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Sounder (1972); And Ramblings on Writer’s Block and Other Films in Dark Times

December 14, 2016

I’m forcing myself to write and post this because I haven’t in a while. Once again I’ve hit a wall, that inevitable stopping point that happens every so often where writing slips down the priority ladder all the while clawing at my heels. “I don’t have time”, “I’m too busy”, “my brain is fried”, “I don’t wanna”: there are always excuses rumbling around in my head that prevents me from engaging with my thoughts during these blocked days. I’ve rarely even mediated lately. Not that I was a poster child for it or anything, but I just haven’t allowed myself to simply create and be. I’ll manage to write a few sentences here and there, and ideas bubble to the surface frequently. But I don’t give in. I haven’t really figured out why I don’t give in. Maybe its all the reasons above. Despite it all, the block never stops my clamoring need to feel whole by writing and getting whatever it is out of me.

I find that in these moments of writer’s block, I make time for everything else but myself. Life has sped by me faster that I can feel the wind graze my skin. I’ve been adjusting to a new job at my favorite television station, Turner Classic Movies while staring at screens all day. I’ve been panicking about the state of the planet and humanity under a new presidency. I have been working on plans to fix it the issues at hand, as if I’m equipped enough to do so. I’ve been watching more movies than I can count, which makes me even more anxious that I’m not writing about them. But then I wonder, should I? Should I write just because I saw films x, y, and z? Or should I save my posts for something powerful?

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Portrait of Jason (1967)

Nevertheless, so many powerful films have crossed my radar while working at TCM. Of the dozens I’ve watched in the past few weeks, a few immediately spring to mind: Solyent Green (1973), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Crossfire (1947), Portrait of Jason (1967) to name a few. I particularly loved Gerald Mayer’s Dial 1119 (1950) and its brilliant social commentary on the ways in which American society chooses to criminalize the mentally ill instead of possessing the empathy to learn and work with them. In this film, Marshall Thompson portrays a vengeful mental patient with a chip on his shoulder and delusions in his head. These two elements convince him to find the doctor he blames for putting him away.

The journey doesn’t turn out the way he expects, however, instead leading him to a bar where seven strangers with their own hangups and problems are staying. There his cover is blown resulting in a stand-off in which he holds the bar hostage while the outside world clamors to get a piece of the action. The cops only want to resolve it their way. The doctor his way. The bystanders theirs. And all the while these seven people worry for their lives as the  gunman becomes more and more unhinged.

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Dial 1119 (1950)

Another powerful gem that I re-watched was Sounder. There’s something about the 1970s that allowed filmmakers to do a magnificent job at capturing reality through film. A night or two before Sounder, I watched History channel’s reboot of “Roots” and all I could do was roll my eyes at a production value high enough to include the likes of Derek Luke and Forest Whitaker, but still low enough to ruin itself with historical inaccuracies and mediocre technicalities. “Roots” felt like a project that was trying way too hard, like someone who realizes they have an important piece of history in their hands but botch it by trying to explain too much of the particulars. African accents frequently drop into American ones. Scenes go on far too long into ad nauseam for what it’s trying to articulate. Forest Whitaker’s intense monologues lack the genuine pathos needed to truly be engaging, although he delivers with great energy. Everything is bright, well lit, acted, fake.

That’s what sets it apart from the 1970s version and the reason for my intense craving to rewatch it while completely forgetting to watch episode two until editing this piece. There was a grit and grime that attached itself to films from the 70’s. A realism that plastered itself right on to the celluloid. Other decades don’t possess this life force. Even the poorest quality films from the 40s or 50’s don’t hold that grungy, dank look that truly makes you feel you’re watching these people in real environments live their lives the way the 1970s did.

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Sounder (1972)

That’s what Sounder has—that’s why it shook me to my core. I first watched it years ago in elementary school after reading the novel. Time, and my failing memory, allowed the details to slip away from me all too easily after years of never truly thinking of it again. After watching it at my desk in the middle of working, I fell completely in awe. Sounder is an effective film because so much of its story is rooted in realism. Cecily Tyson doesn’t have to deliver a powerful monologue as the music swells for you to feel what’s present. The camera doesn’t have to spend long beats staring at the saddened look on the Morgan children’s faces when their father is hauled off to prison. We don’t have to wait in fields searching for Sounder when he goes missing to young David Lee’s dismay. These things aren’t contrived, instead they fall into place at a natural progression that happens in brief spurts then continues on with its story, because life goes on. 

David Lee breaks your heart not because he’s a poor black boy. This family’s tragedy isn’t just because they’re poor. The sadness felt by watching their plight emerges because life goes on. While father Nathan Lee is in prison, the Morgans must continue despite his absence. They miss him, they long for him but there’s no time to grieve. They don’t have the privilege to do that. They realize their loss but must continue on for survival. David Lee’s youth is tainted by his need to provide for his family. He doesn’t bemoan it. He just does what needs to be done, just as father did when he stole ham from a house to feed his family after a night hunt to catch a raccoon for food fails. 

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Sounder (1972)

Sounder doesn’t possess over generalizations of society but focuses on the general emotional reactions people. It doesn’t look to demonize white people for how they treat this family during the time period. It address issues with compliance and how humans are predisposed to do what they are told, some without ever questioning why or what they truly believe themselves. The sheriff can’t give David Lee the name of his father’s prison camp because the law tells him he can’t. Even when the sheriff’s kindly white friend and neighbor attempts to get the information from him, he denies her. He’s furious with her and even threatens her reputation as well as their friendship when he catches her snooping for the information. He reminds her that he does what he’s told saying, “When [the Judge] calls me, I jump!” Even the guard at the jail shows his impetuous compliance when he  pokes holes in a freshly baked chocolate cake to assure there’s no files or hatchet in it. Davids face of disappointment is all we need in that scene.

Rebecca (Tyson) laments to her husband Nathan Lee (a highly underrated and always incredible Paul Winfield) one night; what’s the point of them working when it all just goes back to the land owner leaving them hungry and starting from scratch. As she speaks, she walks around their shack allowing the flow of her dress to revel the tears and rips throughout it. The family wears scarps for clothing with the youngest rarely wearing shirts. Their clothing is for necessity only not luxury. The cinematography and muck present in 1970’s 35mm gives this film a near documentary feel.

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Sounder (1972)

But Sounder isn’t one of those films where it has to beat you over the head to drive its message home. In its Depression-era time frame we don’t see much of the “upscale” high-class life. We see country living for everyone featured in the film, even if some of their homes are nicer than others. Sounder is a portrait of a family in a time when life was rough. But their love for one another is apparent and shown in their support for each others goals and achievements. The demand for equality and justice for black lives is ever present by simply watching this family be during harsh times.

Sounder is heartbreaking because its shitty to watch good people struggle. To be reminded of the timeless truth that no matter how hard you work, shit happens. But despite that shit, it takes perseverance and surrendering to some extent before things can open up and change. Maybe that’s been my lesson during this writer’s block as my mind grows more and more preoccupied with the future state of my country and this world. Shit happens and we can’t just get distracted complaining about it or looking for someone else to guide us through it. We have to treat life like every generation has before us by working hard to fix what we can and accept what we can’t. Regardless, life goes on so we must keep living.

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