Thursday, June 18, 2009

Didactics: Dudow/Brecht's KUHLE WAMPE, Brokaw/Gilman's SPINNING INTO BUTTER

Happening to view within the same 24 hours both KUHLE WAMPE: Or Who Owns the World? (the 1931 film directed by Slatan Dudow and co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Ottwald) and SPINNING INTO BUTTER (theatre director Mark Brokow's film of Rebecca Gilman's popular turn-of-this-past-century play ), TrustMovies was struck with how few really didactic films we get to see of late. "Teaching" has gone out of style, I guess, but watching both these movies made me wish we saw a little more of it. Neither is great, though Dudow/Brecht beats Brokow/Gilman by a mile. Yet both films fascinate in how they tackle social problems while demonstrating the didactic -- then and now.

Kuhle Wampe, which is getting a much-deserved (but too short) two-day run that ends today at Anthology Film Archives, hands us 1931, Depression-era Berlin on an empty platter, as we see a near-destitute family (shown above) -- mom, dad, son, daughter -- trying to make ends meets. Son, depressed, finds a quick way out early on but daughter pins her hopes on her boyfriend (both are shown below), into whose tent at a lakeside campground (the Kuhle Wampe of the title and the home for many of the unemployed), she and her family move. The details of the film -- how people live, communicate, have fun and even stage a wedding -- are rich and interesting, and the characters, particularly that of the daughter and her on-and-off boyfriend have surprising depth, considering the movie's short (69-minute) running time. The acting is fine and of its time, the music (by Hanns Eisler) and cinematography (Günther Krampf) are assets, too, as is the good-looking and newly restored print that Anthology is presenting.

The film ends with a conversation in a subway train that encapsulates a good amount of philosophy, economics and politics -- as the riders (of various social classes) argue over how best to divvy up the spoils, as it were. This final scene is so strong, intelligent and even moving, that is brings together the somewhat fragmented, impressionistic and occasionally surreal sections that have come before. Kuhle Wampe screens at Anthology Film Archives for the last time tonight, Thursday, June 18, at 7 and 9pm.

Spinning into Butter offers a terrific beginning, as we (and someone dressed in a dark red jacket) view an ancient cartoon of an "Americanized" Little Black Sambo on TV. From this we venture into a prestigious and expensive college campus somewhere in the northeast US and from there to the middle of a racist incident that blossoms into a full-fledged news story that threatens students, black and white, teachers and the continued existence of the school itself.

I did not see the original play on which the film is based but suspect that its movie version comes pretty close to the source. Its theme, finally, is America's true feelings about the "other," and how, because it continues to delude itself about these feelings, we cannot progress. A worthy subject indeed, but as involved as I got in things, I must admit to feeling too manipulated too often, as Gilman and her co-writer Doug Atchison leads us through a series of events and confrontations that begins to leech the life (and truth) out of things. The climax in particular proves both questionable and telegraphed, turning everything back in upon itself in such an easy fashion that it somehow robs the movie of its very subject.

And yet this subject (as well as many of the performances here) are worthy and, as much as you may find yourself disliking the movie, it will be hard to pull away from it entirely. One scene in particular -- an auditorium full of faculty, students and administration that breaks into a free-for-all of spite and hatred -- is quite well done, bringing the film's theme to its most heated state and making an interesting comparison with the subway scene in Kuhle Wampe. In both, we are in a public place, watching people think, feel, speak and respond quickly and emotionally. While the didactic is still present, spontaneity takes precedence and both scenes work surprisingly well.

Lead Sarah Jessica Parker is not up to her usual snuff (perhaps her character exists as too much the obvious teacher, which she is, though she doesn't have to "teach" us quite so blatantly), but Miranda Richardson (shown above), Mykelti Williamson and Paul James (shown right) are just fine, even if their roles are all a little too "generic" for comfort.

Spinning Into Butter, though made in 2007, finally appeared on DVD last week, after a very limited theatrical release this past March.

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