Friday, December 31, 2010

Day 70: 1969(Part 1)

So here’s a little update on how the project is going. I’m getting a little better at getting screenings going, but still a little shaky on keeping up with the entries. At this writing, I actually have a backlog of eight films, including all of 1969 and 1970, going back about 10 days. I think I need to work on a system. The good news is, that gets me through 37 films in 68 days, so my ratio’s improving. Just a little insight into how the sausage is made.
1969 has four titles, three of which I’ve seen before. We’re getting into a time period where quality is matching up a little with Academy Awards, though there’s still a bit of a schism. In any case, all the titles on this list were nominated for Oscars, and most of them won awards including Best Picture. I’ve been even more aware of the schism because 1969 was being talked about a great deal by film critics as I was watching these titles. The new version of True Grit by the Coen Bros. was just released and, coincidentally, the original was released in 1969. While groundbreaking works such as the ones on this list as well as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch were released, True Grit seemed like a bit of a throwback by many accounts. Truthfully, I’ve seen the new one which I enjoyed very much, but I’ve never seen the original. Opinions of the original are merely an unscientific sampling of data based on…uh…stuff I’ve read. So this schism led to Midnight Cowboy winning Best Picture, both brilliant performances being nominated for Best Actor, and John Wayne winning for True Grit, seemingly to be primarily for sentimental value. I know I said I was losing interest in the Oscar side of this, but I never promised I’d be consistent.

Costa-Gavras’ Z is the first title of ’69. It’s based on an actual incident that happened in Greece, directed by a Greek director, but was shot in Algeria and France, in French, using primarily French actors. Because of this, it is allowed to be about more than merely the events the film is loosely based on, but also about all the other political conspiracies and coverups happening in the ‘60’s or, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, “It is no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria.” A charismatic leftist candidate is attacked at a political rally and later dies of his injuries. It’s very clear that the attacker as well as the rest of the angry “counter demonstrators” are put up to it by the local police. I say clear in the sense that we’re given enough information in the beginning to know this to be true, but the details as to the breadth and depth of it are unfolded over the course of the film. In one of my opening posts, I made my disdain for critic Armond White clear, but I must give him credit for crafting a brilliant and thorough essay about Z included in the liner notes of the Criterion edition. In it, he refers to Z as “not a whodunit but a how it was done.” There are so many parallels to situations in the ‘60’s as well as today, so I’m just going to refer to the ones that struck me the most. I’m especially intrigued by the guerilla organization hired by the police to put down the demonstration. Rather than just making them hired thugs, they’re working stiffs convinced that they’re working to suppress Communism. But the tenets of Marxism taken out of context and not labeled as such are very appealing to working people. So they’re taken to meetings, told they’re fighting Communist, and then spoon feed them Communist propaganda to keep them interested. It hearkens to our present day Tea Party. Insurance companies fund them, send them to disrupt town hall meetings, and they sputter with outrage about how they don’t want government run health care to interfere with their Medicare, which, of course, is government run health care. This is the most direct analogy, but it also works in a general sense about how middle and lower class people are often duped into supporting policies that work against their own interests. I was very wary as the ending approached because it almost seemed as if the intrepid investigator who uncovers all the government corruption is actually going to see justice served. But, in the interests of reality, and, indeed, paranoid political films of this era that make them ring so true, the rug is pulled from under us in the final seconds of the film, reminding us that even when we think we’re making a difference, even when we think we’re gaining some ground, those in power rarely cede it even when you beat them using their own rules. Because, after all, they made the rules. And they can change them whenever they want.

The next title is Easy Rider and I invited my friend Matt P. to join me. I thought he might be a useful screening partner as he recently wrote a thesis entitled, “In a Blast of Trumpet Glory and Dust”: Bikers, Riders, and Motorcyclists in 20th Century Anglo America. Easy Rider is another one of those titles I first saw probably 20 years ago, and saw it at least twice. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, but it all seemed pretty familiar. I enjoyed revisiting it even if it didn’t make quite as much of an impact on me this time around. At the very least, it works as an impressive time capsule, perfectly capturing the counterculture of the time as well as the violent hostility towards it. I mentioned earlier about the way westerns, as a genre, were being redefined and exploded, the two extremes being True Grit and The Wild Bunch, but in some ways this feels a bit like a western as well, with the motorcycles as standins for horses. The plot is fairly simple. Billy and Captain America, also known as Wyatt(Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) make a big score on a drug deal and set about a cross country journey on their motorcycles, starting in southern California, wanting to make a stop in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and eventually to Florida. They start out in a commune, which seems an Eden like paradise. Wyatt seems tempted to stay, but, of course, they venture out of paradise, leading them to arrest in one small town where they pick up a local ACLU lawyer(Jack Nicholson). Nicholson is beaten to death while camping and the other two are shot and killed on their motorcycles by a redneck who just seems to think its good sport. They make it to New Orleans first and trip on acid in a graveyard with a couple of hookers played by Toni Basil and Karen Black. The next night over the campfire as Billy looks forward to their next destination, Wyatt says simply, “We blew it.” This is a line much discussed and I brought it up with Matt as to what it meant. We essentially came to the same conclusion, I think. Of course, in a larger sense, he could be speaking for the generation, indicating that they could have changed the world, but instead they just opted out for the easy pleasures. Or maybe, as the character, he’s simply saying that they never should have left the paradise of the commune. If it seems as if I’m struggling with this, I am. I know a lot’s been said about this film and it’s certainly iconic and I don’t know what else can be said about it that’s not repetitive and superfluous. Maybe I should end this one on a more personal note. My parents recently visited me for the late December winter holidays and joined me for a number of screenings. The subject of Jack Nicholson came up. My father noted that Nicholson, who had not crossed his radar before, really caught his attention and piqued his curiosity in this film and he made it a point to seek out his work afterward. The film really does come to life in a new way when Nicholson enters the film. Though he has credits that date back to 1956, this really was the beginning of Nicholson not only as someone to watch, but as a key figure in the new Hollywood movement. It’s his first of seven titles on this list and reminds me that there are a curious mix of figures on this list. Some are established figures who are more products of old Hollywood and would have flourished there and indeed had been, people like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Warren Beatty, who seemed to relish the idea of doing something a little more fresh and unconventional. And then there are people like Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman who no doubt would have worked, but because of the types of films that were being produced had their careers made. It’s a curious mix here as Hopper had a great deal of credits and Fonda was essentially, as the son of Peter Fonda, Hollywood royalty. Nicholson was also not even the first choice for the role. But here we see, in one moment, established names, rising stars, and a new style of filmmaking coming together to create something truly original.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 64: 1968(Part 3)

