Sunday, October 23, 2011

1976 and final thoughts

Of the eight films remaining, Lynne joined me for Taxi Driver(at the Film Forum), Network, The Omen, and Bound for Glory. The rest were solo efforts. Taxi Driver will always be one of my favorites of all time. I’ve seen it on the big screen at least three times. Director Martin Scorsese may be a little uneven at times, but, unlike Coppola, he’s always maintained at least a glimmer(and often more) of his filmmaking genius. He stumbles from time to time, but his best is evident throughout his career. Was The Departed his crowning achievement? Did it really push him over the top into Oscar territory? Well no, but despite it all, I was happy to see him clutching that statue, despite how often I’ve derided its counterfeit charms. And that’s because Scorsese always brings exciting and interesting work. I honestly do think Taxi Driver is a work of genius and brings together the best of Scorsese’s directing, Paul Schrader’s writing, and one of Robert DeNiro’s best performances of all time. Scorsese and Schrader collaborated several times and this and Raging Bull the best of those collaborations. I’m also always impressed with Bernard Herrmann’s scoring. His work is classic, having been featured in some of Hitchcock’s best including Psycho and Vertigo, as well as Citizen Kane, just to name a few. Scorsese appreciated his work so much that he used Herrmann’s score from the original Cape Fear for his 1991 remake. His work in this film doesn’t seem at all dated, especially the main theme that accompanies DeNiro’s late night drives. Admittedly, I appreciate it so much that it may be a blind spot, as Lynne thought it was occasionally overbearing. I must admit that this is often a pet peeve of mine, so my fondness for this film may cause me to go easier on it. But I still love it.

Much of what you see above this paragraph was written in the earlier part of the month. And now it’s October 23. My self-imposed deadline. I may write more in this space on similar themes. But this entry will be the last specifically about the viewing experiences directly related to the list. So I’ll make my specific comments briefer than they might be otherwise. All the President’s Men is definitely one of the highlights of this list. On a list filled with the gamut of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford performances, these are career highlights for both of them. It’s also the best of director Alan J. Pakula’s “trilogy of paranoia.” No disrespect intended to Klute or The Parallax View, but this one’s the best. I mentioned before that The Bad News Bears is part of a trilogy of sorts by director Michael Ritchie. Though a crowd pleaser that spawned several sequels and a remake, this one was surprisingly subversive. It looks at the whole American obsession with winning and the notion that the ends always justify the means mentality and turns it on its ear. I caught the remake a few months ago. It was adequate, but couldn’t match this one. The Omen was a good film. I didn’t love it, but liked it a lot. Also an example of how something made by the studio system without a lot of directorial nuance can still sneak in some interesting ideas. The Front is a film I’d been meaning to see for a long time and didn’t disappoint. Certainly a compelling look at the whole red scare and a rare chance to see Woody Allen directed by someone other than himself. Marathon Man was certainly watchable, but everyone in the film from director John Schlesinger, to screenwriter William Goldman and, of course, Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, have more notable credits to their names. Notable, to be sure, but months later, I barely remember it.

Network marks one of the finest works of the now deceased director Sidney Lumet on this list or in his career. All the performances are pitch perfect and the dense screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky is unforgettable. When I saw this film, I couldn’t help think of 2010’s The Social Network as Aaron Sorkin writes in a similar style, where characters are fiercely intelligent and the dialogue never seems to slow down. I’ll be watching this one again. I really liked Bound For Glory, director Hal Ashby’s biopic of Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine in the title role. It’s a little hard to get into as it moves at a leisurely pace, but in that way it moves past the artificial way that many biographies fall victim to. Screenplays are expected to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Few people’s lives can really be broken down that way. I don’t know that I liked it as much as some of his other works, but I may reserve judgment until I give it a few repeat viewings.

So there it is. The end of the project. I’m glad I embarked upon it and saw it to fruition. I think I might return to this space when I see other films that relate in some way. There are a number of films on the list I will want to see again. As well as others I will not. I may want to revisit some other Kubricks. As well as other selections from the oeuvre of Altman, Lumet, Scorsese, Godard, Peckinpah, Polanski, and others. Maybe a few remakes and sequels, successful, ill advised and otherwise. But for now, I’m going to catch up on other films that have fallen by the wayside. Also, I still haven’t seen the fourth season of Mad Men. And I keep hearing how good Breaking Bad is. Yeah, without the rigors of the list, I still think I’ll find entertainment options to keep myself busy. Check back here. I may find it in me to share a few thoughts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

1975(Part 2)

The four remaining films of 1975 are Dog Day Afternoon, Three Days of the Condor, Smile, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I saw them a little out of order. Dog Day Afternoon was in late February at the Film Forum, part of a Pacino in the 70’s series. Three Days of the Condor was on March 11 via Netflix. Both were solo projects. Smile, due to its lack of availability, was actually screened with Lynne, my record holding screening partner with 24 titles, nearly one quarter of the total, in early April. It was actually the final title due to the difficulty of obtaining it. And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was screened on March 13 with Lynne and Daniel. The first was yet another brilliant Sidney Lumet title and I was delighted to get a chance to see it on the big screen. Lots of great acting. Very believeable presentation of a somewhat unbelieveable scenario. I had seen it before and it only improved on repeat viewing. Condor was probably the best of all the Sydney Pollack directed Robert Redford films on this list. I know I’ve occasionally been hard on them. But this one was truly an unexpected delight. Honestly, its been awhile and I can’t properly articulate what really did it for me, but I look forward to seeing it again. All criticisms of the Pollack Redford pairings aside, I really enjoyed this one. Smile was good. It didn’t stand out. But as a trilogy, all directed by Michael Ritchie, this one, The Candidate, and The Bad News Bears make a fascinating study of competition in America. This one’s about a beauty pageant. Probably the least compelling of the three. But still quite watchable.

