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All My Babies

"I want you to meet Miss Mary Coley, a midwife who lives in Albany, Ga.," intones the measured narration at the start of All My Babies. "This is a story about how she helps people." Documentary filmmaker George Stoney was recruited by the Georgia Department of Public Health in the early 1950s to produce an instructional film demonstrating proper birth hygiene for the many lay midwives practicing their craft among poor African-American women. Thanks to a combination of Stoney's humane direction and Coley's no-nonsense, nurturing screen presence, what was originally intended to be seen only by rural health-care workers quickly gained worldwide prominence when UNESCO chose the film to educate birth attendants around the globe. In 2002 the Library of Congress voted to include it in the National Film Registry as a "culturally, historically, and artistically significant work."

So is All My Babies really all that?

While there's no escaping this is a classroom film with a didactic agenda rather than a truly vérité documentary, there's something about its unassailable sincerity that inoculates it against the kitsch that has plagued so many of the era's other deadpan instructional films. It's impossible to smirk as the camera follows "Miss Mary" on rounds in her impoverished sharecropper community, first to a home birth in what the film considers ideal conditions ("Bed made fresh, newspaper pads ready — I wish to goodness all my mothers could have everything fixed up this nice") and then on to an expectant mother suffering from crippling poverty and malnutrition. The centerpiece is an actual birth, shot graphically but with great dignity and joy, the scene's total silence broken by the cry of the slippery and vulnerable infant suddenly emerging. When the gospel choir soundtrack swells to proclaim "Everything's ready for the baby! Fresh and clean for the baby!" it feels like a call to divine purity.

The DVD extras (including a commentary track by Stoney, a photo gallery and an interview with Mary Coley's grandson) provide much-needed insight about where the film's reality and artifice overlap without diminishing the magnitude of Coley's importance. Coley not only presided over thousands of births in her career, but routinely stayed on to cook and clean while the new moms regained their strength — once even carting a mattress from her own home so a particularly indigent client didn't have to give birth on the floor. The actual infant mortality rate among rural midwives of the time may have been unacceptable enough to force the creation of this film, but Coley's devotion to her craft and "her" babies transforms an educational film into an extraordinary portrait of an American time and place presided over by an equally extraordinary woman. —Violet Glaze


If ...

In light of Columbine and Virginia Tech, it's unlikely that a movie like Lindsay Anderson's If ... would be made today. Which is too bad, because this savage satire has never been more relevant. It's not just that the 1968 film culminates in a school massacre that earned it an X rating in its native Britain. No, unlike today's cinematic depictions of youth violence, here the killers are heroes. This is a school shooting as a metaphor for revolution, a just uprising of the have-nots against the oppressive haves. Furthermore, the boarding school that acts as the movie's microcosmic setting for British society is held to blame for the students' behavior, both implicitly and explicitly, literally giving the students the tools for a mass killing and showing them how to use them.

The primo featurette on this two-disc edition is a 2003 roundtable discussion for the BBC, with cast and crew reflecting on the movie's importance and production. This is marred by the photogenic but obviously cinematically unsophisticated moderator, who can't seem to stop flipping her hair. But Thursday's Children (from 1954) is a touching documentary short by Anderson about a gentler school, an academy that teaches deaf children how to speak and comprehend language. —John Thomason


The Mudge Boy

Adolescence is the wrong time for an identity crisis. When most kids want to fit in, Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch, Alpha Dog) can't. He's an awkward misfit dealing with the sudden death of his mother. And Mom was his buffer between the dead-end life of rural Vermont and a distant father (Richard Jenkins, Six Feet Under) who can't understand his sensitive son's odd behavior. To cope, Duncan takes to wearing mom's clothes and carting a chicken (his new best friend) on his bike — behavior that widens the gap between him and Dad. The older kids, an assortment of bored delinquents and future rednecks in wifebeaters and flannel, torment Duncan but let him tag along in exchange for beer money. He finds a friend in Perry (Thomas Guiry, Strangers With Candy), a swaggering lothario who likes to whip out his cock and brag in colorful detail about his sexual conquests. Despite the macho bullshit, Perry becomes Duncan's protector and confidant, partially because of his own abusive home life. Their bond culminates in an ending that's disturbing and brutal, one that explains the film's foreboding atmosphere.

Despite having a champion in Stanley Tucci (Big Night, The Devil Wears Prada), The Mudge Boy got a minuscule release relegated to art-house theaters. Intelligently written and directed by Michael Burke, the film tackles with aplomb many difficult issues — a father's struggle to shape and mold his son, the cruelty of growing up dissimilar from your peers and how a pretense of masculinity justifies abuse and subverts emotions.

It's unfair that a film this well-written and -acted never got a chance to find an audience. If it dealt with, say, a group of dudes in search of boobs and babes, it would've opened in every multiplex in America. You owe it to yourself to see Mudge Boy on DVD. —Paul Knoll


Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie, the 1974 cult film from Yugoslav provocateur Dusan Makavejev, is an attack on censorship both sexual and political, its theme best represented in a quote it uses in a title card: "Let us think of these things always and speak of them never." Makavejev boldly speaks of them, and shows them, whether the repressed image be a gold-plated penis or footage of the Katyn Forest massacre in Russia, which the Soviet government was then trying to cover up. I caught Sweet Movie a couple of years ago, and its brazenly repulsive images still linger, at once disturbing and hysterical. (At the time, I half-jokingly referred to the dinner scene as being "like a comedy version of Salo.") But once the first-time shock wears off, this most ironically titled movie grows wearisome on repeated viewings, lacking the vitality of Makavejev's previous winner, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. I'm not convinced of this sometimes dull and inarguably self-indulgent piece of politicarotica's masterpiecitude, but supplemental interviews with film scholar Dina Iordanova and Makavejev himself (with questions by Peter Cowie, off Bergman duty for once) and a great essay from critic David Sterritt do much to make a solid case for it. —John Thomason

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