Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Young One (La Joven)







Director Luis Buñuel

Buñuel (right) and blacklisted Producer George Pepper

Producer George Pepper (center)








THE YOUNG ONE (La Joven)         B+                                                                                      Mexico  USA  (95 mi)  1960  d:  Luis Buñuel

Private game-preserve.  Trespassers on this island will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.                                                                                                                                                —Unfriendly sign greeting new arrivals to the island, also including undetected animal traps spread throughout hidden locations that can unexpectedly trap humans

Premiering at Cannes in 1960, made with American actors, one of only two films made in English during Buñuel’s illustrious career, the other being THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (1954), making films in Spain, Mexico, and France, largely exiled from Spain during the fascist Franco dictatorship (1936 – 1975), instead making films in Mexico from 1946 to 1961, two-thirds of his entire output, offering his own commentary on the period:

Here in Mexico, I have become a professional in the film world.  Until I came here I made a film the way a writer makes a book, and on my friends’ money at that.  I am very grateful and happy to have lived in Mexico, and I have been able to make my films here in a way I could not have in any other country in the world.  It is quite true that in the beginning, caught up by necessity, I was forced to make cheap films.  But I never made a film which went against my conscience or my convictions.  I have never made a superficial, uninteresting film.

In other words, Buñuel never sold out for commercial interests, with L’ÂGE D’OR  (1930) banned in France, VIRIDIANA (1961) banned in Spain, remaining anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical, and anti-fascist, to which one might add anti-racist.  This often overlooked film adapts a 1957 short story entitled Travelin’ Man by Peter Matthiessen, exposing American racism and the hypocrisy of white morality, so easily scapegoating and passing judgement based on race, even willing to murder others for crimes they themselves have committed, yet bear no inclination to hold themselves accountable.  The double standard goes something like this:  if the rapist is a white man, the woman is to blame, if the rapist is a black man, kill him.  Produced and co-written by exiles from the stench of 1950’s American McCarthyism, including two from the Hollywood blacklist, producer George Pepper, named by film director Edward Dmytryk as a Communist Party member during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1951, leaving the country rather than testifying, starting a production company in Mexico, raising money from blacklisted Hollywood musicians (Pepper was originally a child prodigy violinist whose career was cut short by “repetitive strain injury”), hiring blacklisted scriptwriter Hugo Butler, who earlier wrote an adaptation of Buñuel’s ROBINSON CRUSOE, both sharing with the Spanish director a sense of exile from one’s own country, offering unique insight into the plight of blacks in the American South, isolated and treated as if they don’t belong, cut off from the mainstream.  At the time this film was made in 1960, the Klu Klux Klan had bombed the Bethel Baptist Church (Birmingham, Alabama) for a second time, a Federal judge had ordered the Montgomery bus system to integrate following the Rosa Parks boycott, while four black students sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, prompting the Greensboro Sit-Ins.  Made prior to Civil Rights laws, American critics were extremely hostile to the film’s release, starting with a pan from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, finding the bigotry too heavy-handed (as opposed to what, as the subject was barely touched upon by Hollywood), with Buñuel recalling “a Harlem newspaper even wrote that I should be hanged upside down from a lamppost on Fifth Avenue.”  As a result, few people saw it, though simply put, films dealing with incendiary social issues like rape and racism were extremely rare, and Buñuel had yet to establish himself as a household name in the movie industry, so at the time this film was shelved and largely forgotten, rarely ever mentioned when listing significant films dealing with race, viewed as one of the director’s weaker efforts.  And while it may not be in his upper echelon of greatest films, it’s significant nonetheless, certainly deserving of a reappraisal.  Of interest, two of the bigger box-office successes that year were EXODUS (1960) and Spartacus (1960), both written under his own name by Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten coming out from under the Hollywood blacklist and openly reasserting his career. 

