The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 13, 2009

Review: Social events influence movies during filming

This review will focus on three movies that, while completely unrelated, share a certain unifying characteristic: They were all filmed in locations with actual social events occurring in and around the film production.

The resulting products are filled with a refreshing spontaneity and sense of being “alive” that was achieved both because of, and in spite of, the remarkable situations surrounding their production.

“Black Orpheus” (not rated)

This is the classic Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as retold in a modern context and set in Brazil, during the time of the annual Carnaval. The story is simple and fairly straight-forward (although I won’t spoil the ending), but the movie positively shines with music and raw energy.

I tried to think of another movie that featured such a persistent beat and so many ecstatically dancing extras, but I simply couldn’t do it.

Sumptuously photographed in color, the movie lavishes attention on the Brazilian locales in which it is set. Everything in the movie seems beautiful, even the ramshackle homes the characters share with their chickens and goats.

They go to work, earn a little money, play music and dance into the night. In the world of “Black Orpheus,” such a life is paradise.

An utterly unique movie experience, masterfully directed (or perhaps “reined-in” would be a better term) by legendary French director Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus was the winner of the 1960 Oscar for best foreign language film.

“Medium Cool” (rated R)

Of the three movies featured in this column, perhaps “Medium Cool” had the most at risk during its production.

Unlike the guarantee of frenzied madness during Carnaval or a rock concert, “Medium Cool” was based partially on an assumption that something dramatic was going to occur during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Luckily for the production, something dramatic happened there — in a big way.

The first “fiction” film directed by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (look him up online for a list of movies he has shot — it’s mighty impressive), “Medium Cool” frames a dramatic, fictional narrative around real (and uncontrollable) events. The results are not completely successful, but the conceit is compelling and fascinating to watch.

“Medium Cool” is a time capsule, no doubt about it. The music and styles are painfully outdated, but this trait could also be the movie’s greatest strength.

It’s must-see viewing for those interested in the ’60s, fans of documentary movies, those interested in politics or those just looking for a movie pretty “far-out” of the ordinary.

“Gimme Shelter” (rated R)

If that great social phenomenon known as “The ’60s” unofficially began in Haight-Ashbury during 1967’s “Summer of Love,” and reached its zenith two years later at Woodstock, it unofficially came crashing down at the infamous free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969.

Where “Gimme Shelter” differs from the other two movies in this column is that it was always intended as a documentary, with no addition of a fictitious storyline. But, like “Medium Cool,” it “benefits” from a real situation that spins utterly, violently out of control.

The movie takes for granted that audiences were already aware of the happenings at Altamont, and skillfully weaves a tapestry of foreboding from the outset. Footage of the Stones listening to radio coverage of the tragedy is interspersed between raucous footage of the earlier shows in the Stones’ 1969 tour, of which the film was originally supposed to be a straight-forward document.

By the time we get to Altamont, the suspense is at a fever pitch, and the stage is set for one of the great rock and roll tragedies. The Stones hired local Hell’s Angels as security, and as the day wore on, the Angels’ tempers grew short, and things began to get ugly.

As the day wore into night, the atmosphere got more dangerous until, partway through the Stones’ set, a concertgoer pulled a gun on Mick Jagger and was promptly knifed to death (on film) by a Hell’s Angel.

The film remains harrowing today, not just for capturing the death of a young man, but for capturing the death of an era.

Mark Schuster is the assistant circulation supervisor at Joplin Public Library.