Ethical Dilemmas and the Saturday Morning Breakfast Serial: A 1,001 Movies Update

Since the last hectic round of film-watching, I’ve slowed down the pace of my 1,001 movies project a bit.  I crunched the numbers and figured out that I didn’t have to watch a film every single night to meet my goal, as long as I committed to watching multiple movies on weekends and during vacations.  Thank goodness, too, because the whole point of the project is to have fun and learn about film, not stress myself out to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore.  As a friend pointed out, “The title of the book clearly states ‘BEFORE you die.’ Don’t kill yourself watching them.”

Fine.  So I still have some work to do taming my inner overachiever. At least there are no moral or ethical dilemmas inherent in my project.  Alas, the same cannot be said for the subjects of the films I’m watching. This particular crop of films plunges its protagonists head-on into uncomfortable, unjust situations against their will, and records their responses (or lack thereof).

Tono Brtko, the nominal “hero” of The Shop on Main Street, decidedly falls into the category of “lack thereof.”  Paralyzed by fear and doubt, Tono–whose brother-in-law becomes the local fuehrer in their tiny Czech town–doesn’t know what to do in the face of increasing anti-Semitism.  It doesn’t help that said brother-in-law gives the hapless carpenter a job as the overseer of a button shop, run by an elderly Jewish widow.  Confused and frightened, Tono pretends he’s helping the widow, Mrs. Lautman, run the store out of the goodness of his heart.

This isn’t entirely untrue, but Tono doesn’t have the courage to tell Mrs. Lautman why he’s really there, or that her rights are slipping away from her day by day as the Nazi regime inches closer to its final solution. This tense, horrifying film vividly illustrates the worst fears of good people: we’d all like to believe that, in the face of great evil, we would behave nobly and bravely.  But what if we didn’t? What if we retreated into drink and denial, hid our heads in the sand like ostriches? As the film lurched towards its inevitable, unhappy conclusion, I found myself agreeing with Edmund Burke, who wrote that “[w]hen bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”*

By contrast, the heroine of The Official Story challenges her government’s injustice at great personal cost to herself. Alicia Marmet, a history teacher, was unable to have biological children. Her adopted daughter, Gaby, is the light of her life and the treasure of her heart.  However, when Alicia learns that Gaby may very well have been stolen, and not adopted, from her biological mother, she sets out to find the truth…even if it means ultimately losing Gaby. Alicia’s story, which mirrors the all too true tales of children stolen during the Dirty War, broke my heart even as it raised my consciousness, and drove me back to the catalog to learn more about a grave injustice that is only now beginning to be corrected.

While grappling with heavy themes and weighty thoughts, I was also pondering a time-management dilemma.  One of the movies on the list, Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, turned out to be a 440-minute-long serial; when on earth was I going to be able to make time for that? And then, with a blinding flash of the obvious, I realized: I could watch the film the same way Parisian audiences would’ve watched it in the theaters, one episode at time.

original movie poster

Wikipedia makes a good case for fair use of this image. If you're the copyright holder, let's talk.

With the help of Wikipedia and YouTube I was able to identify and watch each episode.  It took me ten weeks to finish, and I’m happy to report that while I didn’t have popcorn and a big screen, the experience was just as enjoyable while noshing on breakfast cereal, wearing comfy pajamas, and sitting in front of my computer.

The film relates the adventures of Philippe Guèrande, a journalist who’s been reporting on the mysterious Vampires gang.  I was a little disappointed to learn that  Guèrande and his sidekick, Mazamette, were hunting ordinary thieves instead of bloodthirsty undead hoardes, but my disappointment passed with each diabolical robbery, kidnapping, or other crime the villains managed to pull off.  Satanas, the head of the gang, is so resolutely evil that he keeps a cannon in his apartment and fires it at people who cross him (!), while Venomous specializes in poisons, and nearly brings about the death of an entire wedding party with tainted champagne.  It was fun having something to look foward to on Saturday mornings, and I found myself wondering all week just what kind of terror, excitement, and strange costumes would be in the next episode.  It was nice to take a break from more ponderous fare and immerse myself in a world where the good guys lived with their mothers (it’s true!), the bad guys always got punished (eventually), and shooting a cannon at your enemies was always wrong, regardless of the circumstances.

