MADE IN THE USA

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Kris

Can't decide what to watch?FollowTheThread.
Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
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Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
‘Til he rules everything…
                                         –“Badlands”

Here at The Thread our appreciation of Bruce Springsteen bloomed late, so reading Born To Run, his recent (and remarkably self-written) autobiography, taught us a lot about the evolution and rise of Springsteen as America’s most prominent working class poet.

 People more knowledgeable about music have complained that the book doesn’t go deep enough; others have told us that the facts aren’t always straight.  But for tramps like us, it was a rewarding reintroduction to The Boss and his often socially resonant songs.         

Like any Boomer talking about his life, Springsteen peppers the book with casual references to movies — Midnight Cowboy; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; The Godfather trilogy, Groundhog Day, even Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.  

 But there are other films and filmmakers that were more direct influences on his sensibilities and the stories he tells.  This week’s list is five of those, plus a great documentary about a pivotal moment in his career.

 

 springsteen the promise
THE PROMISE: THE MAKING OF DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (2010)

 This HBO documentary covers a crucial turning point in Springsteen’s career.  1975’s Born to Run had rocketed him to stardom and the covers of both Time and Newsweek; but he was brought to a screeching halt by prolonged litigation with his first manager/producer, Mike Appel.

When he finally went back into the studio with the E Street Band, he produced a more complicated album that was an homage to his working-class origins – 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.  The gap, combined with the noir tinge that album, slowed his pop star ascent but deepened his artistic roots.

Amazon YouTube   Google Play

 

 

 grapes-of-wrath
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)

 Springsteen watched a lot of John Ford’s westerns – morality tales that are simultaneously simple and multilayered.  The stories have many similarities, yet Ford managed to avoid repeating himself.

According to Andrew Sarris, The Grapes of Wrath transformed Ford into “Ameica’s cinematic Poet Laureate” – and despite its pointed social message the movie was both a critical and box office success.   Springsteen’s Album The Ghost of Tom Joad is based on the lead character from the book/movie, who also inspired Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad.’

Tom Joad is played by Henry Fonda in the movie.  Evicted from their farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl era, the Joad family struggles their way west along Route 66.  They finally reach the promised land of California only to find conditions equally oppressive there.  And yet, despite all the misuse and struggle they endure, the Joads persevere.

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born on the fourth of july
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)

In his book, Springsteen says he stole the line “born in the USA” from a Paul Schrader screenplay.  But the song itself was inspired by the best-selling 1976 autobiography by wheelchair- bound Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic.  The two met in L.A. just after Springsteen read the book, and became friends.  The album Born in the USA came out in 1984, and was massively popular, the most successful of Springsteen’s career.

In Oliver Stone’s movie, Tom Cruise plays Kovic, a gung-ho Marine who enlists but progressively more and more disillusioned —  first by the ruthlessness of the Vietnam war itself; then by his paralyzing injury; and finally by the way he is treated after his return to the States.

He eventually becomes convinced that the entire Viet Nam enterprise is misguided and joins Veterans Against the War.  He becomes a prominent protester and public speaker, reviled by the Nixon administration.

The film was the second of three Nam movies for Viet Vet Stone and won him an Oscar.  The role marked a surprising turn in Cruise’s career, earning him cred as a serious actor and with it a nomination for Best Actor.

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the-night-of-the-hunter-Lillian-Gish
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

This seems like an incongruous pick for Springsteen, except that he was always drawn to the moody grit of noir.  He also likes the child narrator.  The boy, John, is the only one who isn’t fooled by the ersatz preacher.  As Springsteen wrote his first acoustic album, Nebraska, he felt that the songs were all autobiographical, written from the truth of a child’s point of view.

Night is a creepy black-and-white film, the only film directed by prominent actor and theatre director Charles Laughton.  Robert Mitchum was a Springsteen favorite.  Here he plays the slimy serial killer who masquerades as an itinerant preacher and seduces the widow (a remarkably low-key Shelley Winters) of an executed bank robber.  His real goal is the robber’s fortune, stashed in a child’s doll.

The widow is killed, the children flee and are taken in by a tough old woman, who  guards them through the night until the killer is caught.

