Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Third Row - Just Campy Enough to Laugh At, Just Serious Enough to Feel Bad For it Afterward

Well folks, it's...a bit later than the weekend this time, actually. But,
once again, you've found your way to a seat here in the Third Row.

Before we start this week's feature, you're going to be subjected to a
rambling, and a bit of a preamble for this month.

First off, earlier this week, I finally caught up with the rest of much of
the proverbial free world and saw James Cameron's much-vaunted Avatar.

Will this one upset the earlier established top 5? Eh...

Don't get me wrong, it certainly wasn't a bad film overall. Was worth seeing
and all, especially in theaters, where it's prettymuch made for the suitable

At the same time though, outside of the technology breakthrough, there wasn't
much else that gave me any strong sense I was seeing film history happening
(again, I'll acknowledge the tech will probably make a big splash on the map,
but I don't imagine the story or world-building has gone above or beyond far
enough to really embed themselves in the pop culture.)

The story's largely pretty good, but at the same time, it's something that's
been done repeatedly in both science fiction as well as fiction as general
(hence all the joke comparisons to Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and Ferngully.)
Even as far as how it executes said story, it doesn't really do anything
particularly striking beyond its visuals.

Curiously, and this was the big sticking point for me, Cameron's apparent
love for the Na'vi REALLY paints the story as one-sided.

We're given a story where humanity is seen as constantly lacking and has
absolutely nothing really going for it, while the Na'vi are treated as living
perfect lives on a planet that the movie treats as a sort of Eden compared to
Earth (...once you get past the fact that, unless you can hook into these things
like a biological CPU, the entire planet will try to kill you...might I suggest
making your summer home investment some real estate on Arrakis? Much lower
chance of being ripped apart by the local wildlife and the neighbors have higher
odds of asking questions before they stick ya.)

So yes...outside of irritation at the largely one-sided (moreso than most
fiction in these cases tends to be) depiction of two cultures, the film itself
is still a generally pretty solid popcorn movie.

...that said...I grow a bit concerned by its awards prospects at this point.

It's already taken Best Drama at the Golden Globes, to a wave of many
concerned voices, and is currently in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars
(although with the net expanded to include 10 nominees, that's not quite AS
impressive as it used to be. Some eyebrows DO still go up for James Cameron
getting a Best Director nom.)

Now, I don't begrudge James his success, really. More power to him that the
film's doing well. I guess, old man as this is gonna make me sound, I grow
concerned about the kind of message this film taking best picture is gonna send
in the industry. Generally even some of the praising reviews will acknowledge
story to be this film's shortcoming. It is, in general, a technology testbed
which has a decent sci-fi story attached. So if it gets declared the best movie
of the year, what does that say for the industry? Technology is what matters?
Style over substance, as it were?

Again, perhaps I'm looking at this wrong...but under the circumstances, even
if that's not the message that the Academy intends to send, I still have a bad
feeling that, if this comes to pass, that WILL be the message studio execs glean
from the win. As a result, the industry will be inundated with movies trying
their damnedest to embrace the new technology (Hell, this is even happening now,
complete with talks of trying to refit some upcoming releases to match the
system) with concerns of storytelling and general film quality taking a backseat
to visual hook.


...ANYWAY, that ends my old man gibberings for today.

Now then...I'd like to address something which I'm sure faithful readers
(...all two of you) have noticed.

The Third Row has been strangely empty the last two weeks.

There is a good reason for this...two, actually. First, the talkative little
asshole who sits here had some business to finish in his own life outside of the
row, and had to tend to that.

Second, we received a call from the Board of Health. Seems the Grand Guignol
that was the Geist double-feature left a LOT of blood, and a few organs in the
seats when we discussed those. Unfortunately, some of them got leave that kind of stuff long enough, we've got a health

We apologize for the fact the last two weeks, the Third Row was cut off by
emergency tape, and plan to do our best to make it up to you. Of course, how we
propose to do this is through a gesture that will have many of you either
groaning or curse my name.

That's right kids, it's a theme month!

Admittedly, I'm trying to avoid making these happen too often (mostly cause
then I'm kind of forced to pick something in that theme for a whole month) but
every so often, I feel inclined to pick up on a particular genre.

February is especially helpful for this, given it's a short month anyways.

Plus, February gives us a great chance to play with great genre of
yesteryear...a genre that's remembered in equal parts for its memorable
characters and styles, its often catchy soundtracks, and its themes that could
run anywhere from delightfully cheezy to sometimes quite empowering.

So, in one of the few times I will ever use the word 'pleased' with regards
to the idea of theme months...

