#36. The Jazz Singer (1927)

I thought this was the first “talkie,” with total sound throughout, which it isn’t. We get some snatches of dialogue here and there but the sound technology is mostly just for when Al Jolson sings. Otherwise it’s a silent movie. But the  scenes with sound really are great and going through the List chronologically, inching my way through the silent era, has definitely given me an appreciation of the breakthrough that I would not’ve otherwise had. I also thought this movie was gonne be super racist, though; like Birth of a Nation-level racist. It isn’t. There’s a performance at the end where Al Jolson, our protagonist who’s told that his pursuit of jazz, instead of religious asceticism, is a betrayal of his Jewish race, does a performance in blackface (it seems to be the most famous part of the movie). It’s jarring. I guess it also carries some metaphorical weight, his dad having said from the start that he’s abandoning his “race,” but that doesn’t really clear up the offensiveness of the gesture. The black identity here is clearly a decoration and you don’t get the vibe, with this or almost any other movie on the List up to now, that African Americans were really considered people beyond the facts of their anatomy.

These stills were issued in 1998 as part of Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary
And, amazingly, in this picture from Jazz Singer‘s premiere we see that Jolson’s mug in blackface was the image that the guys in PR thought best to project over the city.

The movie is otherwise sweet, though, and uplifting. That scene in blackface is obviously enough for the movie to be blemished beyond repair in the eyes of modern audiences, but there’s a definite warmth here. And yet, despite its obvious quality and contagious warmth and technical innovation, it’s also pretty forgettable.

The Jazz Singer starts with an Overture and the only other movie in which I’d seen/heard one was in the three-hour roadshow cut of The Hateful Eight last year. I went to see it the day after Christmas — the same day that, in their apartment forty miles away, my parents were having the conversation that initiated their divorce. Strange to think of those two things coinciding. I wasn’t crazy about that longer cut of Hateful Eight so I decided to check out the digital version, which was fifteen minutes shorter and released in theaters a week later. I went to see it on New Year’s Eve — the same night that my folks invited my brother and me up to their apartment for what, had I shown up, would have been our last get-together as a family. I skipped it. My brother and his girlfriend did go, however, and my folks entertained them and acted like everything was fine. Didn’t tell us they were separating for another couple weeks.(January 17, 2016). After they finally did tell us, noon on a Sunday, I moseyed to one bar and then another, places where I was friendly with the bar tender, and when they’d ask me how I was doing I’d say I was fine, shrug, and say, “My parents just told me they’re getting a divorce. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, so I’m just kinda…”

I got three free drinks.

Later that night I wound up at a bonfire party being thrown by a girl I was casually seeing (the aforementioned V.), whose own parents were constantly fighting and, she predicted, would separate as soon as her two little sisters were grown, and I smoked a couple cigarettes with her for the first time in a year and we went for a long walk around the block, the party sustaining itself, and when we got back to her bedroom we had sex without a condom for the first time until things started getting noisy outside her bedroom door and her mind began to wander. She was worried that her neighbors might call the cops. Eventually she asked me how I was feeling about the impending divorce but when I started to talk she interrupted me twice to say irrelevant things and so I just stopped talking and she didn’t seem to notice. We only saw each other one more time after that. Went to the PAMM Art Museum for her birthday. Browsed the art for a couple hours and then sat outside on a concrete promontory overlooking the ocean, she with iced coffee and me with a beer and we had a bag of gummy bears between us, a dolphin popping up outta the water now and then while two girls, one of them in flannel, made out on the grass a few yards away. Back at her house that night we watched Friends on her laptop, laying on our stomachs, and we were halfway through the second episode when she rolled onto her back and grabbed my wrist and a few minutes later we ended up breaking her bed, then pausing to fix it, and eventually she said she was too tired to drive me home so I called an Uber.

She looked like Nikita. Which I wonder if she ever Googled.

We talked another couple times. Then I went quiet for a few weeks and she got mad, broke things off, blocked me on Instagram. I got drunk a few months after that and sent her a text saying that she looked a lot like this woman in an Elton John music video.


Her silence was deafening.


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