Illuminated in the Dark

America continues apace pell-mell and hellbent towards further popular cultural infantilization.

We’re increasingly surrendering the ability to discuss and debate topics which might demand those participating in them to not only hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, much less let them shunt over onto other tracks. Though never as deft with simultaneous multiple moving parts as older societies, what Americans lacked in veritas we made up for in verve.

Thanks to the make it easier for the coloring book clarity brigades to contribute and thereby muddle the point, issues have lost their shades of gray. These have hardened into blacker or whiter blocs. Now, mentioning the word “nuance” makes more and more Americans reach for their revolvers. Where the verbal or written rapier sliced artfully, we now wail and flail with rhetorical bludgeons.

Several weeks ago, actress/model/icon Brooke Shields, in conjunction with one-time Saturday Night Live cast member Ali Wentworth, released a documentary reflecting on Shields’ appearance in the movie Pretty Baby. Depending on whose estimation, the 1978 film was either a success or scandal.

Me? I remember it as moist. Nevertheless, it did enliven long ago portraits of the movie’s milieu by photographer E.J. Bellocq.

In short, the Louis Malle directed/Polly Platt written melodrama centers on a 12-year-old girl being raised in a New Orleans whorehouse. The story transpires just before the United States enters the Great War. This shouldn’t be a newsflash but such establishments then catered to that taste. The movie is fact-based. Until thoughtful progressive Americans developed into a force, minors were not protected from any kind of exploitation.

At least not those of the underclass. Just look at American labor. For too long in our nation’s history children who ought have been crowding schoolrooms or playgrounds pulled adult hours toiling in mines, factories, or harvesting crops.

Only 85 years ago did New Deal legislation forbid children from performing arduous labor in even dangerous for adults settings. Children did so for under prevailing wages. This through hours without end. The enacted law extended childhood to untold numbers of American kids. Unfortunately, Americans are fond of ignoring our past if another dollar can be made on the backs of others. Several states today have pending legislation which will severely weaken or outright eliminate child labor prohibitions. This does not advance society. This is regression.

The above is the same attitude that would’ve squared a 12-year-old working in a whorehouse. “Decent” society at large might have seen her circumstance as shameful, but probably reasoned it just. Taking her situation to its commercial conclusion she would’ve been an attraction fetching a prime price.

Therefore, Malle’s film, again based on a real life, by the way, has true basis. Despite the movie’s detractors, his is not a production of some lecher veiled in permissive art.

What Shields and Wentworth sought was disquisition about whether a project produced in an entirely different era than our own was exploitive. Besides the then young actress appearing nude, being the living marionette of so much adult manipulation was also explored.

There are adults who can’t figure out their sexuality. How could a 12-year-old have navigated aspects still beyond her? Then, she only knew what she’d been instructed. How might have this early jump into the unknown have shaped her life afterwards?

Wouldn’t that have been a sharper focus for the Shields-Wentworth collaboration? Rather than try to load the past with today’s notions of offense.

Brooke’s mother Teri, an industry veteran, must’ve guided her daughter wisely. Don’t the results speak for themselves? Despite film projects and ad campaigns today’s easily rendered aghast society loves seeing as salacious, the younger Shields’ career nor personal life haven’t devolved into any resemblance of a tabloid roadkill subject’s.

She never became Dana Plato nor Anissa Jones.

And naturally the mundane arguments. Was Teri Shields somehow parentally negligent by permitting Brooke to appear in less than Disney pure assignments? Were Malle, Platt, and the producers somehow complicit in facilitating the corruption of a minor? Was Pretty Baby even a good movie? It intrigued certainly. Did it disturb? Without a doubt. As it should have been given the subject. But deserving of pitchfork and torch-bearing peasants storming theaters? No. That response was needed for Birth of a Nation.

Of course, on social media the shallowly appreciative of art beyond primary colors quickly pounced on the Shields-Wentworth reflection of Pretty Baby. They excoriated the movie blindly, claiming it “child pornography.” Nothing like resorting to mindless extremism to make an invalid point, is there? And taking another giant step backwards, they also upbraided any of the movie’s commenters who failed supporting or defending their simple good/bad reductions.

These were the sort of correspondents who if dunking chairs were restored would insist on burnings at stakes first. Again, they took their concepts of today’s impermissibility, larded the past with them, then declared sinister what a prior era yielded minus understanding the daring or gall of that time. As if people then ought already have known they’d somehow be judged as “wrong” in the future.

That reasoning wouldn’t have even served as a Star Trek episode on peyote.

Anyway, among the bottom lines of Pretty Baby one ought to be presenting “history without someone being offended” whether it through scholarship or art. Accuracy isn’t always a comfort.

Now for a movie hopefully seen as estimable.

Several weeks ago, I browsed Kanopy. It’s a streamer which features classics, foreign and obscure titles. By October Netflix will have chucked its DVD service and won’t bother digitalizing titles intrinsic to film heritage. It’ll fall to Kanopy as well as Criterion to keep alive celluloid before Technicolor, overwhelming special effects, and asinine plots which avoid challenging contemporaneous viewers.

My eyes came across a restored black & white curio from 1928 titled Eleven P.M. by Richard Maurice. Briefly, unlike many of the era’s silents it’s a convoluted fabulation. Or just surreal. Some viewers might have to travel through mazes to reach Point B from Point A. Whether through ambitious moviemaking or lost sequences, who knows? Eleven P.M. concludes on a supernatural kicker which harkens to numerous fables.

Even in 2023 the sequence should astound.

Maurice’s plot, as it is, tracks a writer on deadline. Hey! I’m familiar with that! In pursuit of beating the hour, he succumbs to slumber. Only in a movie. Only in a movie. He dreams a tale. A recognizable one of virtue, theft, mendacity, retribution, and, finally, justice.

But what made watching Maurice’s silent especially gratifying? He was black. The cast was black. Those actors and actresses delivered portrayals that would’ve bewildered most Jazz Age Anglos. Instead of greasy, capering, wildly grinning, eyeball rolling “shines,” the cast’s performances were those of normal people, not “popular” caricatures.

While Eleven P.M. is not an “uplift the race” film, it shies from consciously ennobling a segment of the populace who were then viewed as “colored people.” That stated, it also does not veer into pronouncements. Maurice’s film does not carry the baggage then-mainstream America heaped on the backs of non-whites or suspect ethnicities.

Thus, there’s nothing in the telling to shrug off.