I’ve made much of Jack Nicholson’s performances on this list. I stand by them. I know his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is quite often touted as one of his best. And he’s good in it. But it’s not my favorite. First, I must declare my baggage. I read the Ken Kesey novel upon which this film is based in high school. It may well be my favorite novel. I enjoyed the poetic imagery, the skewed perspective of the unreliable narrator, and the inspirational anti-authoritarian message. I saw a screening of the film a few years after I read the book. I wasn’t impressed. It seemed to lose a great deal of the dream like quality. The interpretation seemed to be very literal. In the intervening years I learned that Kesey was similarly disenchanted. Apparently, he had been involved with the screenplay to a point. Frustrated with the process, he threw up his hands, walked away, and decided to let the chips fall where they may. Still, the premiere was held in his hometown in Oregon. He was invited to attend. According to an interview I saw once, he said, “It’s like saying, ‘We’re raping your daughter in the parking lot. Wanna come watch?’” All that said, I was curious to revisit it. I wanted to believe that it was its own animal. That it could stand on its own. Perhaps as a film, if I could distance myself enough from the source material, I could appreciate it. I tried. But I still found it to be a shadow in comparison. Nicholson has his moments, but I don’t totally buy him as a tough working class guy. He managed it in The Last Detail and, years later in Prizzi’s Honor, but I didn’t see it here. Director Milos Forman was determined to portray a realistic depiction of a mental institution. The supplemental materials on the disc are rife with method acting stories and it sounds like quite a noble experiment. If he had truly divorced himself from the novel and made it his own, it might have been quite remarkable. But there are just enough vestigial traces of the impressionist style of the book that the end result is a bit of a mishmash. I still enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help wondering what a more experimental director like Terry Gilliam or David Lynch might do with it.

Continued

So sometime a little less than two months ago I invoked a maxim invented by Lorne Michaels. Which had been repeated by Tina Fey. I tried to make it a motivational something. A week later I posted an entry. And a few days later I realized a significant difference between myself, Lorne Michaels, and Tina Fey. They have people counting on them. If the show doesn’t go up, countless lives are affected. If I don’t post a blog entry, nothing happens. I have a vague sense of noncompletion. A nagging notion that I have to do that sometime. But ultimately, there are no actual real world consequences. So when real world things intervene, this becomes one of the first things to take a back seat. I mean, let’s be honest, this takes a back seat merely when I’m not in the mood. So, when a few days after my last posting, I found out that my rent was going up and I had to move, this blog was the least of my worries. A few days ago, I signed a lease. Which means I’m moving sometime in the next 20 days. So I probably shouldn’t even be doing this now. But I may find it a respite when moving stress becomes too great. So I may finish this soon. Or I may abandon it altogether. But it seems to me that if I can’t wrap it up by the one year anniversary of the beginning, that is, October 23, 2011, I will probably declare it finished. So whatever I can get done in the interim will be it as far as the initial 100 titles are concerned anyway. I may still use this forum to write about something. But that remains unclear. So if there’s anyone out there still paying attention, keep your eyes peeled. You may get closure or you may be frustrated. But something will definitely happen. Or not.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

1975(Part 1)

The first title in 1975 is Shampoo, directed by Hal Ashby, written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, and starring Beatty. Though this project has given me great appreciation for Ashby’s somewhat unsung talent, this was probably my least favorite. Harold and Maude is one of my all time favorites. The Last Detail, though to a lesser extent, was also great, and the upcoming Bound For Glory(1976) is also quite memorable. But Shampoo just didn’t really do it for me. I wasn’t surprised to read that, according to some sources, Ashby had less control over this film than his others. His star was falling somewhat and by getting involved in a Beatty project, he gave his career new vitality. But whereas Altman seemed to take delight in battling with Beatty, Ashby seemed to succumb. Ashby was the director, but Beatty pretty much ran the show, at least according to the account in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. There were a number of good performances and it serves as a good time capsule and…well…honestly I’m having a hard time remembering exactly what I thought of it. This was over four months ago and I mostly recall trying to like it, but eventually growing weary. In approaching this writing, I found myself wanting to write about something else, so tonight I watched Ashby’s debut, 1970’s The Landlord. I wish Clooney had put this one on the list. It stars Beau Bridges as a wealthy young man who buys a tenement building in Park Slope. One of my favorite unintentionally funny lines in the film was, “Park Slope? Isn’t that a colored neighborhood?” If you don’t know why that is funny, ask someone from New York. What starts out looking like a caricature of both rich whites and poor blacks and then looks like it might segue into a heartwarming tale of unity winds up being neither. By taking elements of both genres and twisting it into an honest unflinching portrait of race relations in the 70’s it becomes something truly unique and truthful. Bridges’ character, Elgar, who believes he is enlightened, enters this world with the best of intentions and still ultimately winds up behaving, to some degree, like a plantation owner. But that’s not the extent of his character. What’s remarkable about this film is that the end somehow doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Everyone hasn’t magically learned to live in peace and harmony. But there does seem to be a slight muted note of guarded optimism. Ashby had worked as Norman Jewison’s editor and got this project as a result of Jewison handing it off to him when he wasn’t able to direct. They apparently clashed over the ending, but congratulations to Jewison for launching this brilliant and too brief directorial career. And if Shampoo isn’t my cup of tea, it can, at the very least, claim credit for giving him the commercial success he needed to move forward.

