Friday, December 26, 2014

Cult Cinema | Frogs (1972)

Bella Garrington
In 1972, The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment met in Stockholm that June to develop a documented ideology that "considered the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment". This declaration was a valiant attempt at offering ideas for balance between the human need to explore, invent, and prosper as well as letting our natural environment thrive. It goes without saying that now, more than forty years later, balance is a laughable if not depressing concept. If the Native American with a tear wasn't enough, a fringe film would attempt to terrify audiences into reverence for nature.

Produced by American International and filmed entirely on location in Florida, Frogs (1972) takes on man's willingness to destroy an ecosystem for his own comforts, and what happens when that system fights back. Pickett Smith (Sam Elliot), a mild mannered photographer/ecologist of sorts gets his canoe clipped by a reckless, motor boat driver named Clint, a part of the prestigious Crockett family who owns a nearby estate. After accepting their hospitality as apology, he finds himself in an ideological and physical war against the family's lack of respect for the nature that surrounds them as frogs and a host of other crawlers brutally yet unceremoniously set out for revenge.

The frogs are literally everywhere as the camera overwhelmingly cuts to close ups and group shots of very large bullfrogs, a nuisance that the family desperately wants eradicated. The typically stubborn,white, elder patriarch Grandpa Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) even at once states that his money nor technology can't get rid of them. The land that the family has inhabited is theirs. The film cleverly shows us many cuts of different kinds of wildlife, most inherently dangerous (snakes and reptiles) to give us the overwhelming feeling that this movie is about the unwanted encroachment on their habitat. There is more of them than there are of the humans they've surrounded.

Granpa Crockett (left) & Smith (right)

Smith represents nature's favor. Advocating for respecting it while Grandpa Crockett and family's only concern is their comfort at the expense of it. Environmental rights are tackled right next to the social dynamics of race. Judy Pace's Bella Garrington, is the lovely and graceful model working with photographer Kenneth Martindale (Nicholas Cortland), a cousin of the Crockett's. Bella is flirtatious with the men who aren't machismo and obnoxious, and kind even when she's being undermined by Grandpa Crockett's bigotry. Frogs doesn't rely on racial overtones, but rather gives us a snapshot of a Black female character fluidly navigating her upper-class, White social and professional setting while demonstrating a genuine comfort with the Black servants hired to care for the Crockett's.

In one scene, Bella pours herself a drink and approaches the maid, Maybelle (Mae Mercer) in the dining room insisting she have a drink with her. At first hesitant, Maybelle takes the drink and the women exchange smiles. Bella confesses that her real, full name is Maybelle as well, furthering an engaging exchange. Concluding, Maybelle let's her know and she's willing to offer coffee and conversation anytime she needs. The tone in which Maybelle expresses that she'll take her up on the offer is a wink and nod to Black spectators understanding of a desire for community and kinship amongst those who receive the burden of white supremacy on a daily basis. "Coffee and conversation" is a way of 'talking back,' exercising frustration in a manner that under their circumstances, is socially acceptable.

Maybelle (left)
In Frogs, Black women, age/generation/social status gap included, are working within the space of mutual understanding of why their brief bonding is critical in their consolidated environment and outside of it. What Bella represents quite apparently is the growing trend at the time of moving within "white spaces," in this instance for, primarily economic gain while insisting that her status doesn't override the impulse to see Maybelle as a part of herself and the wider community. Maybelle is the reason she exists and worthy of kindness, seen as a whole person without effort and more than the context of her servitude. While the early 1970s saw some strides in the public sphere of sociopolitical improvement of African Americans post- Civil Rights, much of the community infrastructure was fragile and crippled.

Whether the Crockett's see it that way or not, Bella's actions dictate a self awareness of her Black womanhood that is not a part of the white Crockett's legacy of wealth and ideological privilege and imposition.

Frogs may seem preachy to the trained eye, but it's a shift from camp and silly looking 70s special effect offers a slightly unpredictable, slightly serious fare that relies much on suspense and your fear of some of earth'screatures... that can kill and eat you.

You can watch Frogs on Netflix Instant Watch now!
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