Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
NYJFF ’16: Projections of America
was sort of a combination of the Voice of America and the WPA. To aid the war
effort, many Hollywood screenwriters and assorted behind-the-camera creatives joined
the Office of War Information to produce propaganda short subjects for
audiences in non-aligned nations and the newly liberated Europe. Widely screened
at the time, these films have been largely unseen since the early 1950s. Peter
Miller surveys the films and celebrates the filmmakers who collaborated on them
in Projections of America (trailer here), which screens
during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.
Riskin helped establish the term “Capra-esque” with his screenplays for Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but he was not interested in joining his
former colleague on the Why We Fight project.
Instead, he envisioned a warmer, softer series of films, much in the vein of
the Frank Sinatra short, The House I Live
In. Of course, the more popular selections were the less political
releases, like the anti-Fascist Arturo Toscanini conducting Verdi and The Autobiography of a Jeep, following
the exploits of one such trusty vehicle.
is a real lesson to be learned from Riskin’s work regarding the importance of “soft
power” in any geopolitical struggle. For instance, Willis Conover’s Jazz USA program on the VOA won over many
hearts and minds during the Cold War, simply by playing a style of music that
was fundamentally based on the exercise of free expression. Unfortunately, this
lesson has been lost on our current policy makers.
problematically, Miller and some of his interview subjects play political
favorites to the film’s detriment. First they wax rhapsodic about the extent of
the left wing politics War Information filmmakers were able to slip into their
productions and then demonize congressional Republicans for raising hay and
cutting the budget. In fact, there are some rather awkward moments in
retrospect, such as the performance of “The Internationale” in the Toscanini
Still, Riskin is a compelling central figure to
focus on. His romance with wife Fay Wray (yes, that Fay Wray) is quite touching
and his patriotic dedication was admirable. He even pulled Meet John Doe out of consideration for screenings in newly
liberated territories, because he thought its caustic portrayal of moneyed
interests might send the wrong message during wartime. Again, there is a lesson
in there worth chewing on. Somewhat informative but overly didactic (a film about
propaganda films that is propagandistic? Say it isn’t so), Projections of America is very much a mixed bag-split decision,
with reservations, when it screens twice this Wednesday (1/13) at the Walter
Reade, with Autobiography of a Jeep, as
part of this year’s NYJFF.
Labels: Documentary, NYJFF '16