Ashes and Embers (Haile Gerima, 1982). Made around forty years ago, Haile Gerima’s experimental drama opens with Black men driving in a city who get pulled over police officers that immediately escalate the situation, presuming guilt as a default for no other reason than skin color. That’s how far we haven’t come. That’s only one piece of Gerima’s powerful film that also addresses the lingering psychic wounds harming U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and the general and persistent troubles faced by Black citizens as they tried to operate safely and fairly in a nation that too often demonized them just for being. Gerima’s approach is about registering impressions rather than clicking through plot points, giving the film a quiet, impassioned verisimilitude that was a hallmark of independent film of the era. John Anderson gives a strong, committed performance in the lead role, but it’s Evelyn A. Blackwell, as a worldly-wise, no-nonsense grandmother whose responsible for the most engaging acting.
Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970). The same year as M*A*S*H, Robert Altman offered this delightful oddity, as if he felt compelled to rapidly signal the Hollywood establishment that having a box office hit on his resume didn’t mean he was going to play by any recognizable set of rules. Brewster McCloud follows the title character (Bud Cort), a virginal young man who lives in the utility corridors of the Houston Astrodome, dreaming and scheming in pursuit of the freedom of flight. He also works briefly for a corrosive nursing home magnate (Stacy Keach, under a thick slab of old age makeup), falls in love with a sweet oddball (Shelley Duvall), and avoids the probing of an out-of-town police detective (Michael Murphy) trying to solve a series of mysterious killings in the city. And that’s only describing the portions of the film that are remotely conventional. Working from a screenplay by Doran William Cannon (who also wrote the nutso Skidoo), Altman is in rascally mode, with a false-start opening credits, slippery satire in every narrative nook, and René Auberjonois escalating in lunacy as a lecturer-narrator who drops in periodically to expound on birds, gradually adopting the behavior and demeanor of the feathered creatures in the process.
A Star is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937). The original take on the much–filmed tale of star-crossed showbiz figures on opposite career trajectories might very well be the best of the lot. It has a zingy efficiency and cheery bravado, the melodramatic tragedy of the plot nicely balanced by comedy that takes some bold swipes at the still-emerging entertainment industry. In this A Star is Born, Janet Gaynor plays the hopeful ingenue whose dreams of being in the pictures are trod upon until she catches the eyes of a boozy movie star (Fredric March), who becomes her champion at the studio where he works. Her career takes off and his tumbles down. Both actors are in fine form, with Gaynor especially charming in a handful of moments where she clearly gets to play, such as a bit set in the studio commissary where she tries out a half dozen iterations of the throwaway line she’s been given in a movie. William A. Wellman gives the film a buoyant energy and demonstrates especially crack timing with the smart, funny script that was touched by several, including Dorothy Parker. I’m assuming she was responsible for the many sharp lines about downing drinks.