While drafting my capsule review of Shaka King’s Newlyweeds, a charming New York indie about a pot-smoking repo man opening this Friday at Facets Multimedia, I had to refrain from comparing the movie to such breezy, early-sound-era programmers as James Whale’s The Reluctant Maiden, Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match, or William Wellman’s Night Nurse. I’ve invoked this comparison in my reviews of the recent low-budget features Gimme the Loot, Yes We’re Open, and The Crumbles, and I nearly did when writing about several others (e.g., The Happy Poet, the Spanish comedy Carmina, or Blow-Up). These films share numerous qualities with the 70-minute entertainments that Turner Classic Movies has collected in their wonderful Forbidden Hollywood DVD sets: a lived-in authenticity about workaday experience and neighborhood life in general; slender plotting that still allows for plenty of incident; a conversational (yet not quite tossed-off) quality to the storytelling; charismatic star performances and a sense of rapport among the supporting players that evokes blue-collar solidarity; short running times; and, perhaps most compellingly, an indifference to genre that results in tonal shifts from broad comedy to serious melodrama.
The recent neighborhood films also differ in significant ways from their Depression-era predecessors. Most obviously, the earlier films were produced by Hollywood studios and therefore featured big stars and impressive production values—the current ones tend to be independent productions and rarely feature stars or high production value. As such, these new movies typically play in art houses rather than commercial cinemas, even though their subject matter is relatable to most working people.
I assume there are still plenty of images of working life on television and that spectators don’t have to rely on movies like they once did in order to see them. Yet I’m enamored with the notion of a commercial cinema that aspires to some sort of continuity with spectators’ lives outside the theater. It suggests an ongoing conversation between movies and spectators—and a less-passive form of entertainment. One reason the melodramatic turn in Night Nurse is so exciting is that, up till then, the movie offers a more or less relatable portrait of blue-collar types in job training. When it leaps off into “movie logic,” it departs from a familiar place, creating a sense that we too might follow that trajectory.
This sort of thing still happens in commercial cinema—Next Day Air and Magic Mike being two of the more convincing recent examples. It’s worth noting, though, that Steven Soderbergh told interviewers that he faced much difficulty getting Magic Mike made at Warner Brothers (ironically, the Hollywood studio that most excelled at workaday stories during the Depression). As Hollywood movies continue to neglect the subject of work, I suspect we’ll see more independent productions like Newlyweeds. Someone has to fill the gaps in American movies’ chronicle of American life.