I was somehow under the impression that I was more familiar with The Odd Couple than I am. Though as I think about it I’ve never seen the film or any productions of the play. I’ve seen clips and I may have seen scenework, but, having watched the film, I’m much less familiar with it than I thought. I’m not sure if I’ve ever even read it. Perhaps my assumed familiarity is because so much of the basic outline and character conflict has been done, overdone, and done again. The film, based on Neil Simon’s play, is about two male friends of very different temperaments, trying to live together in a New York apartment. I specify that they’re friends because that seems to be a quality missing in a lot of the reappropriations of this formula. Put two opposites together and have them insult and mock each other mercilessly. Then cue the laugh track. I think I’ve just described every episode of Two and a Half Men, to name one example. To be fair, I’ve never actually made it through an entire of Two and a Half Men, but from what little I’ve managed, it certainly feels true. To be fair, I’m sure Neil Simon didn’t invent this formula, but the key elements that make it work are absent in many of its imitators. I think I need to unpack a little baggage here. I’m an actor. I came of age in the mid to late ‘80’s. Most of my peers did Neil Simon in high school and immediately developed a disdain for him when we went to college or acting school and discovered Sam Shepard and David Mamet and any number of gritty, raw, and naturalistic playwrights. I grew out of that phase to some degree, but I still approach most Simon with a bit of bias and skepticism. This is partly because the years have not been kind to him. Arguably, he hasn’t written much of note in decades and revivals are rarely well received, one high profile example being the recent Odd Couple Broadway revival with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. So it was a breath of fresh air to see this wonderful example of why he was once so popular. First of all, Oscar and Felix(Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, respectively) genuinely like each other. They’re good friends. They’re even somewhat self-aware of the worst of their individual faults. The approach is not each of them trying to one up each other with gag lines, but rather two people trying to get along. They really want to and they want each other to be happy. Oscar even acknowledges that Felix’s influence has made him a better person. What one would call the “break up” scene involves them not merely railing against each other, but expressing despair and frustration, albeit in an amusing way. One of my favorite moments involves Matthau practically crying as he explains to Lemmon why they can’t possibly share the same space. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of good NYC location shooting here as well. I also noticed something curious here that I can’t help but note. It dawned on me that the basic plot structure bears more than a passing similarity to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Absurd? Hear me out. In this scenario, Felix is Blanche and Oscar is Stanley. A fussy idiosyncratic person invades the space of an alpha male until it builds to a crescendo of violence, resulting in the former being thrown out and having to rely on the kindness of strangers. And the entire proceedings are bookended with poker games. Admittedly, Felix seems much better off with the Pigeon sisters than Blanche does being hauled off to a sanitarium, but that’s what makes this version a comedy. And to top it all off, Oscar’s ex-wife’s name is Blanche? Coincidence? You be the judge.

I came totally unprepared with any baggage to The Thomas Crown Affair. I’d never seen it or the 1999 remake. I don’t know that I’d ever seen a Steve McQueen film in its entirety. Funny how these unexpected blind spots turn up. It starts out promisingly as a bank heist is set in place. Thomas Crown(McQueen) is one of those movie geniuses who thinks of everything and it goes off without a hitch. Except once insurance investigator Vicki Anderson(Faye Dunaway) sees his picture and his profile, she knows in her gut that he’s the culprit. She confronts him, he doesn’t admit to anything solid, but doesn’t really deny anything. And they fall in love while refusing to change or give ground to each other. There are some interesting moments here. Some fascinating work is done here with split screen, the influence of the French New Wave is evident(and apparently stated as an influence by director Norman Jewison), and McQueen’s and Dunaway’s chemistry is palpable and undeniable. Yet it never really came together for me. Some of the scenes seemed not inspired but lifted directly from other films. Where is the line between homage and stealing? When the gang exited the bank with the loot, the camera zooms in on a parking meter displaying the word “Violation.” Just like the opening scene in Cool Hand Luke. When McQueen is unwinding he likes to drive his sportscar along the beach. Just like in A Man and a Woman. And like so many films in this era, it shoehorns a pop song that may or may not actually fit. Here, the use of The Windmills of Your Mind seems to be there primarily to create the illusion of depth. Obviously, I was a little disappointed in this one. I did like that Dunaway’s character was not so much after justice but after getting her client’s money back, to the point that she was as unscrupulous as any thief, in one scene resorting to kidnapping a child to get her prey. I also wonder if Clooney was influenced at all by this when he chose to make the Steven Soderbergh film Out of Sight, as his thief character and Jennifer Lopez’ law enforcement character have a similar dynamic. Both characters are inexplicably drawn to each other and each has a strong identity that neither is willing to cede. If Out of Sight owes a debt to The Thomas Crown Affair, then I’m grateful, at the very least, that it exists for that reason.

