Friday, February 25, 2011

Outsiders Looking In

Films: Broken Blossoms, The Elephant Man
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Race—differences between races, the similarities, problems of, dealing with, etc.—is almost certainly one of the most filmed major themes since film began. It’s impossible at times to separate race from character, or race from plot. This is as true of films being made today as it was of films made during the silent era. The attitudes of the rank and file have changed with regard to race in the main, and generally for the positive, but that doesn’t mean that race problems have vanished, or that there is nothing more to be said.

D.W. Griffith seemed to return to concepts of race again and again, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Films like Birth of a Nation deal with ideas of racial superiority and stereotype while others, like Intolerance touch less on race specifically but deal more with a general, well, intolerance. Broken Blossoms falls somewhere in between these two extremes of favoring ideas of racial superiority and supporting ideas of tolerance and equality.

What this means is that I think it is evident that Griffith’s sympathies in this film are with our Chinese leading man, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess). Cheng is depicted initially as an idealist and a pacifist who becomes dissolute due to opium addiction, but Griffith gives him a chance to redeem himself throughout the film, and Cheng jumps at the chance he is offered. In other words, Cheng Huan is shown as a human with failings, but who is at his core a good man willing and ready to do the right thing.

To really understand the depth of Griffith’s sympathy for Cheng, it’s important to bring in the character of Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish). Lucy is a poor little teenager who is regularly beaten by her father, prizefighter Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). He beats her to the edge of death before she passes out in Cheng’s store. Cheng cares for her, dressing her in silk and treating her well for the first time in her life. It’s evident here, and in fact before this point that Cheng loves the girl. However, even now, with her life in his hands, he refuses to take advantage of his position, treating her instead with concern, compassion, and kindness. Griffith wants us to like Cheng. He wants us to root for Cheng. He wants us to want Lucy to fall for Cheng despite his foreignness (less of a deal now, but a huge deal in 1919). That this is his goal could not be more evident had it been written on a title card.

Perhaps to help our sympathies, or to create his own, Lucy’s life is depicted as being so terrible that she is forced to physically move her mouth with her fingers to bring a smile to her face when her brutish father demands it. It’s melodrama of the highest order at this point, but again, it’s important to look at this through the eyes of its intended post-World War I audience rather than today’s. Lillian Gish is a cutie (which is to be expected—she has to engage our sympathies, after all), and seeing her physical, emotional, and spiritual degradation at the hand of this thug is affecting, no matter how contrived. “Certainly,” thinks the 1919 audience, “Anything is better than this—even the Chinese man.”

And this is where the racism seems to really rear its ugly head. Throughout the film, Cheng is referred to in title cards as the “Yellow Man,” a phrase that would cause mass protests today. In fact, at one point, once his descent into opium addiction begins, Cheng is referred to as another “Chink shopkeeper,” a racial slur that may have once been common parlance but in today’s world is one of the most unacceptable.

It’s true that most of the racial bashing here comes not from the title cards, but from the characters we are supposed to dislike. As Lucy recovers from her beating from accidentally spilling food on Battling Burrows, he reacts not because Lucy has taken up with a man, but because she is being cared for by a Chinese man. What is perhaps more shocking is Lucy calling him “Chinky” as a term of affection, and recoiling from him when he dares get physically close to her.

It’s almost as if this film is the public beginning of White Guilt. Griffith wants us to want Cheng to come out victorious, but Griffith himself can’t see Cheng as a man, but only as a subset of men. He’s not quite the worth of a white man—he’s always something different and to a great extent lesser. Cheng’s greatest fault is not so much his opium addiction, but that he’s Chinese rather than white.

Ultimately, Broken Blossoms is a soap opera, a sensation only enhanced by the soundtrack that runs through much of the version I watched. That it tells a bittersweet story and features a hero who is not white is noteworthy in 1919. That the inherent racism of the time still bleeds through is perhaps inevitable. Maybe…maybe it’s enough that at least Griffith was trying to overcome what had been pounded into him in a lifetime of living in society that viewed anyone not of European stock as lesser, inferior, or sub-human. Is it his fault he didn’t get all the way there? But could there be better proof of this truth than the fact that a Chinese man is played by a Caucasian actor?

As a last note, this contains some of the funniest boxing I have ever seen. I realize it’s not meant to be comic, but it really, really is.

The idea of racial equality has undergone a number of changes in this country and much of the world since Broken Blossoms was filmed. In other ways, society has perhaps changed less. David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is a biopic of the life of John Merrick, whose celebrated skeleton Michael Jackson once wanted to purchase. Much of the story comes from the journal of Frederick Treves, played here by Anthony Hopkins.

On its surface, this is the story of a badly deformed man suffering from a combination of medical conditions that combined to create such deformities that had never been seen before. Merrick, whose real first name was Joseph, has been diagnosed in the years after his death as having a combination of neurofibromatosis and proteus syndrome (you can look these up on your own). His body was covered in huge benign tumors of such size that he was forced to sleep sitting up lest he risk suffocating. In practical terms for this film, it meant that the great John Hurt had to spend seven hours per day in the makeup chair and could only work on alternate days.

