Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

CABIN IN THE SKY: Ethel Waters, Co-Dependency and The Lord

Preface: Popular African American success stories since the dawn of American pop culture usually involve some strong parent or grandparent with strict ideas about child-rearing (think of Jamie Foxx’s Oscar speech about how his grandma used to beat him to get him to listen and otherwise he'd be just a street kid, etc). Multi-generational and community strength seems to be needed (vs. the more self-contained independence of the nuclear family in white neighborhoods). Again, looking at this just from the movies and my own (white) reading of (white mainstream) portrayal of black culture, i.e. through a thick blur of my unconsciously prejudicial upbringing and liberal arts 80s college education, etc., that's the most glaring thing I find when revisiting Cabin after so many years, on my new spiffy DVD (each front-loaded with racism-apologies as is this post with my own);

An interesting subtextual window into the popular conception of African American temperament can be found in CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), released on DVD last February (and a must). What's set up in the allegorical story is the polarity of opposites between temptation (represented by craps, booze, sex and other "black" vices) and goodness (the church!). Though one can read this largely in terms of musical style (the lascivious dances and shimmies in the club scene climax, the --sadly mostly excised--hell-set number) vs. the church, heaven and Waters' backyard, the subtextual implication is that the African American subject needs more control/discipline than a white one due to a surplus of energy/life force (or what the Lacanians would call “jouissance”) so they have to work twice as hard to be good, or else be twice as bad as whites on account of they're being lazy, shiftless, et al. But if they get the discipline together, then they're formidable, respected and devout enough to make a white preacher seem depraved and weak-minded in comparison.  Placing this dichotomy of good vs. bad in CABIN, we find Petunia (Ethel Waters) regularly dragging her no good shrimp of a man, Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) off to church, much to the consternation of his gambling cronies. Joe "wants" to do good, but he owes money from throwing dice with a no-account hustler named Domino (“Bubbles” John W. Sublett). When the game goes bad, a gun goes off and Joe is reckoned a goner, until the powerful prayer of his good woman saves him.

There’s a run-in between the factions of good and evil at the crime scene as devils and angels argue over Joe’s soul. They agree to play it as it lays, giving Joe a second chance and each using their abilities to lure him one way or the other. The representatives of good are dressed in solemn military garb with stout, straight backs and strong voices; the devil's minions are playful jazzbos (including Louis Armstrong). The devil's son-in-law (a marvelous Rex Ingram) sets about trying to lure Joe back to the fold via a winning lottery ticket and Lena Horne's gold-digging vamp. Through it all, it's assumed the Joe needs to repent, if for no other reason than Ethel loves him so gosh-dang much.

This "love" is what tips off the whole thing, for a close reading reveals it as nothing more than smothering, all-consuming, co-dependence. Joe is never even asked how he feels about Petunia: all concerned know that she’s a good woman and therefore Joe is one lucky fellow! Case closed! But it's clear she's more enamored with her own powers of endearment rather than she is with said endearment's undeserving object, Joe. In the end of the film, Joe wakes up from his death bed and wants to tell Petunia his dream, but she won’t let him: “That’s not important, let's just talk about how much I love you!" Too bad these two didn't have access to a couple's therapist, or Joe might have learned it was okay that he felt stifled. She's the bad guy here. She can't wait to jump to the wrong conclusion when she comes home from work to find him fighting off the caresses of Lena Horne (who's the first to learn about his lottery ticket - since she and the ticket are both hell-sent). The look in Anderson's eyes as Joe after Petunia flips out is priceless. Unlike the instantly apologetic typical husband in (white-based) movies who takes the guilt on himself for his wife's misjudgments (since on some level he's tempted therefore guilty), Anderson's Joe just seems saddened, worried at seeing this mean shrewish streak in his usually vivacious gal.

Through it all, thought, Joe, the man, works almost as a Hitchcockian mcguffin-- a plain white flag in the capture-the-flag game between forces of good and evil. He exists mainly to be adored by Petunia and to reflect within himself the weakness for vice which is by association subtextually inherent in the African-American character. In the picture above you can sense his passive ambivalence about her: she grins like she's about to devour him whole; he looks up more than a bit afraid, like a mouse gazing up at the smile of a Cheshire cat.

