Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 June 2008

In Black and White

The old 1927 silent/talkie The Jazz Singer is most definitely racist, but not in the way I was expecting. I new that Al Jolson sang the song "My Mammy" in blackface, and that that was one of the film's central sequences. I mean, performing in blackface is inherently disrespectful and racist, but the film's main racist thread is its anti-Semitism. The main character, Jakie Rabinowitz, changes his name to Jack Robin and becomes a famous jazz singer. Jack, in doing so, goes against the wishes of his father who is a cantor at the synagogue. Papa Rabinowitz wants little Jakie to grow up to be a cantor, too, but Jack's dedication to his career means he says nix to the cantor gig and goes off to Chicago to make his own way in the world.
The film's treatment of this Jewish family is incredibly Orientalist. Jack's mom, who is an entirely sympathetic character is played by May McAvoy and looks about as Jewish as I do. But the other Jewish characters (the ones we're supposed to like less) look extra Jewish and in case you can't tell the difference between their "race" (which is what the film calls Judaism) and ours, a starkly "Jewish" soundtrack plays underneath the entrances of both Jack's uncle Moisha Yudelson and Papa Rabinowitz. I found it actually shocking.
The script is, of course, written by a Jew (Alfred A. Cohen) and is based on a play by Samson Raphaelson.
The Jazz Singer is an important film, of course, for demonstrating how much audiences would go crazy over talking pictures, but I couldn't help disliking its silly moralizing and its barely-masked racism.

And evidently I'm a philistine. Everyone else loved Anton Corbijn's film Control about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Maybe I'm just not that into post-punk. (I'm not.) But I was bored during this film. It's shot beautifully in black and white and the lead actor (Sam Riley) is interesting and enigmatic. But the script itself is a bunch of silliness. It's a melodrama: crafted like every other biopic of a rock singer out there. Singer meets girl. Singer depends on girl to become who he is. Singer becomes famous. Singer starts to forget about girl. Singer meets new girl. Drama and fighting ensue. And Control, for all of its punk rock sensibilities and beautiful photography is never really better than any other of these movies.

Of course, all of this would probably be a little more enjoyable for me if I liked Joy Division's music, but (as I say) I'm a philistine and it just isn't my thing.