The final title from 1968 is The Lion in Winter. My first encounter with this film was probably when I was a teenager or slightly before. I grew up in Dayton, OH, and there was a beautiful old theatre(since then painstakingly and beautifully restored) known as the Victory Theatre. It was primarily used for travelling road shows of plays, the local ballet, etc. During the summer it would host a screening series of classic films. So, though this film was released in the year of my birth, my first encounter with it was on the big screen. Since then, I’ve seen several stage productions(the film was based on a popular play) that met with varying degrees of success. So, much like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I was pretty familiar with this one without having seen this version in more than two decades. Though the production never feels stagey, it’s a joy simply to watch great actors speaking great dialogue. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn lead a great ensemble cast as King Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, his estranged wife. This is the 12th century and he is the king of England, so estranged in this case means in prison. It’s a complete coincidence that this, in a sense, a Christmas film, got its turn in my series on December 17. A Christmas film in the sense that Henry has given Eleanor a brief reprieve from imprisonment to spend Christmas with him and their three adult children, each of who is jockeying to be the next king. The screenplay, adapted by James Goldman from his play is essentially a series of these five jockeying for power in a series of mind games, trickery, etc. It’s ostensibly all about who’s going to be the next king, who gets various disputed lands, etc. I’m deliberately vague about these details, because, to be honest, a week later, I’m not really sure how any of this is resolved, if indeed anything is at all. I can say, however, that I was constantly delighted by the serpentine maneuvers of the characters and of the script. All performances are good, and its interesting to note that of the others, the ones Roger Ebert chose to single out in his 1968 review are the two actors best known to us in 2010, Anthony Hopkins(as Richard the Lionhearted) and Timothy Dalton(as the King of France). I have to admit though, while giving no short shrift to the other actors, especially in a wonderful scene where the King of France sets up a scene where all the characters are made to realize that they’re all scheming to betray each other, the highlight is watching the interplay between O’Toole and Hepburn. I was also surprised to see that O’Toole was only 36 at the time this was filmed, 25 years younger than Hepburn, but plays completely believably as Hepburn’s contemporary. Which is even more curious thinking he’s only five years older than Dustin Hoffman, who a year before convincingly played a 20 year old having an affair with a woman supposed to be at least 20 years his senior who was in reality only six years older. I don’t know how relevant any of this is, aside from the fact that great acting and “movie magic” can transcend a great deal. I think that’s all I have to say about 1968. See you in ’69.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Day 61: 1968(Part 2)

I screened Blake Edwards’ The Party on December 13, 2010. Edwards died several days later. I mention this for no reason other than the fact that in the intervening days I’ve been exposed to a lot of biographical information and anecdotes about him and it might inform this entry. The Party stars Peter Sellers as a shy Indian actor who accidentally gets invited to a glitzy Hollywood party. Sellers’ character seems cursed as he’s always very pleasant and well meaning but chaos seems to follow him like a dark cloud over his head causing mayhem wherever he goes. Sellers and Edwards collaborated many times, though this was the only one that wasn’t a Pink Panther film, with Sellers playing his signature character, Inspector Clouseau. Interestingly, Clooney includes none of those films on the list. He chose this one. Why? I have to admit, following The Producers and 2001, this one seemed a little more slight. Though I appreciate the variety of the list, this one isn’t in the same league. But it is the last of three Sellers films on the list and the only Edwards film. I caught a little of the Clouseau film A Shot In the Dark the other day and I started to form a theory or two. The Clouseau films definitely have an antiauthority flavor to them, as they show the incompetence of the police and the disregard for Clouseau and yet, despite his bumbling, Clouseau always bests his superiors, sometimes accidentally. But Clouseau is arrogant himself. Bakshi, his character in The Party, is much more passive. He’s trying so hard to get along and yet bad things keep happening to him. And most of those who persecute him or dismiss him are Hollywood phonies. Perhaps that’s why this one turned up. The Hollywood establishment was being turned on its ear at the time and here was a film where a well meaning unassuming foreigner showed up and upset all the fat cats without even trying or intending to. But it also could be here because it’s funny in a very uncomplicated sense. Almost like silent film. Mostly on one set, there’s not a lot of distraction. It’s just gag after gag, each extended for as long as possible. It’s also a great snapshot of the culture at the time. 2001 may be timeless, but The Party shows 1968. Which returns me to the Hollywood power structure theme. I may be reading too much into this. Here is a shy unassuming man who stumbles into this party. Eventually he lets some hippies in(the children of his host) and, through a series of physical comedy set pieces, essentially destroys the house, which could be a metaphor for the fundamental changing of Hollywood or in a larger sense the optimistic feeling that great change was happening. Or it could just be a fun comedy. I’ve never seen Edwards’ S.O.B., but I understand it’s a savage satire of Hollywood. Edwards had a love/hate relationship with the system. Perhaps there were aspects to this film that set that one in motion in some ways. I’m still reflecting on Edwards’ career and really respect some of his films. Victor Victoria is probably my favorite, though I liked Micki and Maude, and 10(though I think as someone over 40 I need to see it again). In the interest of “keeping it real” I should also admit that my memory of Blind Date is that it was one of the worst films I’d ever seen. As peculiar as it may sound, I mention that out of respect, because I would feel disingenuous if I pretended like I loved everything he did. But he made his mark. I think I might be coming up with a sub list. Could be another blog, who knows? But I definitely want to watch 10, S.O.B., and That’s Life. And as far as Sellers goes, I absolutely need to see Being There again. Which brings me to Hal Ashby. Never mind. We’ll get to him soon enough.