I know I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, oh, probably some time back in the ‘80’s on VHS. I’ve probably seen it once or twice since, perhaps once on the big screen. Even the first time I saw it, so many bits were iconic that I’d heard them countless times. I greatly envy those who saw it in theaters in 1975 with none of this baggage. And yet, despite all this, despite the recognition of large portions of the film, I think I enjoyed it more than any other time I’d seen it. This film has never stopped playing. Midnight screenings have played on college campuses continuously as well as alternative houses. Though I didn’t partake due to timing issues, its even played in one or more venues locally since I’ve been writing this. A musical version ran for a significant time on Broadway and is likely still touring the country. If anyone runs across this posting and hasn’t seen this film, I’d be doing you a disservice by disseminating any further details. Be it my previously stated rule that comedy suffers by deconstruction or the fact that there’s nothing new to say about this film, I’m going to stop here. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean. If you haven’t, see it and enjoy it.

I’ve devoted a lot of space to singing the praises of Robert Altman, and Nashville is always a title cited as one of his masterpieces. It deserves the reputation. As noted, well, sometime back around six months or so ago, this was a film I first saw before I truly appreciated how much repeated viewings deepened the Altman experience, as part of a large ingestion of Altman films at a screening room at the University of Dayton. I saw it again a few years later on VHS. Altman only achieved perfection with this style a few times, most notably with this film and with Short Cuts. He took a number of stories that likely could have each been their own films and spread them across a canvas, intertwining them. Often characters with a larger story might do a walk on in someone else’s story. The reason Altman’s films often revealed more on repeated viewings is that once one knows what the basic story is, it’s easier to experience the subtle naturalistic interplay between characters. The smaller revealing moments are much more fascinating than the machinations of the plot. In recent years I’ve thought that Alabama congressman Jeff Sessions is merely a riff on Henry Gibson’s character in this film. After seeing this again, I believe I need to restate that. Gibson’s character, the preening, conservative, miniature country version of Liberace, Haven Hamilton, has a great deal more dignity. I could go on and on about this film. It stands on its own and has so many hallmarks of what was best about Altman. It has a remarkable amount of good acting. I’m not a fan of country music, but I found the music compelling, entertaining, and illustrative. And of course, there’s an undercurrent of political satire that is omnipresent and yet somewhat subtle. Thanks for steering me back to this one, George. It won’t be the last time.

Jaws is a film that is often cited as the end of the auteurist movement of this period. It, along with Star Wars, ushered in the era of the summer tent pole film. The exciting and thrilling movie that everyone wants to see and now opens on thousands of screens after being talked about endlessly spurred on by a ubiquitous media blitz. I’ve never seen this film in a theater. The first time was sometime back in the early ‘90’s on a color TV set that could only display in black and white. The next time was maybe five or more years ago on DVD. This time on a 42” plasma was likely the closest I’d ever gotten to the big screen experience. I have to say that I found this film quite enjoyable. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, Jaws lives up to the hype. The film is, of course, about a shark that surfaces on the beaches of a small New England town. The mayor wants to keep the beaches open. The sheriff(Scheider, who doesn’t like the water), wants to close them. It all ends up in a massive battle between man and shark. But the greatest moments of the film are in the character conflict. Shaw is a grizzled working class sort who thinks he’s better than everyone else, especially Dreyfuss, a spoiled rich kid who also happens to be a brilliant scientist. Scheider just came to this town because he wanted to escape the excitement of the big city and though he wants to do the right thing, probably thought this job would be a cakewalk. No doubt a big part of the concentration on character was because the special effects didn’t always work as they should. But the end result is thrilling. Often the best movie villains are those least seen as they build up in the audience’s expectation. Despite the films and the trends it would inspire, Jaws is an exciting, well crafted, and eminently watchable film.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

1975, 1976, and it’s time to wrap this up already

I’m going to do my best to stay away from self-flagellation here but I still need to be honest. Its been awhile since I finished all the titles on the list. The final 16 titles on the list were viewed from late February through early April. It’s now late July. While it’s true that I have trouble finishing things, there may be something more here. I think when it comes down to it, I just like watching films and discussing films more than I like writing about them into what more often than not feels like a vacuum. That being said, I appreciate the positive feedback I’ve gotten from some of you. That, coupled with the fact that I need to finish this is why I’m going to struggle through. Some of this are all time favorites of mine that I’ve seen multiple times. Some I’m lukewarm about. Some I barely remember. In the spirit of this experiment being what it is and striving to be no more, I will conclude this project by sharing all of the following entries with the circumstances under which they were watched and under the extreme delay I’ve approached to writing about them. I’m not going to try to find something that links these together. I’m not going to handicap the Oscars for the two years in question. I’m just going to finish this in whatever method I can. I recently started and finished Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. In it, she says that Saturday Night Live executive producer, enigma, and sometime cryptic Buddha figure Lorne Michaels has a saying which I’m going to paraphrase and most likely butcher. “The show(SNL) doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.” I don’t know if any of this is ready. But it’s well past 11:30. Here goes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

1974(Part III)

