The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Movie of the Week #9

The Town
(Josef von Sternberg; 1945)

Produced under the imprimatur of the U.S. Office of War Information, The Town was the only film directed in its entirety by Josef von Sternberg between 1941's The Shanghai Gesture and 1953's Anatahan, and it is in every respect an expert work of state propaganda. It's purpose was to illustrate no less than the full American ideal of Democracy through images of everyday life in what used to be known as a typical small town in the Midwest. But while it's one of the very few occasions in the Sound era where Sternberg dealt with a specifically American setting (the others being slightly more baroque works such as An American Tragedy, Blonde Venus and Sergeant Madden), it stands far outside whatever themes might have been established by those films.

Of necessity, it's an entirely rhetorical work (that was simply the nature of the enterprise), with an eleven minute running time that afforded Sternberg scant opportunity to do anything more than deliver the film's message with as much artistry as he could bring to it. But the small lumps of sensibility he does deliver on this occasion are sufficient to place this film alongside similarly artful propaganda evocations such as John Ford's Battle of Midway and William Wyler's The Memphis Belle. From the evidence of his fluid, disciplined camera gliding through public libraries, corner drugstores, schoolrooms and the like, the odd striking composition (not to mention a rather odd montage of closeups featuring prepubescent girls at a public swimming pool . . . Busby Berkeley by way of Roman Polanski, one might suggest), you could not easily or for very long mistake this film for the work of another director.

The paradigmatic American town of Sternberg's film . . . Madison, Indiana . . . is, we are told, forged out of the lives and experiences of its people; a good many of them immigrants from the Old World. It is they who keep democracy afloat through their labor. It is they who run the shops, sit on juries, participate at all levels in the well-oiled class-less system which is the true focus of the film's celebratory intent. By way of direct contrast, over a decade later . . . in his melancholic adaptation of James Jones' godawful Some Came Running . . . Vincente Minnelli would regard the very same locale and see a landscape of frustrated passions and vague ennui, proffering it almost in the same rhetorical fashion as the real fruit of post-war American life. It would have been foolish to expect Sternberg to assume even a tacitly critical stance in a propaganda film paid for by the United States government, but that only makes the question of whether Sternberg really believed the message of this marginally jingoist enterprise, beautifully wrought as it is, all the more perplexing.

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