I’m struggling to remember when I first encountered Rosemary’s Baby. I’m pretty sure I read the Ira Levin book when I was a teenager and probably saw the film not long after, most likely on late night television. I remember thinking it was good but not in a way that stuck with me. So I was looking forward to seeing it again, especially in a more optimal setting. This one was a real treat. I know I mentioned this briefly in a previous entry, but I’m a sucker for New York City location shooting. I guess the narcissist in me enjoys recognizing places I’ve been, but I also enjoy seeing those places in a different time and often am struck by how little they’ve really changed. I neglected to point this out before, but The Producers is rife with NYC shots as well. I suppose I always like location shooting in general because it takes so much more work to make a set seem like a real place. Anyway, NYC 1968 aside, this viewing had me riveted and didn’t let go. The basic story is that Rosemary(Mia Farrow) and her husband(John Cassavetes) move into a new apartment, she gets pregnant and has a baby. Along the way, Rosemary starts to realize that something’s not quite right. She comes to the conclusion that the kindly elderly nosy neighbors and many of the other building tenants are members of a Satanic cult. They have lured her husband into it, and, with his cooperation, impregnated her with the spawn of the devil. Having read the book, I knew all of this even before seeing the film the first time. But with the distance of a couple of decades, I was able to observe the machinations of the plot with fresh eyes and appreciate the subtlety with which it all unfolds. One thing I didn’t pick up on while watching, but rather from an interview with director Roman Polanski, is that there’s a bit of ambiguity as to whether any of these things are actually happening. Everything is essentially from Rosemary’s point of view. She’s definitely going mad. But is her madness driving her perceptions or is her actual reality driving her mad. Truthfully, I never really doubted the veracity as to what was happening, but this tone is still effective in other ways. By putting the audience into Rosemary’s head and taking us on her journey, watching the film is like experiencing her madness. What’s remarkable is that this film completely stands on this own and is, at the same time, completely a product of its time. Rosemary feels a paranoia that everything she’s been led to believe and trust is deceiving her. Sure, her husband is a little domineering and selfcentered, but isn’t that just a byproduct of traditional roles? Yes, the elderly neighbors are a bit nosy, but they’re probably well meaning. That famous doctor is awfully bossy and insistent that she does exactly as he says, but he’s the best in the business. He must know what he’s doing, right? All figures we’ve been told all our lives to trust and all conspiring to spin a web of betrayal and deceit. Polanski also was smart enough to use older actors who had been around in Hollywood who had often played trusted figures, adding another element to our perception. It’s fascinating that, despite all his moral failings and legal problems, Polanski remains a vital figure, having won accolades several years ago for The Pianist and even this past year with The Ghost Writer, which is making plenty of end of year best of lists.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 58: 1968(part 1)

So here’s some not so random numbers to throw out. There are seven titles on the list from 1968. I watched them on Days 42, 47, 52, 53, 55, and 56. That’s 29 titles so far. At this rate, the struggle is not for 100 days, but how far under 200 I can keep it. I feel pretty good about keeping pace with the titles. But keeping pace with the writing is a little tougher. Nothing I can’t handle. The eclecticism of the list continues. I’d seen four of these ones, was familiar with another, and knew virtually nothing about the other two. So let’s get started.

