J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

NYJFF ’16: Projections of America

It 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.

Robert 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.

There 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.

Rather 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 film.

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.

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