I first saw Lenny, director Bob Fosse’s biopic of iconic comedian Lenny Bruce, written by Julian Barry(based on his play of the same name) and starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role, oh, probably around 20 years ago on VHS and recall liking it very much, though this was mostly a new experience that Lynne joined me for. I think this one has improved with age as many of the reviews of the time, those I’ve been able to unearth anyway, seem to be rather limited in their praise. I don’t find much not to like here, starting with the beautifully black and white photography, sure direction by Fosse, and a brilliant performance by Hoffman. If there’s one thread that connects Fosse’s work, it seems to be show business. But, as noted in my entry on Cabaret, there’s nothing stagy about his film work. The connective tissue for the film is pseudo documentary style “interviews” with(among others) Bruce’s wife Honey(Valerie Perrine) and mother Sally(Jan Miner) as well as Hoffman recreating Bruce’s routines. As a note on the trivial side, many will recognize Miner as Madge from the Palmolive commercials(“You’re soaking in it!”). By juxtaposing these scenes with the dramatized situations, we see that we’re being led by a number of unreliable narrators. Hoffman does a wonderful job of showing us a very flawed yet charming man, most charming in his stand up, and most flawed in his personal life. He talks his wife into group sex and then treats her like a whore for enjoying it. Fortunately, it shies away from making Honey a martyr either as they’re certainly both willing participants in their descent into drug abuse, a habit Honey embraces more eagerly at times. So despite Lenny’s semi deification due to his groundbreaking controversial material and early death, Fosse doesn’t show us saints and villains(with the exception of the U.S. courts who hounded him mercilessly), but instead he shows us flawed human beings. Though most of the standup bits serve to advance the story or introduce chapters, one in particular stands out. Hoffman apparently got an audiotape of an actual particularly embarrassing incident and performed it verbatim. Fosse chose to portray it in one long wide take, the camera staying static for the vast majority of the scene. Not only does it show remarkable discipline on the part of Hoffman, but by essentially keeping the point of view from the back row of the club, Fosse chose a daring but ultimately mesmerizing approach.

Thanks to Matt B. for loaning me his copy of director Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve often waxed rhapsodic about Lumet’s talents, but I’ll candidly say that this is not high on my list of his films. That being said, this film is exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a soufflĂ© of an entertainment, as Lumet himself acknowledges. I did enjoy most of the performances and found the film to be entertaining, though I think perhaps the information in the supplementary materials a little more intriguing. Much of Lumet’s work is, for better or worse, very serious, sometimes lacking in humor. He states in one of the interviews that he appreciated the challenge of doing something a little lighter and, in fact, that 1976’s Network( a film to be discussed more thoroughly at a later point) would not have been as humorous as it was if he had not made this film. If that is indeed true, I’m glad this film exists for that reason alone. Murder on the Orient Express presents a large ensemble star studded cast, many of whom barely have more than a scene or two, making this almost a highbrow very special episode of the Love Boat. Of course the emphasis is on highbrow and most of the cast is in top form. For me, the only exception was Albert Finney. I’m generally a big fan, but his work here was so mannered and broad that I found it somewhat distracting. I kept trying to like it and understand it, but he just didn’t do it for me. I must acknowledge that Lumet truly did create a soufflĂ©, especially in the sense that if I try to deconstruct it too much, this light entertainment could easily transform into an endorsement for vigilantism and ritualized murder with all on board serving as willing participants and/or accomplices. So I guess I won’t. Much.

I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese, so it was a little bit of a surprise to me when I realized that I’m pretty sure I had never seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in its entirety. I had seen clips from it, I had seen significant sections of it on television broadcasts, but I’d never seen it all front to back. Thanks to Lynne for joining me for this one. This is the second of three Scorsese films on the list and Ellen Burstyn’s fourth. At the time she was a bigger star and essentially had her pick of directors. Though he had doubts about his abilities to direct a film with at woman at the center of it, Burstyn, basing her opinion partly on advice and partly on what she had seen in Mean Streets, figured that someone who could deliver gritty realism could bring it to whatever project he worked on. Though this power imbalance between director and star reportedly caused tension from time to time, the end result was quite good. Alice starts the film entrenched in housewife drudgery, married to a man who, though not a monster, is certainly lacking in some regard. Early in the film he dies in a car accident and Alice is left on her own with her young son Tommy(Alfred Lutter III). They start on a road trip with a planned destination of Monterey where Alice believes she is going to make a fresh start as a singer, a dream she’s had since childhood. Along the way she makes several detours, first with a regrettable choice of romantic partner(Harvey Keitel) and eventually a good hearted though flawed lug(Kris Kristofferson). Burstyn was apparently determined that Alice not make her next choice based on the man in her life and, due to some improvised dialogue by Kristofferson, managed an ambiguous ending. Alice doesn’t give up her dreams, but she may have found a man who won’t repress them. In the end, she may not have made the radical change she was hoping for, but she may have evolved a little into establishing her own identity. Scorsese achieves a real naturalism here and the scenes between Alice and Tommy are a huge highlight. Often, child actors are just made to look cute and say smartass lines, but Scorsese just let the kid be a kid, apparently often relying on improvisation, most notably in a scene where Tommy repeatedly tells a joke that I still don’t understand. Keitel is in fine form as always, especially in a scene where he frightens Alice into leaving town just to get away from him. Apparently, she was so unprepared to deal with Keitel’s intensity that Burstyn burst into tears following the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily put this in my absolute favorites with regard to Scorsese, but it’s definitely a significant footnote in his development.

