When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
ANGRY BOY (1951)

Experimental / avant-garde filmmaking became a fertile, serious art movement in the United States with the creation of MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON by the husband and wife team of Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren in 1943.  Experimental shorts had been made before MESHES, however this black-and-white film of dark Freudian imagery, filmed in bright Los Angeles sunshine, brought new articulations to the medium in the way it expanded then collapsed onto itself in a multi-dimensional narrative that shifted time and fragmented points of view.

Traditionally, Maya Deren has received the lion’s share of recognition for the film, which led her to receive the first Guggenheim Fellowship for filmmaking, and decades of recognition as the mother of the Film-As-Art movement.  Yet, Stan Brakhage, in his memoirs Film at Wit’s End, expressed that the majority of MESHES‘ vision and creation was due to Deren’s husband Alexander Hammid, and that the unbalanced division of recognition in the wake of the film’s celebrity quickened the end of their marriage. 

Deren’s output was erratic:  five short films between 1943 and 1948 (plus an uncompleted collaboration with Marcel Duchamp), another experimental short ten years later (which was — *ahem* — shot by one of my cinematography teachers from film school), plus much filming of Haitian vodou practices in the interim, posthumously edited into a documentary.  She died in the early 1960s at the age of 44.

Hammid first approached filmmaking by making experimental shorts, documentaries and advertising films in his native Czechoslovakia before its annexation to the Third Reich.  Emigrating to the U.S., he worked with Herbert Kline in the populist documentary movement during its most vociferous period in the U.S. from 1931 to 1942.  Hammid won an Oscar for his last film, a documentary commissioned for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, TO BE ALIVE!.

In one chapter of his life, Hammid made ‘social problem’ documentaries for the Michigan Department of Mental Health through Affiliated Film Producers, an educational film company.  1951’s ANGRY BOY was one of these.

ANGRY BOY is a documentary in that it approaches real life problems filmed in authentic surroundings with (mainly, I think) non-professional actors.  However, it is a scripted and carefully-shot work.  Hammid uses well-chosen and developed film design tropes such as a vocabulary of high angle and low angle shots, the heightening effect of closeups, and the physical movement of the camera towards and away from a subject, avoiding strong left-right movements with the camera.  These tools — a visual blueprint through the film — work in subliminally underscoring the opening narration that states “behavior may hide as much as it reveals.”

The eponymous angry boy is Tommy Randall, who was caught in the act of stealing money from his teacher’s purse.  School officials consult his mother and recommend psychological counseling instead of punishment:  punishment, they say, could make his behavior worse.  “Tommy wouldn’t be behaving as he is if he weren’t seriously upset by something that we don’t understand at the moment and he doesn’t understand himself,” as the school official tells Mrs. Randall over the phone.  Tommy’s mom also was strongly advised to come in for counseling at the Huron Valley’s ‘child guidance clinic’ for help with Tommy.  The caseworkers at the clinic examined not just Tommy, but his family’s behavior and psychological dynamics.

Hammid uses lots of filmmaker flash in the opening as Tommy notices the open pocketbook — his thoughts are visualized by a high-speed dolly push-in to the purse, followed by a menacing approach (see top photo) by his teacher (perhaps the worst-dressed / worst-coiffed woman since the invention of the mirror) who catches him in the act.

Hammid’s direction becomes more subtle (therefore more unsettling in its seduction of the viewer) as the film shifts to Tommy Randall’s domestic scene.  We dissolve from one of Tommy’s disturbing drawings to his home, seeing Mrs. Randall in full housewife mode, placed like a Cold War Nora in her Truman Era Doll’s House.  The phone rings; she answers, surprised to find Tommy’s principal calling.  The mother is shot wide at the beginning as she denies that her son could be a thief.  Then, at the same pace as the deterioration of her denial, the camera pushes into her face like a shaming conscience.  Keeping the shot going, Mrs. Randall hangs up and turns her head in the opposite screen direction, creating a flawless image displacement as we dissolve to her bowed head in that same position in the social worker’s office as she’s questioned on her feelings about Tommy’s thievery.