Mel Brooks’ The Producers is the first title from 1968 and the first of three Mel Brooks titles on the list. It was famously made into a smash Broadway musical decades later and consequently made into a second film. In my estimation, this is the best of all three. As I mentioned before, my family first got a VCR in 1986 when I was 18(for those keeping score, you’ve figured out that 1968 was also the year I was born). One of the most fascinating things about this device, as far as having one in my home, was being able to watch things over and over again. I often did this with Saturday Night Live, watching favorite sketches over and over again. I think I kind of wanted to be Phil Hartman and that was his first season. One Friday night, I found that one of our local TV stations was showing The Producers late at night, probably after the news as not every channel had a late night talk show at the time. I’d heard about this and had wanted to see it for some time, so I instantly started recording, both in the interest of watching it again and if I wasn’t able to stay awake for it. For years after, it was one of my favorite homemade tapes to show clips of it to my friends, specifically the lavish Springtime for Hitler number, but also the memorable audition scene(“Will all dancing Hitlers please leave, we’re only seeing singing Hitlers”), and the finale of that sequence, Dick Shawn as the flower child L.S.D. singing his sendup of ‘60’s hippie culture, “Love Power.” So, to put it mildly, I was looking forward to this one. I was joined in the screening room by Justin, John, and Maureen. I had promised 2001, and though we were all disappointed that the disc sent from Netflix was cracked and The Producers was an alternate selection, everyone showed up and had a great time. This is a perfect film to see with a group because the belly laughs involved are infectious. My favorite parts were as good as I remembered them and other sections were even funnier than I remembered, particularly an early scene with Kenneth Mars as the delusional playwright who became incensed recalling how Churchill could never pronounce “Nazi” properly. I could somewhat relate. I felt the same way about George W. Bush and “nuclear.” I also have profound appreciation for the way that great actors can engage in broad portrayals that still possess a kernel of honesty. Despite all the bluster and shouting by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, it always seems more like overexuberance than overacting. These are passionate people and a lower decibel level just wouldn’t seem right. Though arguably not as brilliant as the ones to immediately follow, this is clearly one of Mel Brooks’ finest films.

I’m struggling to remember my first memory of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think it was the early to mid ‘80’s. A local classic rock radio station was simulcasting the audio in stereo with a midnight or perhaps Sunday night broadcast. I dutifully set up the speakers around our largest television to experience it fully. I don’t know that my teenaged self was ready to appreciate it. I remember thinking it was a good film, but that it left me rather cold. I’ve always considered it one of Kubrick’s also rans. Certainly better than Barry Lyndon(which I still think I might give another chance one day) and overall better than Full Metal Jacket(though taken on its own, the first section of it is one of the best films he ever made), but more technically proficient than a great film. I’ve always hoped to see it on a big screen one day, but watching it on a 42 inch plasma is certainly a great improvement. Coupled with 20 plus years life experience and the technological improvements, I found this to be an entirely different and superior experience. Maureen, John, and Justin joined me again. Justin provided a unique perspective as he was the only one of us who’d read the book. John had about as much distance from it as I had and Maureen had never seen it. I was struck by how much Kubrick was allowed creative freedom with his approach. Here was a true artist who was fortunate enough to live in an era where a truly idiosyncratic big budget film could be made. The first several minutes don’t even have any visuals. No dialogue is spoken for nearly 30 minutes. And I was always riveted. Aside from a few costumes and some furniture pieces, the film looks utterly timeless, more so, in fact, than Kubrick’s own A Clockwork Orange, also a futuristic film and released three years later. It’s also remarkable how much of the technology portrayed really didn’t exist at the time, but was eerily prescient. I would be remiss in not mentioning the remarkable presence of HAL, the evil computer who almost halts the evolution of man. I must credit Kubrick as well as the actor, Douglas Rain, for creating a voice that is completely believeable as a machine programmed to have enough similarities to that of a human that I had to remind myself it was just a person recording a voice. In the portrayal it sounded just mechanical enough but also human enough that I could believe it could have been programmed to replicate not just the human voice but tactical manipulation. It’s able to pretend to defer to the wisdom of the humans it interacts with while plotting against them, all the while denying the existence of “computer error” as all error is human. In this way, it’s a natural extension of the theme begun in the 1964 films in this series including Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove about putting too much power in the hands of machines because they are presumably more reliable than their human counterparts. Though I think I’ll still always prefer Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, I have a newfound respect for this film and it is now on my list of favorite Kubrick films.

Update: I also wanted to add that due to Justin's input as well as some from my friend Scott's input on another forum, I've decided that I must read the original book that 2001 is based on.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 49: 1967(Part 3)