I will freely admit that I’m intimidated to write about The Godfather Part II. I first saw it years ago on VHS and then not again until October of 2008 at the Film Forum as part of a double feature. So I can’t say it was exactly a new experience. But I enjoyed revisiting it regardless. Most sequels are unnecessary. They’re essentially remakes hitting all the main points of the original and, though many find them unsatisfying, they frequently make more money than the original due to name recognition. As a result, they’re deemed a success by the Hollywood machine, which is why they continually spew them out. In fact, sequels are so frequently bad, that when they are discussed, there are generally three exceptions that are cited where part twos actually exceed the quality of part one. Those exceptions are Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back and, well, you know. The Godfather Part II moves us forward to the late 1950s. Michael is still in charge, but the family’s moved out of New York to Lake Tahoe. As with the first film, we open with a celebration and with the godfather entertaining requests, but as we shortly thereafter witness an assassination attempt in the Corleone compound, it becomes clear that things are far from calm. This story is juxtaposed with the back story of Vito Corleone, first as a young boy in Italy and then in turn of the century New York, played mostly by Robert DeNiro. One of the interest in the contrast between the two stories is that, in many ways, Vito doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. That is, his choice is to be brutalized and maybe be killed by mob thugs, or to become one, and hopefully be more of a man of honor than those he replaced. As a result, he develops more of a moral compass than his sons do in his wake. Yes, he still engages in unethical behavior, but somehow he really seems to be operating from a core of decency. Michael, on the other hand, seems to always be trying to prove that he’s his late father’s equal, and repeatedly proves that he isn’t. He somehow managed to inherit a ruthlessness to his character, but his steadfast unforgiving nature means that he alienates all around him. In attempting to keep the principles of the family alive, he finds himself alone. There is ample reason to suspect that Michael has deep seated psychological flaws to begin with. After all, he started by deliberately distancing himself from his family by resisting his father’s attempt to protect him from the draft and enlisting. This need to have something to prove persists in his character throughout. But perhaps ultimately, what Vito built, though he tried to build it from a place of honor, was always rotten to the core because it was built on intimidation, murder, and thievery. I’ve read that Coppola wanted to deglamorize the romantic notions that many took away from the first film. Whether or not he intended to, he also seems to have created, in his portrayal of this family in the late 50s and early 60s, a metaphor for the disillusionment and decay of 1970s America. Vito seemed to represent the promise of the founding fathers and Michael is the caretaker as the chickens come home to roost. Vito did what he did for survival while Michael alienates those around him by trying to maintain something that is crumbling because it was never actually built on a solid foundation.

Lightning seems to have struck twice in two places in 1974, first with Coppola’s two films, and then with Mel Brooks one two punch concluding with Young Frankenstein. I saw this years ago on VHS, perhaps not paying proper attention to it. Then, after years of hearing people rave about it as well as seeing clips, I revisited it a few years ago, as noted before, on a double bill with Blazing Saddles at the Film Forum. I’m inclined to think that all Brooks’ films work better when viewed with an audience, as it spoke to me more in that setting than any other I’ve experienced. This one has quite the plethora of gags but, unlike Saddles, it delivers them in a more restrained and disciplined fashion. As a result, when a vaudeville or borscht belt sensibility emerges, the contrast is even funnier. They’re still hilarious, but Brooks seemed determined to truly honor the source material by shooting it in black and white and even utilizing some of the original sets. Not only does Brooks do an admirable job, but Wilder as Frankenstein(who also cowrote the script with Brooks) turns in a fearless and hilarious performance. The disc comes with a number of supplements, including interviews with contemporary comedians, one of whom points out that Frankenstein is a huge prick, engaging in all kinds of horrible behavior, but Wilder still manages to make it funny. And now I find myself tongue tied again while trying to deconstruct comedy so I’ll just end with a list of the standout performers that tied it all together. Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and Marty Feldman as Igor. And that concludes 1974.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

1974(Part II)

