’s good ol’ boy smile charms even passing fans, but in private he is a greedy, entitled, and pitiless tyrant ruling from the back seat of a Cadillac sedan. Set over a day and a half, Payday reveals Maury’s unrepentant selfishness and cynicism, bedding young fans, popping pills, and casting off members of his entourage once they have outlasted his needs. Dann’s self-serving and hedonistic ways come to a head in a late night parking lot scuffle, transforming his megalomania into inevitable self-destruction.
Music critic and Payday producer Ralph Gleason declared that the objective of this staggeringly jaundiced portrait was a desire to provide an honest portrayal of life in the country music business. Under the direction of Daryl Duke (The Silent Partner), Payday rejected the polished image of country music, pointed the way toward the approaching outlaw country movement, and placed a spotlight on the magnetic presence of Rip Torn.
Special Edition Contents:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Feature-length audio commentary with director Daryl Duke and producer Saul Zaentz
- Risk Management, a new interview with actor Michael C. Gwynne
- Ride-along, a new interview with actor Elayne Heilveil
- Passing Through, a new interview with actor Cliff Emmich
- The Music Man, a new interview with music supervisor Ed Bogas
- Original theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by musician and scholar Kim Simpson
MMC! continues to catch up with the best films of 2019 in anticipation of the Film Comment Readers’ Poll. This year, the magazine is giving away a copy of its September-October issue signed by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho. Entries are due by March 31, so be sure to submit your ballot!
- Avengement (Jesse V. Johnson, 2019)
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)
- Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, 2019)
- La Belle Époque (Nicolas Bedos, 2019)
- The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, 2019)
- The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)
- Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
- Superexpress (Yasuzô Masumura, 1964)
- Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
- Tora-san’s Grand Scheme (Shun’ichi Kobayashi, 1970)
Two under-the-radar titles deserve shout-outs. First, La Belle Époque, about a disillusioned cartoonist in his 60s who revisits his youth and his one great love through a service that reconstructs historical eras for its clients. Bedos’ film evokes The Truman Show and Synecdoche, New York, plus a bit of The Parent Trap thrown in, and offers a charmingly wistful take on art, nostalgia, and romance. Second is Superexpress, an entry to Daiei’s “Black” series which featured bleakly cynical stories of industrial conspiracies and shady business-dealings. Superexpress offers a story about a corrupt land deal and presents Masumura’s characteristically crowded, claustrophobic, and oppressive frames. Does anyone know where I can find a comprehensive list for the “Black” series?