By Gerald Peary
Five more feature films of great interest and their links, carefully chosen to get you through the travails of the coronavirus.
The Blackboard Jungle (1955) — From the popular novel by Evan Hunter, director Richard Brooks’s film is a still potent tale of a determined high school teacher, Rick (Glenn Ford), who gets a job in an inner-city, all-male high school overrun with disciplinary problem students. The worst of them are stigmatized as (a ’50s term) “juvenile delinquents.” Can Rick remain an idealist in such an environment, where many of the veteran instructors have given up? Years ahead of other films, The Blackboard Jungle drops Rick’s English teacher in a class with Blacks and Puerto Ricans, and tense racial issues are actually on the table. The smartest, most charismatic student, Miller, is African American. Young Sidney Poitier, who plays him, grooves to his own beat and his own agenda. The birth of the cool. $2.99 rental. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03Vrx_kHa94
Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor (1982) — Made in the year of Pepper’s too-early death (he was born in 1925), this is a remarkable document of both his extraordinary alto sax playing and of his askew intimate life — illustrated by Pepper’s uncensored, unblemished monologues to filmmaker Don McGlynn’s camera. Pepper was a wry, leather-jacketed punk, an On the Road, self-destructive Dean Moriarty type, into women and, far more, into junk. “If this is what the devil’s got, that’s what I want,” is how he described the ecstasy of first shooting up. He ran over several wives, committed dark crimes to feed his habit, and landed in San Quentin. He was rescued by his third wife, Laurie, who became his business manager, and let him continue on with his brash ego. “I’m a genius. I can’t think of anyone who plays better than me,” Pepper declares. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-WDnfZGJGg
The Fantasticks (1995) — Try to remember, did you know that a film was made of the all-time Off-Broadway musical favorite? Though it barely played, Michael Ritchie’s movie is very decent. Eschewing the minimalist theater set (two sticks, a box, and a Mute), Ritchie located his movie in a dream ’20s, where a wondrous Ray Bradbury-like carnival and sideshow saunter into view. The cutesy scheming fathers are an archaic leftover from the play, and what to make of the PC “Theatrical Abduction” tune that replaced the politically abhorrent “Rape” song? But Jean Louisa Kelly is a fetching Girl and Jonathon Morris a world-weary, bored-with-his virility El Gallo, and between them they capture the romantic pessimism with which The Fantasticks is suffused. Rental: $3.99 HD, $2.99 SD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0kq-sTpLM8
Crash (1996) — David Cronenberg’s self-consciously transgressive adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, moving the British story to Canada, is pretty far out. It’s a baroque tale of overheated bourgeois Torontonians (played by a Hollywood A-cast including Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and James Spader) who get their S/M kicks through sexually defiling each other in the aftermath of traffic accidents. Cronenberg, definitely bemused, keeps a straight face as his character’s rear-end each other in highway foreplay. And fornication is best, so it seems, post-injury, among the bandages in a hospital bed. When interviewed about the film, Cronenberg refused to disassociate himself from his characters’ kinkiness. In fact, he recalled meeting a fair damsel when their cars fortuitously smashed together. https://vimeo.com/groups/565877/videos/257431722
Air Guitar Nation (2006) — Air guitar is an indescribable performance art. But you’ll be spinning in ecstasy when, in Alexandra Lipsitz’s winning documentary, all those crazy folks flail away to classic rock recordings but on imagined guitars. The film, like myriad documentaries, is based around a series of contests, leading to the American championship and then the world title in Finland. The final two international contestants are both from the US: a nice Asian boy and a nice Jewish boy, both gone mad with air-guitaring. Korean-American David Jung’s routines are something like Toshiro Mifune meets Hello Kitty. Don Crane morphs into his trash-talking egomaniac alter ego, Bjorn Turoque. He describes his on-stage persona as “kind of cocky, kind of a dick, like the early interviews of Bob Dylan.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYpETOHjrJ0
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.