I first encountered Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View maybe 10 years ago at the Film Forum on a double bill with the original The Manchurian Candidate. I don’t recall precisely, but it must have been some sort of paranoia double feature, which would be appropriate as this one is considered by some to be part two of Pakula’s trilogy of paranoia, bookended by Klute and All the President’s Men. Whereas The Manchurian Candidate is a satire of all the McCarthy era Red Scare nonsense, running with the idea that Soviet agents are brainwashing Americans and turning them into assassins, The Parallax View, if not a better film, takes the more frightening premise that such projects are actually undertaken by a homegrown shadow government. I was joined by Matt B. on this viewing who was very curious as he’d never seen it before. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a rebellious reporter who just happened to witness a political assassination, an event portrayed in the opening moments of the film in a prologue which concludes with an ominous Warren Commission like body concluding that it had been the work of a single troubled man and that there were no others involved, despite rumors to the contrary. And yet, as the action of the film begins to unfold six years later, more and more witnesses seem to be dying under mysterious circumstances. When someone close to him succumbs to such circumstances, Frady, no doubt acting out of equal parts self-preservation and curiosity, decides to investigate. Not only does he find ample evidence to fuel his suspicions, he stumbles across an organization called The Parallax Corporation, a group seemingly in the business of recruiting assassins. Frady manages to infiltrate the group and manages to repeatedly stay two steps ahead of them. Unfortunately, they usually manage to stay five steps ahead of him, and his mission is ultimately doomed. The film ends with another proclamation from the mysterious commission, stating similar findings that we, as the audience know, is patently a smokescreen. In context, this film actually follows similar patterns as Gatsby. Whereas Gatsby takes what we literally know, that the U.S. is run by the people who have always had the money and power and there’s no way to get into the club unless you’re born into it, films like The Parallax View go a step further, indicating that a shadow government, presumably run by similar folk, is actually in charge of everything. They pull the strings that need to be pulled to get their appointed candidates into office, and when someone unappointed or unanointed gets in, they have ways of making things balance out. And what we don’t fully realize until the end of the film is that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only viewed the process of how patsies are created. Pakula creates a great tone here. Early on, we get a barroom brawl and a car chase that seem a little hackneyed, but once the film settles into its trajectory, it’s hypnotic. Beatty is at his best here as well, which I don’t mean as a lefthanded compliment. When the great films of this era are mentioned, this one usually gets left out, which is a shame as it’s a hidden gem.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, but I’m pretty sure this was only the second time. Whenever I saw it previously, it was most likely on VHS, certainly never on the big screen, and, as such, seeing it in a way that felt almost like the first time on a 42 inch plasma screen was certainly a treat. The film is shot beautifully, but it’s also a brilliantly acted absorbing film. Much has been made of where this film came in Polanski’s career and whether his personal life had an effect on the darkness of the story. Personally, I think his work was awfully dark before but, for the uninitiated, here are the details of his life that may or may not have scarred him in a way that turned him into a brilliant filmmaker. As a boy, he lived in WWII occupied Poland where his mother was murdered by Nazis. Only a few years before this film, his pregnant wife was murdered in his own house in Los Angeles by the Manson Family. I won’t get into his legal troubles as that all happened after this film. At the very least, he certainly seems capable of telling a story where one can’t depend on those whose job it is to protect us from evil in the world. In many ways, this is a faithful genre piece, set in the ‘40’s and, if you knew nothing about Polanski’s troubles or that the U.S. was going through a period where the authorities seemed less and less deserving of trust, it would stand on its own against all the best Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, etc. hard boiled detective movies. And yet, within this frame, the film always feels vital and alive. At the center of this great film is yet another brilliant Jack Nicholson performance. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the aforementioned private dick at the center of all stories like this. A plot synopsis would be both too time consuming for me and likely confusing for anyone reading this. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Polanski wisely chose to excise the voiceover that was in Robert Towne’s original script. Though it may be a convention of the genre, the removal of it allows for a more intelligent audience, one that can figure things out along with Jake rather than having Jake spell it out for us. Polanski reportedly clashed with Towne over the ending, lobbying for a happy ending. Some accounts blame Polanski’s personal tragedies on the ending, but I’m inclined to believe that his brilliance and truth as a filmmaker very well might have driven him to push for the ending he gave us. The powers that be, represented in John Huston’s richer and more powerful than God character, Noah Cross, emerges at the end of the film victorious, while his daughter Evelyn(Faye Dunaway), who bore his incestuous daughter/ granddaughter dies, leaving her sister/ daughter to likely the same fate. As Jake wanders out of the wreckage, a friend mutters to him the now famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The fatalism matches the genre, Polanski, and post Camelot Vietnam era America.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time with The Longest Yard. It’s very likely one of the best performances Burt Reynolds has ever given. It may even be, as many have said, the best football film ever made. It just wasn’t for me. I’ll admit that I don’t like sports. And maybe I should have someone like my friend Daniel to help me with this one and explain to me why I should like it more. I have actually seen a number of films in the world of sports that I found very watchable and enjoyable. But this one wasn’t one of them. I should also add that it’s a prison movie, and, on the Clooney list spectrum, not as entertaining as Cool Hand Luke and likely more entertaining than Papillon. It is certainly much higher quality than some of the other cheese Reynolds became known for later into the decade and beyond, but the writing and direction overall just seemed mostly adequate. Also, it seemed like the final game consumed something like the last 40 minutes of the film. I could do somersaults and twist myself in knots cherry picking the merits this film has, which it no doubt does. I just don’t feel up to it. I’m fine with this being all I have to say about it.

Matt B. not only joined me for The Taking of Pelham 123, he was kind enough to bring along his own personal copy of it. I had never seen it, but was certainly aware of it, especially as there was a big budget Hollywood remake of it only a few years ago. This is another film with great NYC locations and takes what would seem to be an absurd premise. What if someone hijacked a New York City subway car? The movie moves along at a great pace and, though the humor sometimes borders on cheesy, is a great deal of fun. Walter Matthau plays the transit cop trying to get to the bottom of it all and Robert Shaw is the mastermind behind the heist. The film is filled with great and believable performances but I’m going to focus on these two. I mentioned earlier that Shaw has been a real find for me on this list. He’s a much smarter character here than he was in The Sting and, most likely, more dangerous. He doesn’t have to say much or even really raise his voice for you to know that he is to be taken seriously. This is Matthau’s third of four performances on the list, but his span from the beginning to the end. His performance here is solid and holds the movie together and is really responsible for selling the final moment of the film when he figures everything out. Ultimately, though this certainly shows the seedier side of New York when it was at its seediest, Matthau actually is convincing as a good New York cop who takes his job seriously and makes justice prevail.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

1974(Part 1)

If anyone’s actually paying attention to such things, my apologies for the delay. I have no excuse but my own procrastination and poor time management skills. Wow. All those big words sound so much better than lazy. So on to 1974.

1974 brings us twelve titles, many with familiar names to those who have been reading this or, indeed, anyone who loves cinema. All but three directors for this year have appeared on the list before, two of whom appear twice each and delivered what to this day are considered some of the finest works of their respective careers. At the time of this writing, its been over three months since I’ve seen some of these, so I think I’m going to abbreviate the pithy ruminations and just dive right in. Not that I’m not up to the task, but I’m eager to get started.