The film falls into one of our favorite categories – failures that come to be regarded as indelible landmarks.  This cult classic is amazing for many details – the preacher/killer intoning “Chillldren!”;  the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” which the preacher has tattooed across his knuckles; and the image of the old woman, played by silent star Lillian Gish, sitting in her rocking chair on the screen porch with a shotgun across her knees.

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Badlands
BADLANDS (1973)

Springsteen’s song of the same title came out in 1978, the lead track on Darkness at the Edge of Town, his fourth album.  Springsteen is a professed admirer of Terrence Malick and says he had the title long before he wrote the song.

Both the movie (Malick’s first) and another Springsteen song, the 1982 “Nebraska” are based on the exploits of Charles Starkweather, a 17-year-old who went on a killing spree across Wyoming and Nebraska in the winter of 1958, accompanied by his 13-year-old girlfriend.

Sissy Spacek plays Holly, the 15-year-old girl who narrates the film in romance novel clichés.  It was her second movie and a breakout role.  The Starkweather figure is Kit, played by Martin Sheen, looking like Starkweather’s idol, James Dean.  Sheen was a bit more established (The Subject Was Roses) but this role landed him too squarely in the spotlight.

The spree starts when Holly’s father who objects to their growing romance.  They shoot him and set the house on fire, then the two take off on a roadtrip, killing with cold abandon as they travel across the broad cinematic swaths of American landscape that became one of Malick’s signatures.

At the time the movie was released, nobody could ignore the link to Bonnie and Clyde, 7 years before.  But Badlands made the link between lack youthful ennui, pop culture, and casual psychopathic violence that would become almost a cliché.  Starkweather’s story was also the basis of Kalifornia (Brad Pitt, 1993) and Natural Born Killers (Woody Harrelson, 1994).  Is it strange that Juliette Lewis played the young girlfriend in both films?

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Philadelphia 2
PHILADELPHIA (1969)

 By the time Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write the theme for his breakthrough 1993 AIDS movie, Springsteen was already the demi-god of the working class rock anthem.   Like the movie itself and art at it’s best, the song transforms the very specific and isolated experience of AIDS into a universal experience that touches us all.  The single was one of Springsteen’s most successful; even more successful around the world than it was in the US.

In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a closeted gay lawyer who is fired on trumped up causes by his law firm when they suspect he has AIDS.  When he sues his firm, a black lawyer, played by Denzel Washington is spooked by the spectre of the disease and drops Hanks’ case.  He sets out to represent himself, but the black lawyer sees him again and this time, disgusted by his own prejudice, takes on the case, which plays out as Hanks health continues to deteriorate.

Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner uses the trial as a very effective device to set up and knock down the layers of prejudice and fear that had surrounded AIDS.  Combined with the incredible performances – and the simple presence of superstars Hanks and Washington in these roles (this was the same year as Sleepless In Seattle, a year after Malcolm X), the movie marked a cultural turning point in the battle against AIDS.

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Demme himself shot the video for the song:

YouTube

 

WHEN THE MORAL COMPASS IS SPINNING

Elma Cremin

Co-Founder at Followthethread
A long-time fixture of New York’s glittering social scene, Miami’s jai lai courts, and the interstate highway system’s “big rigs,” Elma Cremin has spent her life absorbing all things pop culture.Movies, cult tv shows, documentaries, art, fashion—you cut her and she’ll bleed out in the colors of an Andy Warhol Brillo Pad box. Finally, after years of working inside the system with such networks as Sundance, Trio, Fuse TV and Ovation, she went “ghost protocol” and co-founded FollowTheThread in order to work outside the petty restraints of the industry and share her remarkable knowledge.

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Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways for society to recalibrate its moral compass.

Throughout his long career, Sidney Lumet was obsessed with stories of moral courage – the lone individual who has the guts to risk everything and stand up against the crowd for what he/she believes is right.

His own courage and commitment as a filmmaker resulted in 46 Academy Award nominations and 6 Academy Awards, including 4 for Network.

Call us crazy, but here at The Thread, we are actually chumps enough to believe in this stuff. To us, it felt like no coincidence that American Masters chose this moment to premiere By Sidney Lumet.  

It was a great profile, and inspired us to put together this list of Lumet favorites.

lumet BY SIDNEY LUMET (2017)

In By Sidney Lumet, Lumet tells his own story in a never-before-seen interview shot in 2008 by late filmmaker Daniel Anker and producer Thane Rosenbaum—directed by Nancy Buirski.