Here’s the list of this round’s movies:

  1. Intolerance
  2. The Official Story
  3. Queen Christina
  4. Way Down East**
  5. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
  6. The Shop on Main Street
  7. Within Our Gates
  8. Earth
  9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  10. Les Vampires***

This brings my project tally to 230 movies. Hm.  Perhaps it’s time to schedule a nice, long vacation..?

–Leigh Anne

who is also treating herself to some light reading with I Want My MTV

*Burke is commonly given credit for the phrase, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” and if you care about proper quotation attribution as much as I do, you just might enjoy reading this essay on the matter.

**Available on YouTube, but, for some reason, not linking properly.  Hm.

***All ten episodes are available on YouTube.  Wikipedia helpfully lists the chapters by French and English title in the correct viewing order.


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7 responses to “Ethical Dilemmas and the Saturday Morning Breakfast Serial: A 1,001 Movies Update

  1. Rebekah

    I watched “The Official Story” in my undergrad days when I was a taking a class on literature and film of other cultures. It is such a powerful story, and I cried, too.
    I am happy about “Queen Christina” being on your list. I spent part of one summer during grad school watching all of her films. There was a fabulous video rental store (yes, videos) in Niles, Michgan, just across the border from South Bend, IN. It was fun to watch Greta for an extended period of time.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rebekah! Garbo rocks. I was thoroughly charmed with the movie, especially – in keeping with the theme here – with how Christina preserved her integrity. V. powerful!

      Leigh Anne

  2. “… plunges its protagonists head-on into uncomfortable, unjust situations against their will, …”

    That’s Hitchcock all over.

    Naturally, I haven’t seen “The Shop on Main Street”. So I checked the reviews on IMDB (samples: “must see”, “brilliant”, “One of the finest”…)

    I think that one of the reasons we don’t make (let alone see) movies like those here is that we have not been through those times and those trials. (For which, we should be eternally grateful.)

    Queen Christina, with Garbo and Gilbert – what more could anyone want?

    Speaking of queens – we did see The Scarlet Empress (1934, directed by Josef von Sternberg), with Marlene Dietrich as the woman who fights her way up to become Catherine the Great of Russia (with the assistance of many a handsome young Captain of the Guard). As one reviewer notes, it’s “way over the top” in terms of acting, but there are a couple of remarkable closeups that may well have defined that style of photo).

    We saw “Modern Times” on the screen (from film, no less), a few days ago. It strikes me that The Little Tramp is one of those “protagonists plunged head-on into uncomfortable, unjust situations against their will, …”, but in his case, he always prevails, usually helping someone else along the way. There’s a remarkable scene (better than the roller-skating one) where he and “the gamin” are in the store, while he’s doing the latest of his one-day jobs as night watchman. He puts her (a beautiful Paulette Goddard) to bed in the furniture section while he goes off roller-skating around the store. In one scene in that part, she wraps herself in the white, feathery quilt – and it’s the ultimate high-fashion shot.

    About that Burke quote: would it mean any less if it were proven that it was first said by Marvin Kropotnik?

    • You had me at Marlene Dietrich! Thanks for the input – Modern Times is on the list – not sure about The Scarlet Empress, but it’s intriguing!

      Good question about the Burke quote – it’s not so much a question of meaning as it is a question of facts/correctness…which, I hear, are on the way out – I need to read this book before I make up my mind, but I tend to err on the side of “no.” :)

      Leigh Anne

  3. lectorconstans

    “…:learning to live in a post-fact society”

    Facts are now irrelevant? The problem seems to be (from reading the Amazon reviews) that facts are altered – or at least, tailored – by the Media (and by blogs of all stripes) to promote one agenda or other.

    On another tangent, if we need to support a statement by attributing it to an Important Person, we’re using the old “appeal to authority” argument.

    Let us know if you make it through the Manjoo book.

    • I personally don’t think we’re post-fact- I was trying to be amusing, which still doesn’t come across quite as well as it could, over the e-waves. Perhaps I should use these emoticon things the kids are talking about. Hm.

      Leigh anne

  4. lectorconstans

    It’s OK – sometimes subtle humor gets lost over the e-waves.

    And I still haven’t been able to work “ex post facto” into the thread.

    PS: More Chaplin: a local museum is having a gold exhibit – California gold, mostly, with nuggets as big as your fist. As part of the exhibit, they’re showing The Gold Rush (1925). All I remember from seeing it many years ago is a long shot of a trail of prospectors going up a mountain – in the winter.

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