Blazing Saddles was released in February of 1974 and is director Mel Brooks’ second appearance on the list. My earliest recollection of this film is an edited for television version. If you’ve ever seen this film, you can well understand that this hardly counts. I think the first time I saw it in its full glory was at the Victory Theatre(for more on that venue see my Lion in Winter entry from 12/25/10). That was probably around 1986 or 1987. I also saw it a few(more than five and less than ten) years ago at the Film Forum on a double bill with Young Frankenstein(more on that later). Lynne joined me for this one. She had fond memories of viewing it repeatedly in her youth on an early home video device. She was so familiar with it she was practically giggling before the gags in anticipation. And, of course, Blazing Saddles is full of gags. I often think that really good comedy doesn’t benefit from a great deal of deconstruction. What always impresses me the most about this film is its anarchic spirit. Brooks constantly plays with form, throwing in anachronisms, having characters occasionally address the camera directly, and eventually turning the entire town into a set. I think I’m actually going to leave it there as I’m feeling very selfconscious about finding anything original to say about it. But it’s always an enormous pleasure revisiting this one.

I’d never seen this or any other adaptation of The Great Gatsby, released in March, starring Robert Redford in the title role, directed by Jack Clayton, and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. I remember being assigned to read the book in high school, never really connecting with it, and, as I wasn’t a Redford fan at the time, having no desire to see a film of an overrated novel starring an overrated actor. Now, I have much more respect for the actor and, having seen the film, a keen interest in revisiting the novel. Though I have to admit, I found the film, though watchable, somewhat unremarkable. Months later, I’m a little fuzzy on why. Mediocrity is always harder to pinpoint than extremes. I should, however, give the film credit for at least giving me some idea as to why the book is so popular. It certainly didn’t ruin the story. With all the beautiful photography and the elegant settings, I think that some may gloss over the fact that Gatsby is, at heart, an exposure of the fallacy of the American dream. Gatsby, or Gatz as we later find out is his real name, is a selfmade millionaire. From the time he was born to a small rural family, he was determined to transcend his station. And when he fell in love with a rich girl named Daisy Buchanan(Mia Farrow), he became even more determined, learning how to talk like them, dress like them, eventually throwing lavish parties that they all attend just to catch her attention. Though she married someone more of her station, the two reconnect and resume their romance. All the while her husband Tom(Bruce Dern), is having an affair with a woman beneath his station(Karen Black). Eventually everything goes sour when Farrow runs over Black with Gatsby’s car and lets everyone believe it was Gatsby. Tom then spreads this myth to Black’s grief stricken husband, who finds Gatsby, shoots him, and then turns the gun on himself. Having let the lower classes take care of each other, Tom and Daisy are free to continue to be terrible shallow rich people and will continue to destroy lives of those lesser than them. Not limiting these attitudes to merely Tom and Daisy, all those who were more than happy to come to Gatsby’s parties, drink his booze, eat his food, and partake in the merriment, none of them showed up at his funeral. I especially liked the touch that Gatsby retained his soul throughout. When his country father shows up, he doesn’t have a harsh word to say about him, indicating that Gatsby was kind to the end and took care of his family. My friend Matt B. mentioned to me that his take on it after reading it recently was that it was the story of a man moving heaven and earth for a woman who wasn’t worth it. He’s not wrong. But it seemed to me that Daisy was a metaphor for something larger. We want to believe that Americans can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become anything they want, but the truth is that the true power is wielded by the ones who were born into it. You can acquire as much wealth and property and business as you want. You can even be elected President of the United States. They might even go to your parties and invite you to theirs. But unless you were born into their club, they’ll never truly forget that you’re not one of them, and, in fact, are always eager to point out evidence that you’re not. This may be the “land of opportunity,” but make no mistake, there are limits.

Lynne joined me for The Conversation, a film that started off a remarkable year for Francis Ford Coppola. It’s remarkable not just as an achievement of filmmaking, but as a demonstration of what promise and versatility Coppola seemed to contain. The Conversation adds to the theme of paranoia in the ‘70’s where everyone is trying to eavesdrop on everyone else and everyone assumes they’re being eavesdropped on. In this world, they’re usually right. Unlike Klute, which was a character study masquerading as a thriller, this is a character study with a genuinely thrilling plot. According to Ebert’s review, Coppola said he was influenced by Antonioni’s Blow Up, where a photographer obsessively studies his photos for clues. In this film, a professional surveillance expert repeatedly goes over the details of an audio recording in a similarly obsessive manner. Said expert is Harry Caul(Gene Hackman, in a brilliant performance), who has been hired by a powerful eccentric to follow two people and record their conversation. Over the course of the film, we follow Harry as he tries to piece together the mystery, and as he does, we get to know this tightly wound, sometimes unassuming, and deeply troubled individual. The character study aspect is somewhat slowly paced and requires patience. Fortunately, Hackman is always fascinating to watch. From their previous work, both Coppola and Hackman certainly well known for showier work, most notably for The Godfather and The French Connection, respectively, so its great to see how skilled they both are at something more subtle. As noted before, the plot pays off as well. I lost count of how many times the titular conversation is repeated, as it’s often fragmented. It’s heard so many times that one might think that the context and meaning is absolutely clear. But the end brings a twist that puts everything into an entirely different context and, indeed, made me want to watch it again right away. I didn’t, but I wanted to. Not surprisingly, this was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to Godfather II. Surprisingly, it lost Best Sound to Earthquake. And even though I’ve never seen that film, I will buy anyone a beer who convincingly makes a case for me that Earthquake was a greater achievement in sound. Ah, the Academy.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Update

