Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life in Film: Oscar Micheaux

Published in frieze, Issue 129, March 2010, pp. 21-22.

I first saw Ten Minutes to Live (1932), directed by Oscar Micheaux, about fifty years after it was made. At the time, the film gave me an overwhelming impression of strangeness that had nothing to do with camp or kitsch, or any of the other aesthetic categories that might diminish or limit such a unique experience. Every second was (and is) riveting. Micheaux’s films are set in New York or Chicago or in the backward American hinterlands, but they also unfold in a dramatic space constructed by a man who, in terms of aesthetics, inhabited his own world. No written description can prepare a spectator for seeing Micheaux’s films; they are too complex and too remote from the mainstream that issued from the innovations of D.W. Griffith to be summarized in that way. With the passing years, Griffith’s infantile politics have become apparent even to the most benighted spectators, while Micheaux’s blunt impertinence seems fresh and contemporary.

Ten Minutes to Live is a film in two halves announced by old-fashioned intertitles: “The Faker” and “The Killer.” Much of “The Faker” consists of scenes of nightclub performances, shot with a static camera in synchronous sound and in single takes. A jazz band plays and people dance brilliantly, with joy and abandon. One of these musical numbers lasts a mere thirty seconds.

Pursued by a murderer, Letha Watkins, the protagonist of the second half of Ten Minutes to Live, takes a taxi ride from New York’s Grand Central Station to Westchester County. This long sequence has only one soundtrack: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony accompanies the action, but each time a car horn honks, the music cuts out completely. Letha arrives at her home in Westchester and pauses to smoke a cigarette. Micheaux represents this simple action in six separate shots. While Letha is on screen, it is as though time expands to allow greater attention to her gestures and to the play of light through the smoke and on the fabric of her dressing gown.

In order to conserve film stock, Micheaux went to great lengths to avoid shooting expensive dialogue sequences with synchronous sound. Near the end of the film, the murderer, Morvis, observes his potential victim Letha in her home talking to her boyfriend. While the lovers speak, Morvis is on screen; during pauses in the dialogue, the lovers are seen caressing and mugging silently for the camera. Morvis stands in front of a painted backdrop that appears in no establishing shot, so it is unclear if he sees the lovers from his position. The lovers’ voices accompanying Morvis’s close-ups suggest that he hears them, yet this is impossible. Morvis is a deaf mute.

Later, Morvis carouses with a treacherous woman at her house, but they are interrupted by a telegram announcing that policemen have surrounded them. The telegram comes from Morvis’s mother, who calls him a fool and informs him that he has been betrayed. Morvis abruptly turns on his female companion and a chase ensues. The chase goes in a circle, up and down the same staircase, as in a cartoon gag.

The scenes mentioned above bring to mind moments of rupture in a Jean-Luc Godard film, or Andy Warhol’s sound films, or vast sections of Doris Wishman’s exploitation oeuvre, yet Micheaux directed films decades before any of them. The only contemporary whose work Micheaux’s resembles is Dziga Vertov, and indeed, the scene of Letha smoking looks like a delightfully fetishistic out-take from Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Did Micheaux see Vertov’s films? Nothing is impossible, but this is highly unlikely.

What I have described may not give a clear indication of Micheaux’s body of work as a whole, because Ten Minutes to Live has little of the caustic drama that distinguishes his other films. Black characters strive to improve their lives, but antagonists thwart them at every turn. The white characters, when not naïve and well-meaning, operate with vicious impunity. Within Our Gates (1920), Micheaux’s politicized response to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), contains a lynching scene that prevented the film’s exhibition in the American South. Almost entirely suppressed in the US, the film was believed lost until it was rediscovered in a Spanish film archive in 1991. Body and Soul (1925) presents the story of a preacher – played with relish by Paul Robeson in his first starring role – corrupt enough to be familiar to modern audiences accustomed to ecclesiastical venality and hypocrisy. God’s Stepchildren (1938) transforms John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) into a tragedy of extraordinary power; it ends with a woman who has abandoned her child taking one last look at him before she drowns herself. In Birthright (1939), a black man with a Harvard degree tries to found a school in his sleepy hometown, but he gets swindled; only a bequest from the town’s richest man (who may have been in love with him) can deliver him from his predicament.

Inflammatory on principle, Micheaux attracted the attention of censors, and as an independent filmmaker with no studio to defend him, he was completely vulnerable to their whims. Historians have theorized that most of the odd devices in Micheaux’s films are attempts to wrest coherent narratives from material that had been utterly mutilated by racist bureaucrats. This might have been the case with Ten Minutes to Live, which runs a scant 58 minutes, although I am not quite sure.

Apologists call Oscar Micheaux a pioneering African American filmmaker who did his best with limited resources, but whose works – it is sometimes implied – are rather inept. His achievements are undeniable: he was the first African American to direct a feature film; having directed over 40 films, he was by far the most prolific black filmmaker during the era of segregation; and furthermore, he was the only one to thrive during the transition from silent to sound cinema. But his films cannot be reduced to these facts, nor can they be comfortably assimilated into an historical narrative. To this day, no one has given a completely convincing account of why Micheaux’s films look the way they do. They remain mysterious cinematic objects. By now, I have seen most of Micheaux’s surviving feature films, some of them many times, and these viewings have only confirmed my original intuition: that all of his films’ formal eccentricities are the result not only of a perverse sense of humor and a bracing contempt for authority, but of sustained reflection and practice. America’s mainstream film culture, worshipping money and status above all else, has thus far been blind to the true virtues of Micheaux’s work. His controversial subject matter and radical film form have stranded him outside the official version of film history. I believe Oscar Micheaux is the greatest American filmmaker, and I hope that one day my claim will not seem outrageous at all.