In the last five years, I’ve seen three versions of In Cold Blood and read the book it’s based on. The first was Capote, a film essentially about the making of the book. Shortly thereafter, I saw the 1967 film in a revival at the Film Forum in New York City and not long after I saw Infamous, another take on the making of the film. Two years ago, a friend of mine who hadn’t seen any of the films recommended the book highly and I stumbled across it at a used bookstore in Ohio not long afterwards. I could spend pages comparing and contrasting these, but I just mention it to give my frame of reference. In revisiting the film, I found it even more compelling than the first time, perhaps in part because of my increased knowledge of the material. The book was five years in the making, delayed primarily due to the series of appeals. There was no ending for the book until the killers were put to death. Apparently, Truman Capote, the author of the book, named it In Cold Blood as a double meaning. A family in Kansas was murdered in cold blood. Then the killers were murdered by us in cold blood. Once Capote got his ending, the film came out in short order, only two years after the executions of the killers. Apparently, many of the locations in the film were the actual locations where the events happened including the house where the murders took place. The acting is uniformly good, achieving an almost documentary simplicity. The stark black and white photography is breathtaking and the entire production is underscored by yet another great jazz score by Quincy Jones. The score has all the same strengths as well as some of the weaknesses as The Pawnbroker. Jones seems to have the ability to deliver a traditional score when he’s required to, such as some of the tranquil early scenes with the Clutter family, but he’s always at his best when left to jazz. Ebert wrote reviews of this film both when it was released and in 2002. Both reviews are four stars, the second being inclusion in the Great Movie series. The original review is a little puzzling to me as he almost seems a little dismissive of the storytelling because it actually happened, indicating that the author and screenwriter didn’t have to do much. Having read the book and seen countless “based on a true story” films, I find this characterization unfair. Capote came up with a brilliant structure, switching back and forth between the Clutters and their murderers as they go through their day, then the police investigation and the murderers path. The entire structure of the film comes straight from the book. He does make a good point, however, that the character in the film based on Capote is a little awkward and seems on hand mostly to deliver a message, which doesn’t really work. This is true, but it really didn’t bother me. It’s true also that neither the book nor the film really makes a good anti-death penalty case. I say this as a firm advocate against capital punishment. I think its easy to say that someone deserves to die. It’s a lot harder to say that we deserve to kill someone in cold blood. But that’s not a point that really comes across. Perhaps this is because of Capote’s gift for creating character. He makes the killers(well one of them anyway) as sympathetic as possible, but he does such a good job of doing the same for the Clutter family and the senseless brutality of their murder that its hard to feel too sorry for Dick and Perry when they meet their end. This didn’t leave a great impact on me when I saw it a few years ago, but this revisiting gave me new appreciation for it.

My family was late to the party when it came to getting a VCR. We got our first one in Christmas of 1986. So it must have been sometime shortly after that when I saw The Graduate for the first time. I must have been 18 or 19. 20 years after it first came out. Essentially the same age as Benjamin Braddock, the titular character. I had barely started college. My family wasn’t as well off as the one in the film. The ‘80’s were not the ‘60’s. And yet I recall to this day how I was struck by the timeliness of this story. A young man, drifting through life, who had always done what he was supposed to do. Admittedly, I questioned a bit more, but I felt the basic struggle. He followed the path, went to college, got a degree, and now what? He hadn’t taken the time to figure out his identity. He had never questioned and now he was all about questions but didn’t know which ones to ask. Everyone was always talking at him, but noone was actually listening to him. I could go on. Needless to say, I was really looking forward to seeing this one again and was glad for Justin to join me. This was everything I’d remembered and more. It seemed just as timeless as ever. In part, because it takes place in California in the ‘60’s, in part in Berkeley, but you don’t really see any hippies. Vietnam isn’t mentioned. And yet the undercurrent of unease is there that could easily translate to a college graduate in 2010 going into a shit economy and approaching double digit unemployment. Of course the golden boy who’s always done as he’s been told is apprehensive about what lurks in the real world. Justin and I could barely contain our enthusiasm for this film. It seemed we were constantly pausing to talk about how great a scene or a shot was. I really have to give credit to Mike Nichols for making an amazing transition from the theatre world into film. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was great and well shot, but the director was not as apparent. This film makes it clear that he’s well aware of the camera, how to frame a shot, composition, etc. There’s the obvious one where Dustin Hoffman is shot between Anne Bancroft’s legs, but there’s so much more. Dialogue is sometimes spare, though one of my favorite dialogue heavy scenes is one where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are in a hotel room engaged in one of their trysts. Benjamin is desperately trying to connect so he can feel. Mrs. Robinson just wants to lose herself in sex so she won’t feel how empty her life is. At various times they both seem on the verge of leaving, but by the end they both stay. And neither of them seems to want to. The best known scene without dialogue has to be the closing shot. Benjamin and Elaine are escaping on the bus. Nichols could have ended on their moment of triumph. But he lingers. And as he does reality starts to creep in. They’re triumphant that they’ve actually done something of their own choosing. But it slowly dawns on them that they have no idea what to do next. This scene was everything I remembered it to be. But another scene really struck me. Benjamin is having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, has started seeing her daughter Elaine, has told Elaine he’s had an affair with an older woman, but has left out the most crucial detail. The scene where she finds out is done with almost no words. And the entire story is told by one expression on Anne Bancroft’s face. That expression not only tells Elaine the horrible story, but allows us the closest glimpse of honesty into her character. Every other moment we see her is a fa├žade of some sort. The seductress, the harpy seeking revenge, etc. But in that one moment we see her pain and desperation, her emotions naked for the first time. I’m so rapturous even in my remembrance that I hesitate to even mention Ebert’s recent review(1997). I just hope that in 15 or so years from now I haven’t changed so much that I agree with him. And I know we have some common ground ahead. Look out 1968.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day 46 and 1967(Part 2)

I’m finding it hard to keep up with this. But I guess that’s the nature of the beast. I’m writing this on day 46, though the first entry goes back to day 34. In case anyone’s keeping track. This starts with 18 on the list, though I’m currently up to 23. For more trivia, I’ve actually switched the order a few times. I actually watched Blow Up before I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That’s because I got confused. I watched Dont Look Back after In the Heat of the Night because it was convenient. I almost switched a couple of others but was thwarted by a damaged disc. Guess the universe was self correcting. Anyway. Enough stalling. Back to the entries.