After a few sessions, the clinicians have a pow-wow in which they discuss the Randall household.  This transitions to the Randall household as the clinicians do voice-over commentary on this love-and-loathing American domestic scene, a sequence that ends with the most moving and visually arresting shot of the film, what I call “The Headache Shot” where Mrs. Randall retreats to her dim (in every sense of the word) bedroom and the camera withdraws, abandoning her in a pool of isolation.

Identifying hate in Tommy’s drawings, the social worker shares with colleagues what she knows of his family.  A flashback to the Randall household launches the analysis of a typical mid-century ritual of early evening:  Mom and Dad in the kitchen as he talks about what happened at work and she prepares dinner.  Yet Dad is immobile at the kitchen’s threshold (almost the inverse of Susan Kohner in Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE, where she sensed an invisible barrier between her African-American place in the kitchen and the non-trespassable “white” part of the house).  Dad stays in the distance as Mom dominates the space and film frame of the kitchen, always talking over her shoulder to her husband.  The camera faces her, so we can observe minuscule registrations of pleasure on her face as she guides and halts the topics of conversation.  Dad is relating the news of a possible new position with the firm in New York, while the wife endlessly throws out objections to the idea.  He stays in wide shot until Hammid slaps us with an extreme closeup as the husband realizes the missus and her objections have put the final coffin nail in his enthusiasm of a potential move up in the world.

“I suppose you’re right as usual,” says Dad, hanging his head, as we cut to a hostile Tommy lying on the living room floor, overhearing the chat, followed by a low-angle closeup of Mrs. Randall, emotionless and unperturbed.  In that three shot sequence, the interior lives of the family members and their emotional interrelatedness are extracted and tallied.

Enter Granny, Mrs. Randall’s mom.  Mom’s icily controlled face immediately torques into a grimace and winces.  In identical moves to Mrs. Randall’s behavior, Granny manipulates the parameters and tone of the conversation by talking over her shoulder to her daughter while helping prepare the meal, while also laying on the teeth-grinding tactic of “Let me do it because you can’t do it right.”

As Granny dramatically reacts to Mr. Randall’s possible promotion, she uses the opportunity to dig at the self-confidence of both her daughter and son-in-law.  Hammid shows the effect of Granny’s voice carrying through the house by use of a high-angle shot of Tommy and Mr. Randall, passively frustrated, reclining in the living room, a Greek chorus to the drama in the kitchen.

Family meal time continues with mother/daughter bickering in the dining room while father and son try to tune out — but still absorb — the permeating tension.  Soon, Mrs. Randall has a headache and retreats to lie down.  Then:  the Headache Shot.

The direction of Hammid conveys much psychology with body language and facial expressions, but he uses only the simplest of blocking (probably due to having non-pros in the cast).  The actors / characters grimace, twitch, and hang their heads but their movements through the house are plainly and naturalistically choreographed.

The most poignant moment occurs as Mom, recovered from her headache, reasserts herself by taking little Tommy upstairs to drill him in fractions, putting a halt to the start of a father-son checker game.  In a tight closeup Dad looks longingly at his son, yearning for connection.  In a multilayered tonal cut in terms of both movement and gray scale, Tommy looks over his shoulder at Dad with that look of a P.O.W. gazing at open sky, then cuts back to a resigned father re-engaging in his evening paper.

ANGRY BOY has no heroes, no villains.  The caseworkers discuss love and resentment in the Randall home, analyzing its dynamics without taking sides.  As their thoughts become voice-over narration over scenes from Tommy’s home life, we see a reverse of the “Headache Shot” as the camera approaches Mrs. Randall on the bed. The first time, caseworkers were observing her in voice-over and the camera moved away.  This time, the camera moves in as they’re diagnosing her. 

Unlike most educational / instructional films of the era, there are no tidy final resolutions for the Randall family.  Instead, the final scene offers hope.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, here is the entire ANGRY BOY presented in two parts–



Doug / PoMo Joan

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