I'm pleased (and in light of this week's feature, a little bit ashamed) to
declare February Blaxploitation History Month here on The Third Row.

For each weekend in February, we'll be looking at films from this now sadly
oft overlooked genre. These will run anywhere from the greats that people still
look back on as general classics, to a couple of films that...well, let's just
say time hasn't really done them any favors...happens with all genres.

Maybe, if this reviewer can actually get the chance, we might even cover a
rather surprising title which has managed to help give the genre a new spark of
life last year.

In the meantime, I'll stop rambling and we'll begin this month
with...probably one of the more awkward titles of the time period (admittedly,
this one's VERY debatable in its blaxploitation status. Its sequel seems to be
marketed as such, but this one's...up for some question. I tell you guys what
though. In light of this one's questionable state, I'll even throw on another at
the start of March...partially cause I could get to enjoying these.)

Anyways, we start off with this rather dubious piece from the 1970s: a time
period where, surprising as it is to believe, filmmakers really COULD get away
with a lot (and if you don't believe me, look back at such classics as Blazing
Saddles, A Clockwork Orange, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and ask yourself
if they'd fly in regular theaters nowadays.)

Today's film is a touching tale of the friendship between two men in a time
of hate. A friendship that transcends many boundaries: race, class, one friend
owning the other like property, said first friend putting second friend to work
on his land, said first friend entering second friend into a secret underground
fight club against other slaves, said second friend being hit on by first
friend's wife, which then leads to first friend trying to boil second friend ali--OK,
MAYBE their friendship hits a wall there.

Anyways, we'll be discussing all of this, and James Mason in probably one of
the most awkward roles of his career this weekend as we review the infamous

The plot for the film is...kind of an odd mix of points, really. It seems
torn between two particular plot strains. The first of these concerns the
assorted trials and tribulations (to put them mildly) of the Maxwells, an
affluent Southern family. Most notably, of son Hammond (played by Perry King,
some time before his apparent exile to the realm of made for TV cinema.) The
other plot line, and the one that the film's title is in reference to, is about
the character of Mede (played in a debut role by Ken Norton.) Mede, short for
Ganymede, is the newest slave bought by the Maxwell family. Well intentioned,
but naive, Mede finds himself in an increasingly more conflicted role as he
becomes friends, after a fashion, with young Hammond, while being repeated
conflicted by what he sees with regards to his role as a black man in this

Ken Norton's debut moment...
bad news Ken, the whities are only gonna get stranger from here. That almost makes it sound good, doesn't it? At times, it actually
does have potential to be a good movie. Then we come back to the Maxwell
family...whose lives are like a bizarre form of soap opera with an added element
of inbreeding.

Let me see if I can untangle all the threads of THAT mess for you. It makes
Mede's inner conflict feel pretty straightforward.

For starters, we have Hammond. From the start, we see he's a bit mixed about
how to feel about the slaves...he still defers to them, but at the same time, he
isn't as flip with abusing them as, say, his cousin Charlie (whose idea of
foreplay with a 'wench' consists of flogging her with a belt...and this is only
the first half-hour. Buckle in kids, it's gonna be a long 2 hours. On the
plus side, you won't be seeing Charlie for a whole lot of them. Thank
heaven for small favors, eh?)

In fact, as the story goes on, Hammond actually seems to develop a rapport
with several of these slaves that he is expected to treat as property...he
genuinely cares about Mede as a friend for a time, and even seems to show more
love for one of the wenches (their words, not mine, I swear!) named Ellen more
than he does for his wife, Blanche (played by Susan George, whose director
guidance seems to consist of "I need more psychotic bitch!")

Speaking of whom, Blanche's story arc is... ...something of a curious one. It
seems she and Hammond are, indeed cousins. Which makes their marriage, while
fitting in context, a bit awkward for us. They seem to be off to a pleasant
start at first, and in the beginning, they both come across as nice enough
people. Until they actually get married and consummate their love. Hammond, it
seems, is fine with marrying his cousin, but has a hang up over the prospect
that someone else has had first go at her. This becomes something of a minor
plotline in its own right (one that ends rather awkwardly when its revealed who
her first was in a bit of a shock moment that's all but forgotten after the

It really says something about this culture that it's the fact she lost her
virginity that Hammond gets so hung up on...
nevermind the fact that it was to her brother.