Offering sharp and biting commentary, all filmed cheaply in Mexico by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (making seven films together), Buñuel views racism through a moral prism with surprising results, offering less fireworks and greater subtlety than usual.  Despite a well-deserved reputation for daring satire and surrealism, Buñuel approaches such explosive issues as racism and pedophilia with an understated even-handedness, while also examining primal desire in the remote wilderness, suggesting an innocence lost, becoming less downbeat than the fatalistic story upon which it’s based, providing a more hopeful and open-ended future through no easy answers, with a Leon Bibb spiritual “Sinner Man” opening and closing the film, asking “Where you gonna run to?” to escape racism, Leon Bibb's "Sinnerman" in Bunuel's La Joven - video ... (2:48).  It was Butler, however, who provided the needed insight into the American mindset, offering valuable adjustments to the original storyline, changing the role of the central character, Traver (Bernie Hamilton), an unconstrained  black jazz musician touring the Carolinas from the North, escaping a lynch mob mentality from false accusations of raping a white woman, finding an unattended boat that takes him to an isolated island that is nearly uninhabited, discovering a game reserve under the tyrannical rule of the ever dour warden Hap Miller (Zachary Scott) who acts like it’s his own private domain and a free-spirited young girl Evvie (Key Meersman), each living in their own cabins on the premises.  At the outset Evvie’s grandfather Pee Wee is found dead from alcoholism, a beekeeper and handyman partner of Miller’s, leaving only two persons on the island.  Miller is routinely cruel to Evvie, a 13-year old tomboy on the verge of adolescence who remains innocent, bossing her around like she’s nobody until he notices a sudden change (after being handed an apple after dinner, a direct reference to Eden, much like her name, she also keeps a pet deer in the yard), finding himself allured by her beauty, taking her under his own wing, dressing her up in nice clothes and wanting to keep her for himself.  While still a child, Miller tells her otherwise, molding her under his patriarchal tutelage.  While Miller’s off to town, summoned by the actual owner of the island who remains unseen, Traver finds his way to Evvie, initially startling her, but also befriending her, paying for food, gasoline, and a rifle, along with a few materials to fix a hole in his boat, spending the night adhering to needed repairs.  In the night, Evvie awakens to the sound of a clarinet playing off in the distance.  When Miller returns the next day, he’s enraged at what he contends is stolen property, shooting more holes in the boat, taking the oars and motor inside to his cabin, while hunting the man down on the island, taking a shot at him when he’s seen leaving on another boat, knocking him into the water, but he escapes unharmed, only to return to the cabin with his rifle, disarming Miller, before retreating to his boat, unaware that it’s been sunk.  Meanwhile, Miller discovers the money given to Evvie, making the assumption it was for performing sexual favors, growing irate at the thought, building a hand-made grenade and heading out to confront Traver.  The two exchange a series of insults, with Miller repeatedly calling him the “N-word,” then “fresh” for his “uppity” attitude, as Traver unhesitatingly talks back to his tormentor, but then both discover they fought in the war together, covering some of the same territory, growing less wary, easing up on the insults, with Miller surprised by how hard he works on that boat, offering him a job working on the grounds for his keep, using this as a pretext to move Evvie into the cabin with him while Traver takes Pee Wee’s cabin.  Despite this apparent truce, Travis remains unwelcome to sit at the dinner table, as old habits die hard.  After urging Traver to play the clarinet, taking pleasure at what she hears, Miller takes sexual liberties with Evvie in the night, subjecting her to rape, a thoroughly underplayed scene largely told through the power of suggestion, without an ounce of sensationalism.

Earlier, while on the mainland, Miller hoped to find a charitable family that would take Evvie into their home, having just lost her guardian, but nothing was immediately available.  Still it’s a bit of a shock when two people arrive out of a raging storm, the Reverend Fleetwood, Claudio Brook, who would later star in Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), and the boatman named Jackson (Crahan Denton), with Fleetwood happily pronouncing they’ve found a children’s home for Evvie.  Miller, however, is not so sure (wanting her for himself), changing his mind, creating a moral quagmire that leaves the Reverend perplexed at the man’s intentions.  Jackson, however, soon sees for himself, as Miller moves to Evvie in the night, despite their cabin presence, thinking he is undetected.  But it’s Jackson who reveals the time bomb, a virulent racist who reports the rumors of a wanted black musician accused of rape on the mainland, with he and Miller immediately pointing their finger at Traver, hog-tying him to a post, with intentions of hauling him into the mainland to face the lynch mob and sure death in Traver’s mind, asking for Evvie’s help, requesting a knife he hid under the bed.  The film turns into a morality play, with the Reverend hearing Traver’s confession, pleading innocence, that it was his refusal to have sex with an inebriated white woman of influence that led to the accusations.  Fleetwood was familiar with this woman, as she accused someone else years earlier, so he’s inclined to believe the condemned man, but he’s powerless in influencing Miller and Jackson, who provide a united front of white supremacy, taking the historical view where blacks are guilty by mere association, no facts, no evidence, and no trial is needed.  But it’s Evvie’s life that most concerns the Reverend, surprised by Miller’s turnabout, speaking to her personally, discovering her abuse, finding Miller a completely unacceptable guardian, and telling him so to his face, suggesting he would have to be reported to the authorities upon his return to town, with Miller going as far as suggesting marriage as an alternative.  These discussions surround the moral issues, guided by a man of the faith, where it becomes evident that Miller is guilty of the crime he’s charging Traver of violating, where he’s clearly motivated by the color of the man’s skin and not the crime itself.  Evvie is still too innocent to see any difference between people based on color, becoming an unawakened moral consciousness, perhaps the real focus of the film, as the title suggests, one of the more uniquely original characters in any Buñuel film, representing those minds that have not already been made up, consumed by the hatreds of prejudice.  Jackson, on the other hand, remains convinced of Traver’s guilt, with Miller altering his position, which draws the ire of Jackson, knowing full well what’s driving his change of heart, finding Miller reprehensible and disgusting, calling him an “N-lover,” promising to return to the island with the necessary authorities.  With that, Miller actually helps Traver make his getaway, perhaps subverting expectations, where the converging forces are left ambiguous, defying any heroic stereotype, as human beings are shown as being simultaneously capable of both good and evil, in complete contrast from the short story where Traver is shot dead.  In both instances, what’s alarming is that it’s much harder for Travis to shoot and/or kill a white man, knowing full well the consequences that would result, which is a noose around his neck, while with Miller and Jackson, killing a black man comes easy, requiring no thinking at all, as there’s never been any consequences.  Even today little has changed, where according to these statistics, Mapping Police Violence, levels of violent crime do not determine rates of police violence, where blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites, even when unarmed, while 99 percent of killings by police officers since 2013 have resulted in no convictions, so even in the modern age there’s still no consequences. 

The entire film in English may be seen here:  The Young One (1960) - Feature - video dailymotion (1:35:21)

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