Bonnie and Clyde is credited with a lot of things. Some herald it as the beginning of the New Hollywood movement. It’s heavily influenced by the French New Wave. Truffaut was even approached to direct it. It portrays violence in more graphic ways than anyone had seen, especially in American films, though it seems somewhat tame by today’s standards. It put new vitality into the careers of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Beatty struck new ground as an actor/ producer. Curiously, a lot of critics at the time dismissed it at first, Ebert being a notable exception. As audiences flocked to it, some critics actually reversed themselves. There’s no doubt that it’s an important film. It paved the way for what was to come. I find it entertaining and visually stimulating. I appreciate all the performances. It’s filled with great location shooting. It follows the themes both of anti heroes and distrust of authority figures. It even has newfound relevance as it casts bankers as the villains. As we’re repeating the depression, it’s almost more relevant in that regard than it was in 1967. This is another case where the fact that it was so new at the time I’m sure I would have been one of its biggest champions. But despite all my appreciation for all these things, I have to admit that my gut reaction is that this just leaves me a little cold. Glad I saw it. Had a good time watching it. I think I actually appreciate Warren Beatty more as a producer than as an actor. He certainly does his job well here, but I’m more impressed with what he went through to get the film made. The characters are kind of shallow and uninteresting and, though perhaps they didn’t deserve quite as brutal an ending as they received, I didn’t necessarily feel much when I saw it. It’s a lot of fun. But, for me, it just doesn’t hold up as well. But, in deference to Mr. Clooney, I can certainly see why it’s on the list as it’s a touchstone of the era.

Wait Until Dark is a curious entry to have on this list. It’s been about 11 days since I saw it and I enjoyed it very much. But I can’t say it’s really stuck with me. That doesn’t mean I don’t remember the plot points or the performances. That just means I enjoyed it a whole lot more watching it than it actually resonated with me. This continues the theme of crime, but otherwise it’s a fairly conventional genre thriller, the one unique aspect being that the woman in peril is blind and uses her disability to get the upper hand in the climactic scene. And, of course, the fact that said woman is Audrey Hepburn raised the stakes for 1967 moviegoers. It’s probably the finest performance I’ve ever seen her give, which may seem like faint praise if you’ve read my entry on My Fair Lady. I also didn’t see the appeal of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I truly feel she’s very effective here. It was also great seeing Alan Arkin do such good work. He’s always great, but he hasn’t gotten a chance to do something this meaty in some time. It looks like he has other works represented on the list and I look forward to it. Wait Until Dark is based on a play and, as such, it’s mostly on one set. Director Terence Young also directed a number of the early James Bond films and displays a talent here for building suspense. Clearly, I don’t have a great deal of original thoughts on this one. If there’s even such a thing as a truly original thought. I think I need to work harder on getting these up in a timely fashion. It’s a good movie. Not the strongest of this batch, but worth your time.

My friend John joined me for the next two films starting with Cool Hand Luke. I saw this one for the first time probably around ten years ago. Memory is a curious thing. I don’t remember most of this. I remember the egg eating scene. I’m pretty sure I remember him dying at the end. But for the most part, this great looking Blu Ray transfer felt new to me. Ebert wrote about this one both in his original column and for his Great Movies series. He speculates in both reviews about anti hero archetypes and antiestablishment themes. He places the beginning of the antihero with Brando in The Wild One. But Paul Newman is a different breed. Not scowling or moody, he smiles through it all. Though the title comes from the line where he remarks during a card game that, “Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand,” cool is the best word to describe Luke himself. Whether he’s spending the night in the box, eating 50 eggs in an hour, or processing the death of his mother, he never seems to be asking for pity. Though he certainly does suffer, he never asks for pity. When he finally escapes, the act of rebellion doesn’t seem to be an act of desperation. He’s put in “the box,” a tiny room where a prisoner can’t even really lie down, simply because his mother dies, which always makes prisoners “turn rabbity” as the warden says. Even in the stacked deck of prison rules, it seems he can’t take getting punished merely for something that happens to him as opposed to something he does. He was always popular, but this sets him on the road to martyrdom with the other prisoners. I was struck by how much this plot mirrored that of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, especially with the somewhat heavy handed Christ imagery near the end of it. This is Newman’s first appearance on the list and I’m looking forward to his other titles. Not much else to say here, but this is a good one.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day 41. 1967(part 1). Cops, Robbers, a Musician and a Graduate

1967 brings us seven titles. Questioning authority and antiestablishment themes continue to be prevalent. Five of the titles feature cops, criminals, or both. The other two continue the antihero theme with alienated young men at their core. Well, maybe alienated may not be the right word. But they both view the world around them and the rules of society with varying degrees of scorn, skepticism, and bewilderment. Qualities which they, of course share with some of the criminals in the other films. Maybe some of the cops as well. When I started doing this, I thought comparing the titles with what won Oscars or what made the most money put things in context. And maybe it does. But I’ve realized that doesn’t really interest me so much. It’s mostly trivial. Suffice it to say that many of these titles did receive some awards. Many of them made a lot of money as well. And I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy reading film criticism, particularly that of Roger Ebert. I don’t always agree with him, but I often enjoy his writing style and know his voice. He’s even answered a question or two of mine in his Movie Answer Man column. In 1967, 25 year old Roger Ebert was hired by the Chicago Sun Times. Most of his reviews are available online and many of these titles are included in his Great Movies list. I don’t know if this will be a continuing theme, as I hope to have many points of view to draw from, but I find his views to be prevalent in my analysis of many of these titles. And I found myself disagreeing with him more than I expected.

