Monthly Archives: February 2022

Film Favorites: Uptight

With Judas and the Black Messiah one year in the rearview mirror, I decided to look back on a much more full-throated critique of American modernity, a vicious screed and an acidic reminder of how far we haven’t come.

Uptight wears its frustration right on its sleeve, palpitating and sweating and threatening to tear apart the screen. Indeed, it might have been torn apart before release. Focusing on government attempts to internally dismantle black radical organizations, seeding them with informants, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the film crew itself included at least one unknown FBI informant in a case of life imitating art imitating life. Uptight thus justified its existence in the act of its very production. For African American writer-actors Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield and white writer-director Jules Dassin, the film resonated with their own experiences as leftist organizers, especially Dee’s work with the SCLC and CORE. Mayfield and Dassin’s own respective exiles to France (for Dassin’s membership in the Communist Party) and the recently liberated Ghana (for Mayfield’s work with NAACP local leader Robert F. Williams, who famously resisted the NAACP’s non-violent philosophy and provided a crucial link between liberal integrationism and Black Power) also haunt the film, potentializing it with awareness of how much is at stake in resisting the status quo. Uptight was the product of organic intellectuals who invested their personal energy into a film that kindles and threatens to overflow. It feels electric, like it could explode at any minute, but also weary and anxious, encroaching on exhaustion, like it knows that it might not be able to sustain itself, looking both over its shoulder and into a foggy future, worried about what comes in the hazy oncoming 1970s.

Set in Cleveland, Ohio, Uptight nonetheless begins with Dassin’s own guerilla-shot footage at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. As diegetic images ostensibly placing us in Atlanta reveal groups of Cleveland radicals observing the funeral on television, Uptight immediately foregrounds viewing and perception as key fulcrums of collective engagement with a national consciousness. Concerning increasing friction in black organizing after King’s assassination, Uptight nonetheless makes clear the shared bonds of frustration that resonate with every character on-screen. The narrative through-line concerns Tank (Julian Mayfield), asked by his brother Johnny (Max Julien), leader of a local organization chapter (implicitly a chapter of the Black Panthers but not named as such), to accompany them on a night raid to steal guns. Shook by the death of King, he initially refuses. Although he gestures, perhaps disingenuously, toward joining at the last minute, Johnny doesn’t hear, ultimately killing a guard in the raid. The rest of the film concerns the police’s attempts, largely through black informer Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne), to convince Tank to inform on Johnny, and, once Tank gives Johnny up, the organization’s attempts to track him down and resolve their problem.

Based on John Ford and Dudley Nichols’ 1935 classic The Informer, itself adapted from Liam O’Flaherty’s novel about an IRA member who defected, Uptight retains the same narrative spine but alters both the thematic focus and the style. Ford’s film is an early American gloss on German Expressionism and a noir progenitor, resonating with Depression-era works like You Only Live Once in depicting social renegades lost in a quagmire of confusion and uncertainty. Dassin inherited those sensibilities in his early classic 1948 film The Naked City, which thoughtfully combined neorealist and film noir styles and, in doing so, suggested that shambolic non-structured realism and shadowy expressionism were, despite being ostensible antitheses, both expressions of post-war malaise and rampant social oppression. Uptight finds an analog for these anxieties in Dassin’s grimy hyperbole for Ford’s astonishingly misty chiaroscuro. Formally, Uptight most closely resonates with Dassin’s astonishing London-set Night and the City, a similar story about a fumbling, sweaty mass of nerves being pulverized by the film’s very ontology, throwing him down circles of stairs and spinning in circles around his head. Dassin turns the dial way back to these earlier days in Uptight, before he spent much of the ‘60s sprucing up some truly phenomenal but more collected works like the glistening Topkapi, films that were generally more elegant and anointed than Dassin’s hungrier, earlier works. Uptight, conversely, feels like a cinematic raw nerve, a clammy, live-wire film, flexing wiry muscles in nearly every scene, all the more brazenly direct in light of the fifty-three-years-later Judas and the Black Messiah, a fine film about similar themes that is not as politically astute and not nearly as formally accomplished or thornily textured.

At times, Uptight feels like it’s at its own throat, being torn apart by competing impulses. Perspiring and grubby, a New Hollywood hot-house of a film rejecting the niceties of Classical Hollywood, it is also nonetheless very much in the tradition of mid-century theater of morals. Drawing from Dee’s and Mayfield’s own theatrical backgrounds, everything is stylized and tilted toward a layer of heightened abstraction, from the stage-like streets to the somewhat manicured acting. Yet the contrast produces sparks, threading the needle between characters as people and figures as ideas, staged with a heavy, just-barely-invisible Proscenium that emphasizes the performativity of radicalism, the way in which being seen and not being seen can inform the fate of any situation, or, as the Panthers themselves put it, the “shadow” of the gun, the threat of violence and the pressured, organized capacity to resist, means as much as the gun itself. This tension, between grimy workaday reality and mannered unreality, lends Uptight an almost dialectical tension, the film pitting internal and external selves, realities and desires, off of each other.

