Friday, March 9, 2007

Cinema as a Revue

The Gene Siskel just concluded the first half of Jacqueline Stewart's excellent African American Auteurs series, which focuses on two race film directors (Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams) and two middle-aged, contemporary black directors (Spike Lee and Charles Burnett).
I wrote this down in my notebook after the screening of Spencer Williams' Juke Joint (shown as a double feature with the Dirty Gertie From Harlem, which is probably the best way to see Williams' films):

Juke Joint don't seem to come from a cinematic source--rather, it seems like an attempt to film "performance" and put it on the screen.
You've got to think of all the wide shots as performances--every edit within a set-up, every close-up, is not as much a cut as a digression. The cutaways feel awkward because they are canned inserts into what is essentially documentary (the documentary of how these actors and musicians perform fiction). Scenes with several characters seem jarring because every character is performing their "routine," their vaudeville act, without seemingly any cooperation. The film feels most natural when an "audience" is present--such as the extras in the juke joint scene, who react and laugh at the dialogue.

The film's juke joint sequence, which inspired these notes, is standard race film fare--a few dance teams, a band--the kind of number you find in any Micheaux or Williams film. At the start of the scene, a pair of dancers--Mack and Ace--perform several a lengthy routine. The female dancer has thighs out of an R. Crumb comic. At one point, she does a handstand while the male dancer pretends to mimes the bass part of the backing band on her leg, transforming her body into an upright bass. Suddenly, you can hear some snickering, and realize that there is a live audience behind the camera (Williams' films use one-track sound, so the soundtrack is always either direct, or completely post-synced; more on that later).
After another, less impressive duo performs (with a much shorter routine), the film's featured band, Red Calhoun's Orchestra, begins to play. Extras wander into the shot and dance naturally--the feeling is of total documentary, perhaps even a tad voyeuristic. The microphones have been placed near the band, so we can't hear the dancers talking, but we can see their lips move as they flirt and joke around.
Occasionally, cutaways of the band (possibly the only angled shots in a film full of room-encompassing wide shots and above-the-waist medium framings) are inserted, but they feel like interruptions--not only because they are clearly shot at a different time, but because they seem to break the flow of the "performance." Which is what Juke Joint essentially is--a revue, a set of performances, broad comic acts and beauty pageants. In Juke Joint (and in Dirty Gertie), Williams builds films out of neither the tradition of sound nor image nor narrative nor even acting, but out of the simple idea of watching people "perform"--the idea of a stage rather than a theater, if you will.
The film's strongest scenes therefore all occur towards the end, in the titular juke joint, where the actors, with their clashing talents and acting styles, have a real audience to perform to. Extras turn and laugh to each other in the foreground as Inez Newell attacks Leonard Duncan, playing the part of her philandering, lazy husband. At one point, Katherine Moore, playing the black sheep daughter who wants to run away with the juke joint owner to Chicago, almost swears, but the take is kept (no doubt due to budget constraints). It's almost like everyone is waiting for their number: tap dancer Howard Galloway, who plays the aforementioned juke joint owner, stumbles over dialogue, but in a scene where he has to introduce the band and attract the (real) audience's attention, he shines as only a showman would.

In the more visually dynamic Dirtie Gertie from Harlem, which features many of the same actors (including Spencer Williams himself in drag), it the sound and not the cutaway that creates digressions from the performance. The film's island setting requires effects to be added to the soundtrack (such as the sound of steam ship announcing its arrival), and these drown out all dialogue. The acting in the film is also more traditional, more caricaturish than archetypal. The film also features a dance number, featuring Howard Galloway as one of the lead tap dancers--his routine is fantastic, but the sound has been replaced by a crisper recording of the band, therefore leaving us with the eerie result of a tap number with no clicking-and-clacking sounds.
Dirty Gertie does feature the most astounding single "performance," though: a non-actor, a servant playing a servant, whose single line, "Yes, ma'am," is said in a way that more instinctual and automatic than any actor could ever manage. It takes more than a lifetime to perfect it: it takes generations.

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