Fred Schepisi’s unsettled and peculiarly wrenching “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” though it’s finally available on disc, isn’t discussed much among movie buffs. It’s too bleak and too at odds with contemporary values for broad acceptance. In dealing with the half-white Jimmie (the vivid Tommy Lewis), Schepisi doesn’t give our sympathy any outlet. In the director’s later “Iceman,” we immediately relate to the titular neanderthal as a compatriot. Jimmie, by contrast, never ceases to be alien. His otherness is the movie’s thematic pillar, and Schepisi makes us aware of it to the point of discomfort. I would describe Schepisi as a liberal humanist, but he’s also an apt melodramatist, and he knows that for this story to work we need to feel Jimmie’s frustration at his inability to find acceptance in white society. And to feel that we need to feel his strangeness. The stifled feeling we experience as we search for a point of identification mirrors Jimmie’s feelings of social impotence. It builds until we’re almost suffocating — and we know that Jimmie is suffocating too. The violence, when it finally comes, doesn’t provide relief. We watch it in benumbed horror, and though it plays out at normal speed, it feels like slow-motion. These scenes are among the few movie sequences that conjure the mind-frame peculiar to car accidents, in which a victim’s apprehension of impending trauma combines with an observer’s detachedness. How does Schepisi achieve this? I don’t think it’s a formal achievement (not primarily, anyway) but rather one of sensibility; it derives from the way in which he positions the viewer in relation to the material, and his clarity of vision. (If there’s a formal aspect to it, it’s in Schepisi’s maintenance of a consistent pitch: The movie has one gear; it neither speeds up nor slows down.) In 2020, in the wake of Tarantino’s third resort to the the device of violent ideological revenge, the impact of “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” is amplified. Schepisi’s violence, unlike Tarantino’s, isn’t in the vein of historical escapism, and it certainly isn’t amusing. We don’t guffaw at it the way some do at the crude spectacle of Brad Pitt creaming a hippie’s face into a fireplace mantel. Rather than flatter us by insisting that we’re on the right side of history, it holds the past up to scrutiny, and asks us to consider our inability to escape from it.
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Brilliant review. Strong. Concise. Making a powerful point. A model of the form.
The movie failed to grab me as it did you. I found neither the violence nor the narrative all that compelling. Is there one movie made in the past 50 years that deals with the mistreatment of whites at the hands of non-whites?