Then we have dear old patriarch Warren. Oh my, where to begin here. I'd like
to start by saying, it breaks my brain to realize this is James Mason in this
role. Not cause it's particularly amazing acting mind you, actually, it's
probably a low point for him. It's more realizing that the man I associate as
the classy devil of such films as Disney's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' and
Paul Newman's 'The Verdict' is the cantankerous southern stereotype letting the
racial slurs fly like they're going out of style. That's...kind of his schtick
in this, really. He occasionally acts as a sort of half-assed father to Hammond,
and the rest of the time is just a total shit to the black characters in the

That said, I'd like to make a shout out for the young boy who plays the slave
who Warren uses to cure his rheumatism. This has to be one of the most bizarre
roles someone could get in a film, but the fact the kid went through it means he
deserves some respect for this.

"'You'll get to be in a big movie.' they said. 'You'll get to work with big
stars.' they said.

This agency's dead to me!"

Anyways, Mede's path crosses with the Maxwells roughly a half-hour into the
film when he's bought at an auction. Once again, I'd like to take a moment to
give a shout of respect, this time to Ken Norton. When your big screen debut
starts with being brought out in a pair of shorts and having an older German
woman stick her hand down the front of your pants, this is the least of what
you've earned for sticking it out.

His initial encounters are among some of the better parts of the movie. He's
doing allright, but there are several moments that make him question just how
much he might be compromising himself as a black man by becoming friendly with
his owners (many of these coming care of one of the other slaves, the older,
more cynical, Agamemnon, played by Richard Ward.) Things only make a turn one
day when Mede gets into a fight with another slave.

(and anyone who finds themselves humming the theme, you're a horrible person,
just like me.)

Suffice it to say, this catches the attention of not only the Maxwells, but
also another slave owner, who finds Mede to be one bad mother--OK, I'll refrain
from the bad Shaft joke here...I swear.

Anyways, he informs the Maxwells of a specialized sort of fight club that
goes on where slaveowners send their slaves against one another in hand to hand

So we're all clear on the rules here...
First person to bring up the rules of fight club gets a lynchin'!

Anyway, as it wouldn't do at all for him to get eliminated halfway through
the movie, Mede does well in his fight. In fact, he completely, literally, kills
his opponent. More importantly, as this fight goes down, we see one of those
rare cases of the white people in this movie actually having decent development.
While Warren still remains ever the racist bastard we all know and... ...
...accept?... Hammond shows visible concern for Mede's welfare in the fight,
even telling them to call off the fight when things aren't looking so good for
the guy.

But that's not the end of the violence, kids!

While Mede's off kicking ass in the Dixieland kumite, back at home, Blanche
is...well...let's be perfectly honest, Blanche is going a wee bit nutters. You
see, unable to properly reconcile with the fact he wasn't the first person she
ever slept with, Hammond hasn't been on the best of terms with Blanche. In fact,
he's actually, in turn, been on much more amicable terms with Ellen, whose
currently carrying his baby (you can hear the soap opera music already.) Of
course, this isn't exactly a deep kept secret. As a result, Blanche takes out
her own hostilities on poor Ellen.

Screaming curses and beating a pregnant woman...
Now why Hammond wouldn't want this, I have absolutely NO idea, do you?

Flash forward to the next day as the team returns with an injured, but
triumphant, Mede. Hammond is looking forward to seeing both his wife and his
lover and has brought gifts back for the both of them...this is the moment where
he learns the hard way that, just cause society isn't gonna tell him 'no'
doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea to try and balance multiple women at
once...doubly so when one is about as mentally balanced as a half-played game of

To Blanche's surprise, she's the one that gets chewed out for savagely
beating a pregnant woman...oh, the injustice of it all!

Anyways, Warren has a profound heart-to-heart with both his daughter in law
and his own son. His stance is quite clear: he's not sure what went on, but
Goddamit, he wants a grandson to carry on the legacy!

This is...probably one of the best and worst moments of the entire movie,
really, and one of the culminations of the 'yes, this IS James Mason' moments in
his little pep talk with Blanche. I was tempted to just put up the entire
conversation, but as I'm sure you're all busier than I (depressing as that is to
admit) I've boiled it down to probably one of the finest gems of the scene.

That's the one thing I always love about James Mason...everything he does
just oozes class!

In the aftermath of the charming 'Father Knows Best' moment, Hammond tries
his own hand at smoothing things over by giving his wife her present of rubies.

It's kind of like one of those DeBeers ads...
except I don't think those include a prologue with the woman savagely beating
the husband's mistress.

It's now a bit later and things are all sunshine and lollipops again...
...and slaves...almost forgot the slaves.

Hammond's away on some business transferring some of the slaves (as well as
promising Ellen he has no intention of selling off their child. It's...I suppose
it could be seen as one of those moments that makes you go 'awwww'...after
which, you stop and go '...wait a second.')