What this truly is, of course, is a story of human dignity. Merrick’s extensive deformities do not change the fact that underneath it all he is a man. We don’t start there, though. Initially, Merrick is a sideshow attraction, a freak of nature, and there is no indication that there is anything at all beneath that massive head of his. His “owner,” Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) takes care of him, but not very well, and Merrick is evidently subject to a series of regular beatings administered by Bytes’s walking stick. Treves takes a special interest in Merrick, showing his deformities to the medical community, and then coming to his rescue after a particularly severe beating from Bytes. He brings him into the hospital and attempts to communicate with him.

It’s not until Merrick is introduced to hospital official Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) that we discover that he has a mind underneath his deformed skull. Merrick is actually a gentle creature, a man of fine sensibilities and refinement. This is contrasted in the evenings when a riotous porter (Michael Elphick) brings his drunken cronies around to gawk at the man.

What’s actually quite lovely here is the progression of the people at the hospital, where Merrick is eventually allowed to stay permanently. Initially, he is a figure of terror due to his massive disfigurements. Eventually, the people come to accept him, and eventually like him, particularly Carr Gomm and the nurse Mothershead (Wendy Hiller). A visit from a famous stage actress named Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) provides John with a source of dreams, a sense of himself, and a desire to be seen as a man.

The Elephant Man works frequently as melodrama. Merrick is so terrible in appearance and so gentle in nature that it’s almost too much. Those who are despicable—Bytes, the porter—are so nasty as to be missing only the pencil-thin curly mustache and Snidely Whiplash sneer. And yet it is effective here. Hurt’s performance is one of the great ones of his career. He plays Merrick with a real sensitivity and pathos.

The film is shot in a crisp black-and-white, and this does a great deal for the film. It has been reported that Lynch decided against color because the makeup effects looked appalling in color, and that may or may not be true. What is true is that the film is beautiful in black-and-white, and I can’t imagine it in color.

It’s worth noting that The Elephant Man lost every Oscar it was nominated for. The one award it was not nominated for was for makeup effects. There were many who believed that the film deserved a special award, because there was no regular category at that time for makeup. The film went unrewarded—a huge oversight in my opinion—but the next year, a category for makeup effects was added.

What’s the final analysis here? Bluntly, it should have won something. Despite the obvious melodrama and the overhyped emotional content, this is a beautiful film and a touching one. Merrick is a tragic figure, and beautiful despite his deformities, perhaps because of them. John Hurt has never been better, and considering the roles he’s had and the films he’s been in, that’s saying quite a lot. You’re doing yourself a disservice not seeing this film. I wish I had seen it before tonight.

Why to watch Broken Blossoms: A sad little story, more touching and intimate than might be expected from Griffith’s earlier bombast.
Why not to watch: The racism still bleeds through.

Why to watch The Elephant Man: Probably David Lynch’s most coherent and understandable film.
Why not to watch: Excessive sentimentality.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting question as to whether D.W. Griffith intentionally or unintentionally revisits racial issues.

    As the "father" of American film, who is so widely lauded for his advanced techniques, I can't imagine that he was unaware of what he was doing in revisiting these themes. After the criticism leveled against Birth of a Nation, I would argue that he was acutely aware of what he was doing.

    Likewise, Griffith's efforts to extol the virtues of Christianity in his films was certainly no fluke either. From this I'd argue that he was not only aware, but that his film making was socially and politically motivated.

    As for broken Blossoms, unfortunately D.W. Griffith’s decision to adapt a story called “The Chink and the Child” (1915) may not have been his best choice. It almost seems that the harder D.W. tried to be racially sensitive, the more offensive he became.

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  2. Sounds about right. He actually seems to hold a certain amount of respect for Buddhism in Broken Blossoms, enough that Cheng is depicted as a man of peace who sincerely believes that the West needs to have these ideas brought to them due to the constant violence.

    It's like he's trying too hard. Broken Blossoms is almost like him saying, "But some of my best friends are Asian."

    So does the fact that he evidently meant well and was coming from a racially insensitive time temper his evident (and possibly unconscious)racism?

    In short, can he--and should he--be held to a modern standard of racial tolerance?

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  3. Good question. While I don't think it's fair to judge D.W.'s films on current standards, it is fair to judge his work in terms of his own period -- which he would probably fail.

    While i'm no film historian, there seems evidence to suggest that his treatment of racial issues did raise concerns - and his films were considered racist:

    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4966

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  4. Well...Birth of a Nation was nothing but racism.

    I'd be curious to see contemporary reaction to Broken Blossoms. From Silent Era (www.silentera.com)

    "Whether the subtle racism and oppression of Broken Blossoms’ world, hidden in the guise of a call for tolerance and understanding, are the echoes of Griffith’s prejudicial personal voice or the dissecting social commentary of a great and wise mind is still the subject of debate."

    So, I guess a shrug and a shake of the head is all we can hope for on this.

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  5. I tend to side on the echoes of racism side of the fence. I really can't see any evidence of subtlety in any of Griffith's work which would suggest to me that he was dissecting social commentary.

    ...But you must be glad you're almost finished his movies form the 1001 list :)

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  6. Yes, that. I think while I'm becoming more attuned to silent film in general, I'm becoming less and less interested in Griffith specifically.

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  7. Didn't know the rumour that "Lynch decided against color because the makeup effects looked appalling in color".

    I think as the film is set in the 1800s, b/w works well in taking us back in time. (much like David Lean's Great Expectations did)

    My review of The Elephant Man will be up in the next few days, should you be curious ( :

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  8. I agree--I've never minded seeing a black-and-white film. I like the decision if it makes sense, and there is a real nostalgic charm to it here.

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