Dont Look Back is a fly on the wall cinema verite documentary chronicling Bob Dylan’s tour of London in 1965. I first saw this just a few years ago, also on DVD. Thanks to my sister Carole for gifting me with this copy. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker who went on to direct many concert films, music documentaries, the Clinton campaign documentary The War Room, and is still working today(most recently with 2009’s Kings of Pastry), Don’t Look Back is a classic of the genre. This is where watching the films chronologically gets interesting because I found it very curious watching this on the heels of A Hard Day’s Night. They’re both, on paper, essentially the same story. Following a popular music act backstage and onstage, dealing with fans, the press, their entourage, partying, etc. They both are shot in black and white and the Beatles film even imitates the verite style. Of course the Beatles film was fictionalized, not presented realistically, filled with absurdist flights of fancy, and the Dylan film is all real. Or is it? There’s always been a debate over how objective documentary filmmaking actually is or whether it even has a responsibility to be. Documentaries have hours and hours of footage that is never used. The director, in editing the film, essentially writes the story that he’s able to find within. On top of that, Dylan, even at 24, seemed to enjoy tweaking his image. It’s been said by those who were on the set that he was always very aware of the camera. So when he berates and grills one of the guests partying in his suite about who threw a glass off the balcony is he actually upset? Is he performing for the camera? Is he performing for the assembled crowd? I suppose one interpretation is, if he is deliberately presenting false images and impressions to the camera and others, then the image he chooses to portray, real or not, says something about him. Ultimately, I care less about the veracity of what we’re presented with, than the fact that I find it compelling. Though I thought he seemed a little rough on the science student(as he’s described) interviewing him, I have less sympathy for the journalists asking him inane questions at a press conference. It may not have the lighter wit that The Beatles had, but in both cases there’s a sense of performing. Is Dylan combative for the sake of being combative, or is he trying to challenge the norms? I find there is some wit in, while appearing to berate the press, he’s actually trying to get them to move beyond asking the same dozen or so questions that everyone asks him. By refusing to engage in the dull circus, he’s trying to elevate the tedium into an actual exchange of ideas. This is where Ebert confounds me. Both in his original 1968 review and in his 1998 review of the rerelease, he seems very dismissive of Dylan, describing him as, “immature, petty, vindictive, lacking a sense of humor, overly impressed with his own importance and not very bright.” It seems to me that Dylan doesn’t lack a sense of humor, but he lacks Roger Ebert’s sense of humor. It seems that Ebert is genuinely a fan of Dylan’s music, so perhaps this portrayal of him was tantamount to having a hero knocked off a pedestal. It seems he might have considered blaming Pennebaker rather than taking the Dylan he sees in this 96 minutes entirely at face value. In any case, I really enjoyed revisiting this and respectfully disagree with both the 25 and 55 year old Ebert. I should note that, his scorn for the version of Dylan in this film aside, his praise for the music is still high and the review is a moderately positive one.

I know I’ve seen In the Heat of the Night before, but it has to be a good 20 years ago or more. Though the details had faded, my basic impression of the film is the same. Here’s a film that tackles the issue of race relations in the late ‘60’s head on, but presents it in the form of a genre piece, a police procedural murder mystery. This gives audiences the opportunity to feel they’re seeing something important while still getting caught up in the whodunit aspects. I don’t mean to make this sound dismissive. I actually think it’s a rather clever idea. A small town in Mississippi has a murder on their hands and it just so happens that the only person who can help them is an African American homicide detective from Philadelphia who just happens to be passing through town. Rod Steiger is the bigoted, but maybe not as bigoted as you think, sheriff. Sidney Poitier is the visiting detective who gets introduced to Steiger after being arrested shortly after the murder. He’s from out of town, someone’s been murdered, he’s at the train station at 3 in the morning, and he’s black. So of course he’s arrested and assumed guilty without even a cursory check of ID. And thus begins the cycle. Poitier is constantly being second guessed and abused, yet the voices of reason always prevail. There’s always someone who’s listening closely enough to realize he knows what he’s talking about. Some reviews I’ve looked at are critical of the broad Southern bigot stereotypes. I think, if anything, beyond the characters treating him the way a black man would be treated in Mississippi in 1967 because that’s how it was, there are probably a lot more reasonable characters in it than is probably plausible. Yeah, they all call him boy, but when he points out that they have the wrong suspect because he’s lefthanded, they don’t dismiss him out of hand, or worse, just try to railroad the suspect through so they can satisfy the public. These cops may be as racist as the world they’ve grown up in, but they actually care about finding the real murderer. There are a number of irredeemable racist characters in this film, but generally speaking, they’re not the cops. Though acknowledging the flaws in the system, this film wants us to think it’s basically good. Flawed but not broken. Which makes it just controversial enough to get headlines. But mainstream enough to sell tickets and win awards. And, I should add, I did like it. I should also note that I enjoyed the Quincy Jones score yet again, though not quite as much as The Pawnbroker or another upcoming 1967 film.