Lovers & Lollipops (1956)

Screening: Friday, November 2, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

By Drew DeVine

There’s something appropriate about Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s first films — important as they are to the artistic maturation of American independent film — being about children. In the case of Lovers & Lollipops, the central conceit of the film, helpfully announced in the title, seems to be in how it compares and contrasts seemingly innocent and childlike modes of behavior with supposedly mature and adult modes of behavior. Peggy (Cathy Dunn) attempts to care for her goldfish like a good “play” mother, but in her youthful, casual inattention almost leaves one out to die. This is set up as a contrast with the competence with which real mother Ann (Lori March) looks after Peggy, but as is soon revealed by her reaction to Peggy’s troubling comments about being bullied due to a lack of a father, in her own way Ann is no more of an all-knowing, all-competent God of creature-rearing than her daughter. Instead, Ann’s something like a more responsible, more aware, higher functioning version of the same necessarily limited way of existing.

The Engel/Orkin films, much like the Cassavetes films they helped to inspire, are predicated on a non-idealized (if not bleakly realist) envisioning of their subjects. It’s not so much a matter of a coldly calculating, Altmanesque debunking of idealized Hollywood visions as it is an embrace of life in all of its slippery, messy, beauty. For the Engel/Orkin team, a grainy black and white shot of Peggy’s dirty feet is as interesting and worthy of being filmed as an otherworldly, Technicolor sunset. One of my favorite sequences of the film shows Peggy’s response to the Museum of Modern Art. Like her mother who uses the museum not to contemplate artworks but to get reacquainted with an old love interest, Peggy imagines it as a playground to dance through, an indifferent backdrop to her sailboating adventures. Next to strange statues, she is neither as idealized nor as abstracted as any of them, but part of the film’s implicit claim may be that she and her forms of behavior are just as worthy of museum-aided appreciation. Now, thanks to the High, we all have an opportunity to test that claim.

Drew DeVine is a MA student in Emory University’s Film and Media Studies Program, a Cassavetes enthusiast, and smart as a whip. Screens on High is honored to have him as a guest-blogger!

Reserve tickets for the Friday, November 2 screening of Lovers & Lollipops here.

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Little Fugitive: Precursor to the French New Wave

Screening: Saturday, June 23, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

As many critics have noted, Little Fugitive (1953) has–to put it mildly–a minimalist story: 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) is the butt of a cruel joke and goes on the lam believing he’s killed his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster). He heads to Coney Island where he wanders around, stuffs himself full of carnival food, collects empty bottles for nickels, and rides a pony around a pitiful little race track about a hundred times. The narrative, however, is not what’s groundbreaking about this film.

As soon as Joey arrives at Coney Island, the story (its caricatures and all other trappings of the 1950s television-era) melts into the background. Shot with a concealed strap-on 35mm camera, what emerges from these bare narrative bones is a rare historical document of Coney Island–its beaches, hotdogs, lovers, ferris wheels, and its tens of thousands inhabitants all caught performing their minor roles in the chaos of their natural habitat.

Amidst the inherent overstimulation of Coney Island on a summer day, Morris Engle (who shot the film and also wrote and directed it along with Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin) beats a path for his young protagonist. Joey weaves and darts among bigger bodies, squeezing by and bumping into them the way focused kids do when they are after a stray ball or have just found change for more sugar. The camera most often at waist height, Engle recognizes the inevitable slapstick of being little and the utter sweetness of demanding to be taken seriously anyway. So we can’t help but be endeared when Joey tackles a piece of watermelon so big it eclipses his entire upper-half or, in perhaps the best sequence of the film, swings a baseball bat so hard it turns him around and furrows his brow pitch after pitch.

And yet, as hilarious as these moments are, Little Fugitive also casts a sensitive gaze on what it’s like to be small and lost in a world that’s not built for you…turns out it’s a lonely and filthy reality where triumphs are hard-earned but fleeting and there’s no choice but to live moment by moment. This, perhaps, does not make a “good story” or so Bosley Crowther for the New York Times seemed to think when, upon the film’s 1953 release, he wrote, “there is little conception of drama in this trick, and the mere repetition of adventures tends eventually to grow dull” and “count it a photographer’s triumph with a limited theme.”

This “repetition of adventures” and “limited theme,” however, is what inspired Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which kicked off the French New Wave. Little Fugitive‘s affective duration, the attention it grants to mere human existence, and its will to record a specific time and place was seen by cutting-edge French filmmakers and Neo-Realists around the world as a vital testament to humanity in all its everyday joys and tragedies. Luckily for us, there is an adorable pint-sized fugitive and a lot of over-sized snacks at the center of this “bad story” and landmark film.