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Cowboys and Ambersons: Essential Films About Vanishing Ways of Life, Part 2

By Keyframe ContributorsThe best movies that bring special poignancy to lives no longer present.

John Wayne makes a last stand in "The Shootist," his last movie.

John Wayne makes a last stand in "The Shootist," his last movie.

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Here is a film Orson Welles described as so sad, “It could make a stone cry.” The poignancy of Make Way for Tomorrow grows with every year added to it since the day of its release. At the time one could argue that it explored a modern problem, what to do with Mom and Dad in a society that favors the capable, forgetting to honor one’s elders. Seeing the film today we realize that the problems of Barkley and Lucy Cooper will inevitably be visited upon their children; the youngest daughter in the film would now be more than able to collect on social security. In the vein of a vanishing way of life we have the time when Barkely and Lucy were the heads of the household, a time when only a certain type of woman could be seen drinking in public, a very personal time that inevitably, for all of us, will pass us by.

- John Keefer is a writer and director of short films working out of Phoenixville, PA. His work can be seen at 51deep.com.

Sweetgrass is a ravishing document of a dying tradition, one that sets its boots deep in sheep shit as well as on the rolling plains. This is no romantic gloss on the West, but an immersion in it. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash recorded 200 hours of footage of Norwegian-American sheepherders as they led their flock through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for a final summer pasture. The filmmakers captured the last drive before factory farming ended the yearly practice. The film follows John, an older, gentle cowboy and Pat, the hot-headed young man out for a check. Each deals with the loneliness and deprivations of the open range in their own way. John bonds with the animals, calling them his “girls” and singing them to sleep. To Pat they are “bitches”, as the sleepless nights and his bum knee drive him close to a breakdown. The true stars, though, are the wooly beasts, whose every utterance is captured with unsettling clarity. Edited by experimental musician Ernst Karel, the sound design is a skronky symphony – of their bleats, honks, and death rattles.

- R. Emmett Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies.

While Woody Allen’s early 20th century nostalgia may have reached its apogee in the time travelling wish-fulfillment of Midnight in Paris, Radio Days is one of his most sincere paeans to a fragile Golden Era, the years of FDR’s fireside chats and Mercury Theatre on the Air. The critical Jewish family who scarred the psyche of Alvy Singer is transformed in Radio Days into a melancholy but charmingly harmless clan, their shabby reality muffled by big band orchestras and gilded with the D-list society gossip of “Breakfast with Irene and Roger.” They imagine shows unfolding in gleaming, chrome encrusted broadcasting studios, where actors are as elegantly turned out and poised as they are on the pages of Photoplay. Less about the end of a way of life than it is about the end of the visual imagination, in Radio Days the family invests their favorite programs with all the brilliance and enthusiasm lacking in their irritating and drab environment, to the point that their own lives begin to take on elements of radio dramas, farces, and romances. But the days of hyper-enunciating announcers and invisible ventriloquists are limited, and the film’s narrator, voiced by Allen, says, “with the passing of each New Year’s Eve, those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.” Popular culture would never again seem so personal.

Anna Bak-Kvapil is a contributor to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

The Shootist introduces Carson City, Nevada, power lines first.  There are horses but they share the town’s crowded roads with streetcars and automobiles.  Carson City circa 1901 exists in an uneasy space between the past and the future.  Markers of the Old West like ten gallon hats and gun belts mix with symbols of progress like electricity and indoor plumbing.  Don Siegel’s beautiful, elegiac Western The Shootist doesn’t dwell on these details; it’s more about the death of one man than the end of an era.  But since that man is played by John Wayne, an actor synonymous with the Western, his death takes on much larger resonance. Wayne’s J.B. Books was once a legendary shootist, but with the frontier right on the cusp of civilization, legend is where most would like Books to stay.  The man who helped settle places like Carson City is now a reminder of a more violent time its citizens would like to forget.  When he learns the news that Books is dying of an inoperable tumor, the local marshall reacts with glee.  “Books, this is 1901,” he chuckles.  “To put it in a nutshell: you’ve plain plum outlived your time.”  The saddest thing about The Shootist is that deep down Boks knows the marshall is absolutely right.