With honesty and humor, Lumet reveals what matters to him as an artist and as a human being. He talks about his early years growing up in NYC tenement housing where he quotes Brecht: “First feed the face, then tell me right from wrong.”

As a young soldier in Calcutta he witnessed the brutal rape of a young girl by a group of G.I.’s but was powerless to stop it—this criminal act and his inability to stop it shadowed him through his life and his work on the fight for justice.

Lumet often used New York City’s urban spirit to infuse his films with a realism and intensity that kept audiences in suspense while pushing them to consider their own morality.  His consistent dedication to truth and what drives human behavior makes him a unique and philosophical director who is sorely missed.

YouTube 

12-Angry-Men 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

In 1956, Reginald Rose and Henry Fonda commissioned Lumet to turn Rose’s Studio One teleplay of 12 Angry Men into a Hollywood movie. Before this, Lumet had only directed TV dramas, but it was this first feature that defined Lumet as one of the industry’s most socially conscious directors. Themes of justice, personal integrity, and radicalism would later appear in the scripts he chose, as well as the people he chose to work with.

In the film Fonda plays Juror 8, who casts the lone ‘not guilty’ vote as he and his fellow jurors deliberate the fate of a young Puerto Rican boy facing the death penalty for his father’s murder. A symbolic counterargument to the witch hunts of McCarthyism, it is also a quest for social justice, this time by way of that iconic American institution – the jury.

Critic Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece of stylized realism.” Even skeptical New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said that it was, “so sure-fire it has the crackle of a hit.”

Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor has credited it with inspiring her career in law. “It sold me that I was on the right path, “she said. “This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”

iTunes    Amazon     Vudu

alSERPICO (1973)

Serpico was a police thriller starring Al Pacino, this time in the role of an isolated and intense undercover cop whose radical idealism defines his search for justice as he blows the whistle on payoffs and corruption in the police department.

Based on a true story (written by Peter Maas; screenplay co-written by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt) the movie showed Lumet at his best, filming on New York City streets with a talented crew of actors playing characters in moral conflict and a story that was in perfect sync with the mood of the country.

Lumet has said of Serpico, “I’m not directing a moral message. I’m directing that piece and those people, and if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” Near the end of the film as Al Pacino is testifies before the Knapp Commission, Lumet mentions that he was often criticized for not having a thematic line in his work and for doing many different kinds of movies. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “There is always a bedrock concern: Is it fair?

iTunes    Amazon     Vudu

dogday DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) 

“Talk about radical,” says Lumet. “What could be more radical than a guy robbing a bank so that he can get the money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex operation?”

“The thing that I think makes Dog Day what it is Pacino’s performance. Because it could have easily degenerated into a sensational piece,” he says. “We have got to reach, on a fundamental level, into anybody watching this movie, to make them aware of the humanity of these two men. And I couldn’t have had a better person unearth that feeling than Pacino because he is like an open wound up there.”

In the end of this film even the hostages are rooting for them. 

iTunes    Amazon     Vudu

network NETWORK (1976)

Lumet said of Network, “For me and [writer] Paddy Chayefsky, the network was a metaphor for America and the corruption of the American spirit.” He noted Chayefsky’s prescience and said, “It’s only gotten worse,” at the time referring indirectly to the war in Iraq.

Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch star in this powerful satire of the news industry. When anchorman Howard Beale is forced to retire his 25-year post because of his age, he announces to his viewers that he’s going to commit suicide on his final program. When his announcement looks like it will improve the ratings, the entire event is turned into a garish entertainment spectacle.

iTunes    Amazon     Vudu

verdict THE VERDICT (1982)

Based on a script by David Mamet. Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic Boston lawyer who tries to redeem his personal and professional reputation by winning a difficult medical malpractice case against a large Catholic hospital.

Helped by his assistant Mickey (Jack Warden) and his new girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling) The Verdict is an outstanding, if not very legally accurate, courtroom drama; his decision to try the case without telling the family of the settlement offer would probably lead to his real-life disbarment.

The central theme concerns a man who overcomes his own impulses toward self-destruction and summons the courage to challenge the system – even though it will inevitably turn him into a pariah.

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