The Learning Tree

Sculpted from the end to the beginning as an arboreal memory to give a slightly absurd tilt, and lend the name of poetry to it.

 

Shaft

The Mafia moves into Harlem by kidnapping the daughter of a rackets kingpin, Bumpy Jonas. John Shaft is hired to get her back. First reports indicate a black revolutionary group, 4 or 5 sorry individuals who meet in a small, dingy room upstairs, guarded by lookouts on the street. Shaft has a word with them, the meeting is hit. The leader, an old friend, stays in a spare room at Shaft’s girlfriend’s place, a child’s room, making for a great joke from The Comedians.

Lt. Androzzi has photos, Shaft nails two hit men at a bar, arranges a go-between. The issue is forced unsuccessfully, he tries again, joined by his friend (also in Bumpy’s hire now) with allies. They replace the hotel staff at the hideout, raid the joint and free the girl.

Shaft is built on solid detective models from the Thirties on, especially Sam Spade (but also Nick Charles, whose criminal associates are perhaps reflected in the radical group), handled in two new ways. Firstly, it’s based on photography of New York by a master photographer, one who eschews the pictorial for the matter-of-fact, and in fact this is Gordon Parks in all but name working in color, Metrocolor at its quintessential best, and that is sufficient cause for study itself. He opens on a New York morning not long after sunup, it’s cold but not raw, and this is repeated. Interiors carefully match the jumble and refinement of exteriors day or night, with a bare light bulb or recessed lighting or any arrangement you please serving equally well. A zoom lens covers distance but also more often delicately adds an emphasis to a brief shot in champ contre champ. Rapid, instantaneous shots point each action sequence effortlessly, and the editing is fluent to say the least.

Secondly, the genre is meticulously transposed into the street slang and idiom of Harlem, pivoting on a ubiquitous word from the Thirties, “brother”. Get Carter is seen on a marquee.

 

Shaft’s Big Score

The grand plan forsaken, abstracted into attitudes of sculpture and even dance, the director as croupier of all this cash on the line, with an eye on it all, and then the monumental achievement of the final copter fight, widely imitated and justly so.

 

The Super Cops

The adventures of Batman & Robin begin immediately after they graduate from the academy and are put on traffic duty in a probationary period. They’re standing there directing traffic in broad daylight when right down the street a guy steps out on the fire escape and starts shooting at people. They run over there and manage to wing the guy, he surrenders, they’ve saved the day.

Now, by this time in New York, you don’t have to look too hard for crime, it’s all around you, and these cops like their work (Greenberg stands on tiptoe at the swearing-in, he wants to measure up). They dress up as men from Texaco, go by the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and pretty quickly nab a dealer under the pier. They’re out of probation, but the more they do, the worse things go.

They’re sent out to Fort Apache, one of those precincts where the desk sergeant (Joseph Sirola) looks like a CPO on a battleship in a hurricane. He just stares at them, two new cops smiling at him, they don’t register. Hookers, pushers, it’s everywhere. They ferret out a dealer, hide in a packing crate on the landing outside his apartment, it’s a cold water flat. Someone gives the secret knock, which is “shave-and-a-haircut,” this singing comes from the box, “you’ve got a lot to live, and Pepsi’s got a lot to give.” Then they burst out, fall on their faces, and make the collar. Policemen arrive in droves, it’s quite an accomplishment.

The Captain is Dan Frazer, down from Boston in Richard A. Colla’s Fuzz two years earlier, he doesn’t know who’s tapping the phones in his office. When things get serious later on, he has to meet his two rookies at a strip joint, for privacy.

A really impressive bust nets a whole drug gang in five minutes, but the neighbors are complaining, so the dynamic duo have to apply low methods to win the day, Greenberg puts a pistol up the gang leader’s wazoo, the crowd parts.

From a neighborhood girl (Sheila Frazier) he meets at a tense bar, Greenberg hears that there’s a contract on them for this bust. A car full of torpedoes parks outside the stationhouse, in the middle of the day. Hantz stands watch overhead, Greenberg commandeers a bus, they get the drop on the whole bunch, and that’s when people start calling them Batman & Robin.

And then they nail a guy who happens to be a cop. The DA’s man is a fink, they’re wearing wires against guys wearing wires, too. Top brass ensnare them, but the big man with four stars on his collar (Pat Hingle) has to give them a public commendation when they turn the tables. That’s not the end of it, they’re walking down the stairs after the press conference and the applause when he stops them to introduce their new captain. They turn around and look up, it’s the cop they nailed. POW! is superimposed on the freeze-frame of their calm faces, cartoon-style.

Parks’ great achievement is a steady eye in quick takes. The easy handling of difficult situations gives a no-bluff realism to the picture of New York pretty well swamped by the drug trade. He doesn’t dwell on anything, you only get a sense of the city’s vastness at the start or finish of a fast pan on the street as the actors enter or exit a building, long rows of blocks in the distance. There is the classic New York waterfront view at night, with skyscrapers abstracted across the river.

The undivided naturalism of Parks (he was a LIFE photographer) shows the grand metropolitan city and the squalid crime center as fluid interiors and exteriors unfussed and unchallenged. Batman & Robin are foot soldiers in the game, thrown into the sewers and watching the lid come down. This is all pretty amusing, and that’s why Parks made the film, it’s a way of looking at things dead-on with a smile.

The easy, quick style gives itself away in a spectacular scene as the duo chase gangsters into an abandoned building. They’re several floors up when a wrecking ball starts to take the building down. It bursts upon them all in quick passes, the thugs disappear down a collapsing stairwell in a dust cloud, huge chunks of sky are exposed through lath-and-plaster, the whole scene looks as if it were filmed on the spot la diable, with the most amazing realism.

          

Leadbelly

Vicissitudes of the artist, he is envied by his own, contemned by society at large.

A girl, a madam, a wife. Dull provinces he knows (Texas, Louisiana) and enlivens.

His life in particular, racing a horse through the countryside, arriving at Shreveport, riding the rails, leaving prison in the dead of night, returning home.