Matt Singer is host of IFC News and a writer for IFC.com

Orson WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons, one of the greatest of all memory-movies, is set in the past-tense, and in an already vanished past. The first two sentences of Welles’ elegiac opening narration tells the whole story: “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.” A montage of quaint bygone customs and fashions follows, culminating in a camera movement into the Amberson mansion, and into the past, for “the last of the great, long-remembered dances that everybody talked about.” It is as if we are swept up by the wind itself, accompanied by the tinkling of ice and crystal chandeliers, like sleigh bells, and carried into this lost American civilization. Here, the narrator takes his leave and does not return until the world has fallen: “The town was growing and changing. It was heaving up in the middle, incredibly. It was spreading, incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself, and darkened its sky….” It is not just the Ambersons who have become obsolete, but a particular style of magnificence.

Jim Emerson writes at Scanners.

Julie’s Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 and chronicles a Gullah family’s migration north to the mainland from Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast, which was a stopover during the transatlantic slave trade. Dash focuses on the Peazant family to capture the Gullah’s cultural heritage that has been preserved in large part due to geographical isolationism. Generational conflicts arise between the family’s matriarch Nana Peazant, her great-grandchildren who are the ones migrating, and an unborn great-great-granddaughter who provides occasional narration. The film is filled with haunting imagery, like the blue-stained hands of the women who once worked in the indigo factories, and a recurring masthead from a crashed slave ship shown bobbing off the landing. As the time of departure nears, Nana Peazant implores those leaving to remember their ancestors and the land where they are buried.

- Eric Arima is a blogger and posts reviews at Patch.

WATCH DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST ON FANDOR:

Nicholas Ray often looked on his many disparate milieux through a kind of ethnographic lens, observing the natives of the insect-ridden swamps of Wind Across the Everglades and the denizens of  The Lusty Men’s dusty rodeo arenas with the same keen anthropological curiosity for (sub)culturally-specific detail. Ray was himself a dabbler in “alternative lifestyles,”  but The Savage Innocents, a French-Italian-British co-production shot partly on location in the frozen wastes north of Hudson Bay and partly in the studios at Pinewood, makes this interest more explicit, offering an elaborate portrait of Inuit life in the atomic age with a curious blend of melodrama and pseudo-documentary. Following the daily life and social mores of Inuk, an Inuit hunter played by the mighty Anthony Quinn, as he hunts for polar bears, seals, and a “useless woman,” Ray uses his characteristic widescreen compositions (here, the short-lived Technirama) to artfully dissect the family igloo just as he did the suburban living room in Rebel Without a Cause. 

Neatly dovetailing with the film’s obvious precursor, Nanook of the North, we have a vérité fiction film instead of a staged actuality about the Inuits, and there’s even a restaging of Nanook’s famed tug-of-war with a seal beneath the ice. Sure, the film’s voiceover has some clunky anthropological ticks — exotic cultural factoids combined with banal universalisms about family, home, and man against nature — but Ray doesn’t essentialize the Inuits’ way of life; notwithstanding the movie’s title, Ray’s characters never seem like Rousseauvian specimens of uncorrupted human innocence. Instead, The Savage Innocents is more of a case study in the irreconcilability of the moral orders by which humans live: it’s not for a full forty minutes that we hear our first crack of modern civilization, a polar bear-felling gunshot from the white man’s world, with its blue-eyed missionaries and an ersatz Buddy Holly song called “Sexy Rock,” that threaten to spark a miniature cultural war in Inuk’s silver-blue Arctic wasteland. 

- Leo Goldsmith is a co-editor of the Film section of The Brooklyn Rail and an editor and frequent contributor to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

The greatest Chinese filmmakers all share a quality of exquisite plaintiveness, a melancholy longing for things past (or soon to be) that has yielded some truly remarkable films about lives receding into oblivion: Hou Hsiao Hsien’s A Time to Life and A Time to Die and City of Sadness; Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. But if I were to single out one film it would be Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, because it captures a moment of imminent decline with an uncommon delicacy that can never be recreated (though Tian Zhuangzhuang made an admirable attempt in his 2002 remake). Set in a shell-shocked period of unease sandwiched between the end of World War II and the Communist Revolution, the film is haunted by an unshakeable mood of uncertainty and impending disaster; as such it seems to cling to each of its own moments like a life raft. Whether by using dissolves within scenes or eerily quiet tracking shots through the bombed-out real-life set, its depiction of its characters’ emotional untethering anticipated the likes of Bergman and Antonioni by a decade. Of course, it didn’t have a direct influence on such films, having been made in a flickering instant after China’s doors to the world were finally pried free from Japanese occupation, right before Communism slammed them back shut. This is the disassociated ancestor of a now-familiar brand of meditative cinema that it never had the chance to influence.

- Kevin B. Lee is editor of Keyframe at Fandor.

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