While he's away, Blanche returns to sociopath mode with a vengeance. Feeling
unfulfilled by her own husband, she decides to beat him at his own game by
sleeping with Mede herself.

'But wait a minute' you stop to wonder 'Mede respects Hammond, why would he
do that?'

Well, that's a very good question, dear reader! One even Mede seems to wonder
about...but that's why Blanche has her sociopath mode. After some good natured
blackmail (no pun intended...I swear to God, Jesus, and all 12 apostles!) she's
managed to get Mede to hit the sheets with her. From the look on her face, she
seems to be enjoying it. I'd like to believe he at least is as well, but we
never really get to see his face...more often, the camera seems focused on
Blanche's own 'kind of somewhere between ecstasy and insanity' face.

Mede looking guilty.
I can't say I blame him...sleeping with the boss's wife is one thing...
but when said wife is prone to violent outbursts and sociopathic behavior...poor
guy can't catch a break, can he?

Anyways, jump ahead around nine months or so ( can see where this is
headed already, I'm sure.)

Blanche is in labor and everyone's awaiting the bouncing new heir of the
Maxwell estate...oh, are they in for a surprise. Sure enough, the child that
comes out is a healthy, lively little mulatto.

Unfortunately, the kid makes the mistake of arriving just as the film
completely goes to Hell.

Luckily, he's not in long (I won't go into details so as to leave you all
SOME reason to see this) and all of Hammond's seemingly human behavior flies
right out the window. For a man who has, throughout this movie, shown varying
degrees of compassion to the slaves, and even friendship to Mede, his reversal
into full blown racist jerk feels like someone just flipped a switch. It's a
development that, honestly, feels like it could have actually been a good
element in the script with more lead in to it (especially given the fact that
this twist is supposed to help remind Mede that, in the end, he's still going to
only be treated as just another slave.) Instead, it just feels like they
realized they were running out of time and needed to speed the film to wrap
things up.

Which, of course, seems to also explain the finale that, honestly, has to be
seen to be truly believed. Without trying to cheapen it with descriptions, let's
just say it involves a giant pot of boiling water, a pitchfork, a rifle, and
Agamemnon getting to do something that this reviewer was kind of waiting to see
happen for the entire movie.

OK, THAT we can show you.

Partially because James Mason deserves some sort of prize for the best/worst
last words ever.

The moral of this scene, well, there's a lot one could plumb from this entire
bizarre finale, but this last part is best summed up with 'When confronted with
a clearly distraught man with a gun, racially baiting him is probably NOT a good

Honestly, the more I look at this film, the more it really DOES feel like two
different films. Like stated above, the film seems to alternate between Mede's
own moments of questioning his role in this society as a black man. These scenes
are, perhaps nothing award winning, but actually relatively well written, and
sport some good acting (mostly pertaining to Ken Norton and Richard Ward, the
latter acting as a sort of racial Jiminy Cricket to Norton. Not to be taken as a
slam, actually, Ward is one of the people who actually carries his role pretty
well, especially considering how often he kind of gets run over by other

The plots involving the Maxwells however...while I realize elements of their
lives are certainly things that are considered commonplace in the time period,
the fact is, between some of the dialogue (such as the above linked conversation
between James Mason and Susan George), the acting (...again, see above) and some
rather clumsy jumps in the screenplay resulting in certain characters'
evolutions feeling like they just woke up one day and went "You know...maybe
I'll try being a complete nut-job for a while...just to see what it's like!" all
conspire to REALLY undermine the movie. In fact, there's parts of the Maxwell
clan's saga that feel like they're bordering on camp, which just winds up making
it harder to take the scenes involving Mede and the other slaves seriously, much
as I honestly want to.

All things considered, this was a bit of an awkward start for this
theme...and one that I can't help but wonder about the production history of,
the more I look at it. For a source material adapted from both a novel and a
play, this movie feels strangely like it's fumbling for plot. I'm not sure if
that's from having too much to work with, or just gross departure from the text.

Granted, maybe I'm being a bit hard on this film, given there's a likelihood
this just hasn't aged as well as it probably could have. By the same token,
however, there may be a reason this one hasn't endured nearly as well as say,

In any event, it seems there WAS enough material and demand for a sequel
film... which, if you can believe it, we'll be covering for next week.

If you stuck with us through this bizarre journey into southern comfort,
please join us this coming weekend when we look at the lesser-known sequel,

...hopefully, it'll be a bit easier to take seriously

...and, ah what the Hell...once more, James Mason reminds you what not to do
when faced with a man with a gun

...really, this moment kind of speaks for itself