Movies

They Don't Sound Real to Me

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At the end of an In These Times article about Salt of the Earth—a much-venerated 1954 film about a New Mexico mining strike, made by blacklisted filmmakers trying to forge an alternative to capitalist Hollywood—Christopher Capozzola speaks a truth too rarely admitted:

By most of the standards that filmmakers use to measure the greatness of a film Salt of the Earth comes up short. In fact, watching 90 minutes of agitprop can almost make you understand why the Eastern Europeans who leapt the Berlin Wall in 1989 so eagerly snapped up Ernest Goes to Camp videos.

The movie plays like a bad imitation of Italian neorealism: It has the leftist filmmakers, the cast of nonprofessional actors, everything but the neorealists' talent. If you want to get a feeling for the artistic quality of Salt of the Earth, here's the scene I remember best six years after seeing the picture. A miner gets into a fight with his wife about the payments he has to make on her radio. Fed up, he finally exclaims the immortal line, "The installment plan—it is a curse on the workingman!"

The story of how the film was made? Now that's interesting. But the movie itself? It's an unjust world indeed when Salt of the Earth has a spot in the National Film Registry while The Day the Clown Cried and Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce still rot unreleased in a vault somewhere.

NEXT: Space Family Robinson-Style Dramedy One Step Closer To Becoming Reality

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  1. Maybe they weren’t blacklisted for being Commies. Maybe they couldn’t get work because they were tedious, no-talent hacks.

  2. The story of how the film was made? Now that’s interesting.

    Is it?

  3. A better testament to the fruits of the blacklist would be Theatricum Botanicum.

    http://www.the-waltons.com/theatre/

    I saw a really fun production of Medea out there in the woods a few years ago.

    http://theatricum.com/

    …and a pro-union revival of something from the ’30s, I think, that wasn’t entirely obnoxious.

  4. Maybe they couldn’t get work because they were tedious, no-talent hacks.

    I don’t know, RC. Hollywood has a long history of employing tedious, no-talent hacks.

  5. See, this is why I’m a liberal. I would use the power of the state to force Jerry Lewis to release The Day the Clown Cried.

    Some things are just too important to leave to your precious free market.

  6. “Maybe they weren’t blacklisted for being Commies. Maybe they couldn’t get work because they were tedious, no-talent hacks.”

    Oddly enough, those two categories seem to overlap more often than one would think.

  7. I don’t know about anyone else but just about the time I start to feel sorry for blacklisted Hollywood types NPR trots one out with its usual hagiographic intro and (if said paragon is still alive) fawning interview.

    My God, everyone of them is such a pompous, self-righteous, patronizing git, with absolutely the grandest sense of self-entitlement anywhere.

    My good Christian upbringing tells me that judgment is in the hands of the Lord. But I know for sure he has a special circle in hell for all of them. Perhaps they will have to watch continuous loops of their own work for eternity. Perhaps interspersed with documentary footage of the gulags the victims of their ideology ended up in.

  8. Ken,

    How did they perform it? As a modern play or in the style in which was originally performed?

  9. Isaac,

    Many of those victims ended up being American leftists. Somebody ought do a film about their experiences.

  10. Isaac,

    In other words, many of the Americans who went to the USSR to help out ended up in the gulags or were executed.

  11. “How did they perform it? As a modern play or in the style in which was originally performed?”

    The sets are always sparse–the theater’s in the middle of a forest. …it’s a bit like an ancient Greek theater. Costumes were in the style of the ancients. There weren’t any masks.

  12. Ken,

    It is actually pretty rare for anyone to try to put one of these works on as it was originally done. Even if they do it isn’t really possible to recapture what these plays meant to people – given their partly religious status. That and they were only put on for three days during the whole year and when they were executed they were nearly dawn to dusk affairs.

  13. Ken,

    Anyway, I’ve never seen Medea though it is one of my favorites to read.

  14. Are you guys excited? There are only 4 years, 7 weeks, and 3 days left until Pootie Tang is eligible for the National Film Registry!

    Capachow!

  15. One of the first, and best, essays Pauline Kael (may she rest in peace) ever published was a delicious pummeling of “Salt of the Earth.” It’s available in her first book, “I Lost It At The Movies.”

  16. Hollywood has a long history of employing tedious, no-talent hacks.

    So what you’re saying is that this film is way more mainstream than the makers would care to admit.

  17. Hollywood types NPR trots one out with its usual hagiographic intro and (if said paragon is still alive) fawning interview.

    Being black-listed is a the Congressional Medal of Honor for Hollywood writers.

  18. We’ve got movie sign!

  19. Alan: Did you know you were quoted in the program notes for the Bergman retrospective that just finished at the Charles Theater up here in Baltimore?

  20. One of the first, and best, essays Pauline Kael (may she rest in peace) ever published was a delicious pummeling of “Salt of the Earth.” It’s available in her first book, “I Lost It At The Movies.”
    Do you have a link to it anywhere?

  21. 1) I didn’t know I was quoted in the Bergman retrospective. I also don’t know why I would be, because I don’t think I’ve ever written a review of a Bergman film!

    2) I don’t have a link for Pauline’s article. (Buy the fucking book!) I can give a link to a nasty article I wrote about Pauline, which led to my being called a “little plastic Jesus,” (not very nice) by another critic. (What goes around comes around.)

    http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/46/kael.htm

  22. Actually tommarow I’m going to the libary and picking up all her books

  23. Well, that’s weird. Is there another Alan Vanneman who writes about movies?

  24. “They Don’t Sound Real to Me”

    they’re real and they’re magnificent.

  25. Ironically, the projectionist’s union blocked nearly all theatrical distribution for Salt of the Earth.

  26. Has Ebert ever reviewed this one?

  27. Has Ebert ever reviewed this one?

    Two thumbs up…. MY ASS!

  28. Many of those victims ended up being American leftists. Somebody ought do a film about their experiences.

    “The Front”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074554/

  29. Hey! Earnest Goes To Camp was a great movie. Sheesh, you guys don’t know nothing (do they, Vern?)

  30. Screw Pootie Tang, how long until Lebowski is eligible for the Registry?

  31. Fuck you, COOP.

  32. Anyway, I’ve never seen Medea though it is one of my favorites to read.

    Medea: A Review (Caution, spoilers). That was from about 2 years ago I think.

    Note: I don’t know the difference between a great play and a bad play so calibrate accordingly.

  33. They’re Real and they’re spectacular.

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