Friday, November 19, 2010

Day 28 and the delayed end of 1965

Progress is slow. It’s Day 28 And I’ve made it through 11 films. I’ll try to accelerate the pace soon. For what it’s worth I also saw four 2010 films since I last checked in. We’ll see if there are any parallels to be had as I pontificate over Clooney’s four choices from 1965, The Pawnbroker, Alphaville, Cat Ballou, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Aside from three of these titles getting Best Actor nods(including the winner), these titles didn’t figure much into the Oscars. The big winner that year was The Sound of Music. I’m grateful, though he did include one mass audience studio film, this was not included.

The Pawnbroker fascinated me on many levels. Rod Steiger’s performance was phenomenal, not only for his central performance, but playing two other distinct versions of himself in several brief but haunting flashback sequences. Interestingly enough, almost all the titles in ’64 and ’65 are in black and white. Perhaps coincidentally, the two that aren’t are my least favorite of the batch. In addition to Steiger’s gifts as an actor, black and white affords a 40 year old man the ability to convincingly play someone more than 20 years his senior for most of the film. As a New Yorker(adopted as I’ve only been here 13 years), I also found the location shooting fascinating, especially in the sequences where Steiger roamed the streets of Harlem, including a shot of the Apollo, where the massive marquee advertised such talents as Nina Simone and Flip Wilson. Although there were a few sequences where overly manipulative underscoring tended to intrude, for the most part, Quincy Jones’ score was a compelling character in itself. This may seem like little more than a trivia question, but I had no idea that, though not written for this film, Jones wrote the classic instrumental tune Soul Bossa Nova, included in one of the nightclub scenes. This is better known to contemporary audiences as the Austin Powers theme. None of this would matter if it weren’t for the incredible storytelling abilities of Sidney Lumet’s direction. As much as has been made of the young iconoclasts blazing the New Hollywood auteur movement, Lumet was over 40, working in the system for over a decade, starting in television, and created some of the most vital work out there. Coppola and Bogdanovich are still struggling to create anything close to what they had in this period. Somehow Lumet hasn’t waned.

I consume a great deal of cinema. And yet I have blind spots. Though I’ve often intended to change this, Godard is one of them. Alphaville was my first Godard film. I was fascinated from the beginning. The bleak futuristic vision looks like it cost about a buck fifty. The punctuating score acts as a parody of film noir detective films. Occasionally, there are long passages where voiceover stretches go on too long to establish the philosophy. And yet. I couldn’t take my eyes from this film. I occasionally backed up scenes to make sure I fully comprehended what was said. Though it was occasionally didactic and polemical, the style kept me off balance and intrigued. It does a wonderful job of showing a future that’s a little like our world but extended to the absurdist extreme. All decisions are made by machines. It, to some degree, is an extension of the nuclear nightmare scenarios from ’64. If we have the power to destroy the world, we can’t possibly make that decision ourselves. We must program machines to make these decisions logically. And, of course, when logic is pushed this far, it becomes illogical. People are executed for not being logical in bizarre rituals involving water ballet. Forbidden words are constantly being established, meaning new editions of dictionaries are issued almost constantly. It’s Phillip Marlowe, 1984, and a little Heart of Darkness all rolled into a campy philosophical treatise on the evils of mechanized society. Though uneven at times, I’m very glad this one was on the list.

Cat Ballou is the Technicolor studio film represented in 1965. It’s a crowd pleaser. A silly western goof, with singing troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye functioning as a singing Greek chorus, Jane Fonda as the title heroine, and Lee Marvin in a dual role that won him an Oscar. I think the reason this is here, aside from being a bit of comic relief in a year with oppressive and bleak titles, is that it’s more subversive than it appears at first glance. The lead character is a woman who doesn’t accept injustices nor her role in society. The town is horribly corrupt, with the sheriff providing an alibi for an assassin, all to protect corporate interests. It even has a positive, though very silly, portrayal of a native American(though that term wasn’t widely used at that point). Though perhaps not as artful, in its own way, this is in the same family as Dr. Strangelove, as it uses humor to portray some of the worst elements of our culture. Apparently, the Farrelly brothers love this movie. Its influence is clear in There’s Something About Mary. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have Roger Miller’s singing chicken in Disney’s animated Robin Hood without this one. But the first thing that I thought when I saw Cole and Kaye cheerfully warbling about Cat Ballou’s imminent hanging in the opening scene, was Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Cannibal the Musical. Not a film I think I need to see again. Probably the weakest this year. But a good deal of fun.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is our last title from 1965. Martin Ritt directs Richard Burton in a film based on John LeCarre’s novel. At a time when James Bond was at his peak, LeCarre’s Alec Leamas couldn’t be more removed from the glamorous world of Ian Fleming’s 007. He’s world weary and ready to be done with this business. Even his superiors freely admit that, though they think they’re working towards something good, there’s no real difference in tactics on either side. British espionage techniques are just as despicable as those of their Communist counterparts, but it’s presumed that the ends justify the means. Probably. When Leamas is told this by his superiors, they don’t even seem that convinced of it themselves. Rather than Bond’s dapper suits, scantily clad women, and swanky casinos, Leamas gets a cover of working class drudgery, rearranging books in a library. Though he is given a love interest, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of joy in the relationship. No martinis here, Leamas’ drink of choice is cheap Scotch he has to bully the local grocer into giving him on credit. Ultimately, it turns out the mission he is given is not even what he’s told it is, resulting in a series of double and triple crosses. And the very government he’s given his life and, indeed his very vitality to, sets him up to sacrifice the woman he loves and, ultimately, himself. Ritt is another director who came up from ‘50’s television and came to be very well regarded for being an actor’s director, perhaps owing to his work in the Group Theater. Based on this, I’d say this is also because he’s not especially adventurous with technique, but lets things unfold in a very naturalistic way. Ritt, though not as prolific as Lumet, went on to other highly regarded work, the best known perhaps, being Norma Rae. He doesn’t show up on the list again until near the end with The Front. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

So, two years, and 11 titles in, how do these four contribute thematically and to the evolution of cinema? As to the latter, I’m not prepared to go there yet. I need to wait for that pattern to emerge. As to the former, the antiauthority theme remains and is perhaps growing. Those we’ve been led to trust are corrupt and corrupting us. The Pawnbroker has a man believing he’s been running a legitimate business for years which he discovers is a front for a local crime syndicate. Alphaville, well, it’s pretty much the whole movie there. Cat Ballou has a corrupt government bowing to corporate interests with much of the townspeople eagerly falling in line to accept it. And The Spy Who Came in From the Cold questions the very nature of whether any element of the Cold War is worth it. Perhaps the very nature of the conflict is our governments dragging us all into the gutter. So that’s it for 1965. On to 1966. Hopefully I won’t keep you waiting nearly two weeks this time for another entry. But, as its been very clear to me, there’s no predicting. Only good intentions. Until next time.

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