Vincente Minnelli is a brilliant enough director that one is obligated to do this subtextual digging, particularly when his AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) features such a similarly dysfunctional romance at its heart, between a self-satisfied but financially bereft painter who has little gratitude for his kind if overly gabby 'sponsor' or sugar mama (Nina Foch) he wants to be self-sufficient while doing no work other than painting, which the best he can do is sell on street corners when she could get him gallery shows, like all good sponsors. And when he finds himself attracted to Leslie Caron, he cares not a wit that he's forcibly breaking up her own sugar-daddy connection, forcing her into the same self-inflicted poverty he relishes, regardless of her feelings and the feelings of all those who he owes and abuses. And yet we are somehow expected to root for him, because he himself is so in love with his own big white smile. A similarly uncomfortable implication of narcissism occurs in CABIN: Petunia loves Joe the way Gene “loves” Leslie in PARIS, which is to say, as a possession, as a symbol of their self-righteous "integrity," an integrity that blinds the owner to the collateral damage it creates. Gene wants power, to be the one with the purse strings and have Caron's big gorgeous eyes look up to him in awe; Petunia wants Joe because left to his own devices he'll be gone down the road of sin faster than you can say Jack Russell terrier.

Gene Kelly and Nina Foch, AMERICAN IN PARIS
Seeing CABIN with a modern therapeutic eye it’s plain the only woman in the film who truly understands Joe is the devil’s temptress, Sweet Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Unlike Ethel’s Petunia, Georgia at least seems to accept Joe as he really is, to see him clearly, rather than as a reflection of her own ideal ego. As Petunia's undeserving love object, Joe may as well be a stuffed animal, but with Georgia he's a man. When Horne and Anderson share a scene there is a sense they are connecting on a personal level as actors, something that never happens with Anderson and Waters (who preaches to everyone as if she's helping them out of a deep pit).

Joe as a man is ultimately so ineffectual, however, that he lets himself get pushed around in his own nightclub (which he buys with his lottery winnings). You would think he could hire a bouncer to take care of the no-account Domino, who crashes the gate to sing "Shine" and do a nifty tap dance (one of the film's big highlights so who's squawkin'?). If he was, say, Ricardo Cortez in a Warner Bros. gangster film, Joe would just snap his fingers and his big thug bodyguards would at least toss Domino out on his ear if not beat him to a pulp in the alley. Instead, Joe is so ineffectual he can only watch as Domino steals his thunder and even pushes him around... in front of his own staff!

Petunia continues to manifest the hypocrisy of the church when her attempt to get Joe back starts a raucous bar fight at film's climax. Refusing to accept any blame or let people work out their own issues, Petunia prays down a tornado, beseeching God to destroy the whole town. Mind, this is all a dream, but it seems rather cavalier of Petunia, a supposed good woman, to order God to destroy a town just because she's getting bored with all the violent attention that she herself created by disguising herself as a no-good vamp.

Naturally, as with AMERICAN IN PARIS, none of this matters particularly, as the songs and dancing is everything. That’s fine, but to me, and any good deconstruction-happy crazy theorist, it's because Minnelli's focus is on the song and dance that these other recurring sinthoms are so telling. One wonders who the woman, mother or past 'sponsor' that left Minnelli feeling so boxed in. For CABIN, while has managed to sidestep a few racial slurs he's blind to where he's fallen smack dab into others, such as those of the infamous grinning minstrel. Every single character in this all-black film seems to keep their mouth peeled back so their big pearly whites can create that nice juxtaposition of white against their black faces. It’s creepy to see characters holding these big toothy smiles through whole scenes while another character talks. I kept looking into their eyes for signs of passive aggression as if they were overdoing it on purpose as a form of protest, but all I saw was weary strain, a determination to do it right lest their boxed-in director demand yet another jaw-aching take.

Still, any racist aspects of the film pales beside its sly indictment of co-dependent romantic obsession and fundamentalist Christian dogma, assuming that's what was intended in the first place. Let's hope one day there will be a movie about African-Americans who can gamble, drink and carouse and still make it to work on time, raise decent children and love each other for who they are. Amen!

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