Filming in Soft Focus

All summer, I ranted about the movie The Help (hear other opinions here and here). I’d actually been ranting since the book came out, but I’ll save my bookstore rant for another time. I still haven’t gone to see the movie, and I have no plans to do so. I’m sure some Saturday afternoon not too long from now, I’ll stomach watching it on Lifetime or maybe OWN. I am a movie lover though, especially a classic movie lover. If I had no other channel than Turner Classic Movies (ok and probably Bravo for Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I would be content. I can end up watching old movies all day when I’m supposed to do far more productive things.

Being a Negro Girl, however, troubles the waters of say a Carole Lombard marathon. In Hands Across the Table, Lombard’s love interest Fred MacMurray does a racist impression of a Chinese man. Later, a bumbling black man comes to give Carole Lombard a message. The black man is Fred Toones, better known by his nickname Snowflake. He was often the shoeshine man in the movies and if you look at his long list of films he goes uncredited in most of them. It could be said that films have progressed far from Snowflake, at least The Help is bringing race concerns to forefront. Fred Toones would never have had such luck. Or The Help is just doing an updated version of what lots of old movies did: filming in soft focus.

In The Misfits, screen icon’s Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (and also that of her co-star Clark Gable, he more famously of a movie that speaks to racial depiction and Hollywood: Gone with the Wind) she is filmed in soft focus. Her features are slightly blurred, her eyes soft and welcoming. Who couldn’t fall in love with that idealized image? But whenever there’s a shot that includes her and background, the background is blurred as well. Maybe it was a stipulation of Monroe’s, maybe because of depression and drug abuse, director John Huston looked at the movie and thought it was better for her features to not be sharp. But when you watch the movie, it does more of a disservice to Monroe. If you fall in love with that soft focus, you aren’t falling in love with the truth. And if you leave The Help feeling like you’ve just gotten a history lesson about the lives of black women in the sixties, you’re leaving with a feeling that isn’t based on the truth. The Help and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, of racism and racial struggle itself, are filmed in soft focus. It is a way to make racism more comfortable, more palatable, easily digestible. But I can’t see when there’s ever a time when racism should go down easy. Injustice–fire hoses and church bombings and lynchings–should burn all the way down.

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One thought on “Filming in Soft Focus

  1. Fabiola says:

    Yeah, William Powell is brilliant in My Man Godfrey. Actually, 1936 was a big year all anurod for him — a best actor nomination for My Man Godfrey, a best picture nom for Libeled Lady, he was the title character in the best picture winner The Great Ziegfeld, and he also starred in After The Thin Man and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. And he was engaged to marry Jean Harlow.It couldn’t get any better.But it did get worse. The next year, Jean Harlow died and Powell was diagnosed with cancer …

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