Streamers: Chale Nafus Presents Some Recent Watches
During this quarantine period, when so many people are spending much more time at home, we have been asking some of our friends in the film community for some streaming recommendations.
Chances are, if you are an AFS member or a regular attendee of the AFS Cinema, you already know Chale Nafus, former Director of Programming at AFS. Before his legendary 12 year run programming for AFS, he was head of Austin Community College’s RTF department, where he mentored countless young people who were interested in film. One of those students, Richard Linklater, went on to found AFS, and Chale was there to pitch in the whole time. The Chale story is too big to go into, and our debt to him is too great to go into now, but you can read more about his amazing journey in Raoul Hernandez’s article here.
We were thrilled when Chale sent us this essay about some of the more recent films he has watched on streaming services. It gives us something of the feeling that his perceptive xeroxed movie notes had. So, without further ado, here’s Chale Nafus:
Let’s start out with a double feature of two films from the era of the Great Depression — À NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (René Clair, France, 1931, Criterion Channel) and MODERN TIMES (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1936, Criterion Channel). The French film considers the lives of two convicts, Louis and Emile, who spend their days with other prisoners assembling toy horses. After his escape, like any stereotypical capitalist of the time, Louis uses stolen money to methodically turn himself into a titan of industry. His memories of the toy horses in prison become a line of men assembling the parts of record players. When his old cellmate Emile shows up, Louis gives him a job on the assembly line, but Emile’s mind often wanders off into daydreams of the office worker Jeanne. Consequently, he brings chaos to the rigid orderliness of manufacturing. Louis, already married (unhappily), is not really interested in love so much as money and power. Inevitably the two people who should really be together end the film heading down the road to new adventures. With the avant-garde music of composer Georges Auric, the striking set design by Polish modernist artist Lazare Meerson, and spoken dialogue throughout, À NOUS LA LIBERTÉ is a delightful film embodying the best of silent cinema compositions and the new technology of sound film.
Although he denied ever having seen Rene Clair’s comedy, Charlie Chaplin put certain scenes into MODERN TIMES that suggest otherwise. While the characters and stories are very different, both films deal with dehumanizing elements of 20th century life, before and during the Great Depression. Chaplin simply knew how to fully exploit all the comic elements of his settings. It’s impossible to forget the factory scenes: Chaplin dragged through the gears of the monstrous machine, the automatic feeding machine, and the use of television as a surveillance tool.
In the same way that Louis became the accidental winner of a bicycle race by stealing a bike and crossing the finish line first in the French film, Chaplin becomes the unintentional leader of a Communist protest march by running after a lumber truck to return their red flag. For this and other reasons, he goes to prison, so often that he really feels comfortable there and doesn’t want to be released. Although made nine years after the first all-talking THE JAZZ SINGER, Chaplin used the new technology for music and very clever comic moments, such as the duel of the gurgling stomachs and the barking dog. He adamantly stuck to being a visual director. Of course, there is love in MODERN TIMES, and this time, rare for the Little Tramp, it is not unrequited. The two people going off down the road at the end of this film are likewise the ones who should be together.
Two people who definitely should not be together are Al Roberts and a woman we only know as Vera in DETOUR (Edgar G. Ulmer, USA, 1945, Criterion Channel). Obviously, Jack Kerouac never saw DETOUR before writing “On the Road”, or he would never have started his first trek across America using his thumb. Al and Vera are both hitchhikers with dark pasts. When fate throws them together on a California highway, Vera starts concocting an evil scheme which could only lead to greater trouble for them both. Al tries to be a decent guy, but the fates see him as a toy to toss about, while Vera is so dangerous and evil that most men would be safer bedding an electric lawnmower. At least they would have good chances of just a mild shock, survivable moments of strangulation, or some painful but healable cuts. With Vera, they would get full deadly doses of all three. Ulmer’s low-budget 68-minute film for a low-rent studio can still enthrall us 75 years later.
Changing course but still looking at bigger-than-life, uncontrollable characters, MILES DAVIS – BIRTH OF THE COOL (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2020, Netflix) takes us deeply into the life and mind of jazz-god Miles Davis. Specializing in documenting African American lives in the 20th century, Stanley Nelson was bound to finally confront the mysterious genius, but he waited until he had produced 30 other documentaries. One does not approach Mount Olympus casually. Using interviews with people who knew Davis and original footage of numerous performances, Nelson intermingled Davis’s own words, raspingly voiced by Carl Lumbly. The musician’s abuse of alcohol, drugs, and women isn’t ignored but fades into the background whenever he puts lips to horn and blows out all his moods. We are treated to fine examples of each of his musical styles – bebop, sensuous, lyrical romantic, cool, blue, and dozens of improvisational approaches. His encouragement of young musicians is remarkable, but we can’t be surprised by his sharp dismissal of those who have displeased his ears. A man who could compose and play such music has to have been complex, sometimes unlikable, but never forgettable. As Quincy Jones remarks, “He makes my soul smile.”
SEBERG (Benedict Andrews, USA, 2019, Amazon Prime Streaming or Kanopy streaming) is not a film I would have recommended earlier this year, but now because of the rise of Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests, I think that even this anemic film has something to say to contemporary audiences. Barely 18-years-old, Jean Seberg was discovered and burned by Otto Preminger for his SAINT JOAN (1957), but she became a different kind of French heroine when she starred as Patricia Franchini in Godard’s milestone New Wave film BREATHLESS (1960). Seemingly not interested in New Wave Jean, this “bio-pic” instead focuses on her return to America to work in Hollywood around 1969. Not really knowing what to do with an actress accustomed to the freedom of French filmmaking in the 60s, she is stuck into a musical Western (PAINT YOUR WAGON, 1969) featuring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood bursting into song. What does make SEBERG watchable is the actress’s interest in various Black Power movements – the Black Panthers for one, but more importantly Hakim Jamal, Malcolm X’s cousin, who is more focused on educating young Black children than overthrowing the government. But, as seen in the movie, it is J. Edgar Hoover’s racist paranoia that led the FBI to try to destroy Jamal by destroying Seberg’s career and sanity through COINTELPRO, the Counter-Intelligence Program, using audio bugs, visual surveillance, innuendo, and lies planted in willing or unquestioning media. The film shows how one powerful government agency determined the Black Power movement could be discredited and destroyed through attacking their radical-chic allies and financial benefactors. At best, SEBERG is a cautionary tale; at worst, it is rather disjointed. Even so, it is thought-provoking to compare this representation of what happened fifty years ago with what is going on now. Also on the plus side is that the soundtrack contains Miles Davis’s “Green Haze,” Abu Talib’s “Blood of an American,” Sun Ra’s “Ankh,” and Nina Simone’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”