Of course, the film’s focus on Tank, a wayward, excommunicated soul who sells out a community, has enough history in U.S. cinema, with the likes of On the Waterfront and High Noon obviously dueling it out with subliminal HUAC themes, conduits for their creators’ frustrations with telling or being told on. But Uptight poses difficult questions that twist the knot of depoliticized individualism that many of those films rely on. Rather than a nearly metaphysical question about individual purity and goodness, Uptight is thickly enmeshed in the social status quo, beginning with black Clevelanders mourning Dr. King’s death in the streets and several film characters reacting in a slurry of mixed emotions. Self-aware about the layers of interrelation that inform the radical activity, Uptight threads multiple intermeshing levels of conspiratorial activity and perception around Mayfield’s character, his long night of the soul resonating with multiple layers of social reality as the film pushes us to empathize with multiple perspectives without sympathizing with Tank’s tragic willingness to sell out his comrades.

Many of Dassin’s classic mid-century noirs explore the lonely individual just barely eeking by in the maelstrom of a modernity where city spaces are increasingly populated but all the more anonymous, where every site is a potential crowd for disguising oneself or being discovered, where new forms of collectivity are generated that nonetheless lack conventional or a priori group identities or similarities around which to congeal themselves. Uptight latches onto this implicit theme in many noirs, more often tackled in classic works like The Killing by focusing on teams gathered together to commit crimes, and explores what it means for politicization and organized revolt. Communities seem always in motion between connecting and diffusing, every presence soon a potential absence just as much as every absence holds the space for a potential presence. Uptight never loses this friction, but it does catalyze sparks. Johnny’s death is staged as a social theater affecting the entire neighborhoods, metaphorically (and literally) tilting the film off its axis, a more-than-360-degree camera turn unraveling the film’s tightly coiled energy as Tank’s collapsing star is subsumed into a metaphorical carnivalesque. Dassin’s work as a crime and noir director turns the film in on itself, the city becoming a distorted and confused space that breaks, mid-film, into a fun-house mirror. Slightly later, Tank visits his old job at a steel mill and has a nearly incandescent mental communion with it, industry figured in its mid-century guise as a sublime and world-altering radiant power. At the film’s end, Tank’s fate recalls another noir classic, 1948’s White Heat, mentally prefiguring the ‘70s and ‘80s as a desperate tumble. The same sublime power Tank wished to return to mid-film now drowns him out. Coal and soot and industrial malaise blanket the screen in a toxic fugue of post-industrial confusion, a dark harbinger of neoliberal notions of unregulated free-market capitalism and self-help soon to displace revolutionary urges that, as Uptight reminds us, were less failed than consciously corrupted and distorted by the powers that be.

Score: 10/10


Midnight Screenings: Predator

John McTiernan’s Predator is a real bait-and-switch: a colonialist venture where the bottom falls out and seven masculine archetypes are stranded in a territory they know much less about than they assumed. As a critique of American chauvinism and pretensions of access and visual mastery, it’s a frankly startling inversion of American blockbuster cinema, action tightening into suspense before curdling into something approaching horror in the ‘80s slasher movie mold. A post-Vietnam parable not fundamentally different from Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort seven years before, it’s a too-tight tourniquet of a film, sopping up the bloodlust of an audience too excited to notice they’re losing circulation in their limbs.

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Midnight Screenings: Cape Fear (1991)

When Cape Fear’s antagonist Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison early in the film, he strides toward the screen in a gesture almost as terrifying as David Lynch’s famous, signal defilement of the audience’s body the same year in Twin Peaks, when the demonic Bob gets so close to us that he nearly assimilates us into his body. It feels like he’s about to leave the diegesis, to enter our world, to have his way with the audience. He presages a film that goes for the throat: split diopter shots, reverse images, cameras tilting on their axes like several screws were loose, film negatives enervated of color, creeping, lecherous dolly shots. This stylistically omnivorous film is cinema-addicted and cinema-addled in equal measure. Martin Scorsese’s ode to the days when Hollywood B-pictures genuinely knew what “B” meant (rather than striving for domesticated A-picture prestige and getting a C like so many films today), Cape Fear is, perhaps even more than his 1985 film After Hours (a quite literal attempt to convert his frustration and rage into a plaything), the result of Scorsese letting his hair down. This is a clammy, sweaty, anxious film, nearly panting and falling over with its own energy, and it’s pretty wonderful to boot.

Another early moment suggests that our intoxication with a film screen that is now devouring us whole is precisely the point. The screenplay metaphorically lards up the value of style with an early conversation about the balance of movement and stability in an airline advertisement, and Scorsese seems to be putting that balance to the test with every shot, forcing us to walk the ricketiest rope bridge he could find. There’s so much work being done to fold in and massage out motifs of water, cinema, and smoke, figuring each as obfuscating and revealing, mutable yet omnipresent, pliable and amorphous yet very much present, that the film almost loses itself to playful gesturing, never precisely connecting its dots. But the confidence of the film keeps us working double-time just to stay afloat, daring itself forward unceasingly. Rather than crossing all the T’s and dotting the I’s, it leaves them unfinished and pointy and tries to prick us with them. In one sense, Cape Fear is “about” cinema in much the same way that Oliver Stone’s same-year JFK vexes and distorts us, invites us into a portrait it then vandalizes. The Bowdens, Sam (Nick Nolte), who withheld evidence years before on Max, and Sam’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis), are the nominal frustrated figures, but we are really the subjects. Why are we watching, the film asks, and rather than punishing us like so many other mean-spirited works, it pitilessly experiments with us, turning us into both its laboratory variables and its sand-box play-things.

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