I’ve decided to become less focused on numbers. Not that I’m saying goodbye to them altogether, but this will likely be the last where they are referred to as much. This project began on October 19, 2010. That was 165 days ago. The project was 100 films. I screened the 100th title on the 155th day. Which brought me to 99 titles due to a delay in shipping. The title that brought me to 100 was 91 on the list which I screened on the 163rd day. I’ve written about 72 titles and have 28 to go, some dating back more than 40 days ago. I still have every intention of writing about all of these titles but if my memory or interest seems fuzzy, I intend to be upfront and clear about that. After all, the rule I still cling to the most is that there are no rules. A few of you have asked me what’s next. I don’t know. At present, I certainly have no plans for nearly anything as structured. Unless, of course, someone offers me a challenge that I find compelling. At the moment I’m more focused on getting through the end of this one. And, as it’s early April, finishing my taxes. But I will get to 1974 when I get to it. And I’ll get to the rest as well. Sometime afterwards. Thank you for your patience. And if you’re really impatient you’ve probably stopped reading this. And why on earth would I write to someone who’s not reading?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 146, 1973(Part 6 of 6)

I think I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Sting over the years, on television and such. In any case, not enough for this not to feel like a new experience. I knew that it was about con men, which is something I generally enjoy. And I remember that it repopularized ragtime music, specifically Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I’m pretty sure there’s a direct link between this film and the fact that my cell phone came with that particular ring tone. This is Robert Redford’s sixth appearance on the list, Paul Newman’s fourth, and reunites them with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director, George Roy Hill. Overall, I found this to be a very pleasant film and more consistently entertaining than Butch and Sundance. Though, with all the truly great films of 1973, I was a little surprised to find it was the big winner at the Oscars that year. Redford plays Hooker, a small time con man, who inadvertently stumbles across a big score, which in turn gets him into deep trouble. Through various connections he gets hooked up with Orndorff(Newman), who takes him under his wing, hides him, and introduces him to grifting on an altogether higher and more elaborate plane. The plot is not so complicated that its difficult to follow, but it would take entirely too much effort to summarize it here in greater detail than I have already. Their mark is Doyle Lonnegan(Robert Shaw), a temperamental and powerful Irish mobster with a violent temper. Watching this made me realize I’d seen very little of Shaw’s work. Perhaps his memorable turn in Jaws(to be addressed later) made me think I’d seen more. In any case, his presence and intensity is undeniable. In every scene he’s in, I found him both utterly watchable and terrifying, as he suffuses every line and facial expression with the sense that he could explode at any moment. This makes his scenes with Newman especially delightful as Newman is completely fearless and deliberately pushes his buttons. I also really enjoyed the scenes where they were putting the operation together, the most elaborate set piece being a gambling parlor, where everyone but Shaw is essentially an actor, including the announcer narrating the races(Ray Walston). As they were setting it up, it was reminiscent of putting a play or a film together, with the sets being built, the costumes distributed, and the roles being cast. I especially remember chuckling a bit when one man, after interviewing for a “role” and being “cast,” is told, “Go pick out a suit,” and he goes to what is essentially a large costume rack. It’s all a great deal of fun even when I was able to see certain twists coming. Though I mentioned that it may not be on a par artistically with some of the other achievements of 1973, it’s great entertainment and certainly worth checking out.

As I mentioned before, Lynne joined me for the final title from 1973, The Exorcist. I’ve seen this one a few times, at least once or twice on video, as well as the extended version several years ago at the (sadly now closed) Astor Plaza theater in midtown Manhattan. So I was glad to have some fresh eyes with me as Lynne had never seen it and had, in fact, built it up in her mind a great deal. The Exorcist is the story of a young girl named Regan(Linda Blair), the daughter of Chris MacNeil(Ellen Burstyn), a movie star shooting a film on location in the Washingtom D.C. area. Subtly at first, Regan starts displaying erratic behavior that blossoms into full blown demonic possession and is subsequently in need of an exorcist. Father Merrin(Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras(Jason Miller), are brought in to free her of the demon. They succeed, but at the expense of Karras’ life. What I found particularly remarkable about the film was the realistic tone it takes. I listened to a bit of William Peter Blatty’s(who wrote the book and subsequent screenplay) commentary on the creative process. Though there were no doubt creative embellishments, this story has its basis in an actual case. The embellishments were mostly due to the extreme secrecy of the Catholic Church and their refusal to assist him in a non-fiction book he wanted to write about the case. It’s clear that Blatty is a believer, but the documentary approach he takes to the subject matter speaks to a rational world that either believes such things don’t happen or that they only happened in Biblical times. As such, both believers and non believers can appreciate the film. Believers should appreciate and recognize the world they live in and what would happen if such a thing happened in present day. Non believers should be able to suspend their disbelief as the world of the film is rooted in reality. Even Father Karras, the younger of the two priests, doesn’t seem to believe that such a thing could be possible. There is such a buildup that, aside from a prologue set in and shot in Iraq, Merrin, the exorcist of the title, doesn’t show up until the last half hour to perform the ceremony. The scenes of Blair in full possession mode are so powerful and shocking its easy to forget how little of the running time they actually consume. William Friedkin directed this one, his second on the list after The French Connection. He’s another director who, though it seems he’s never really stopped working, never really lived up to the achievement of these two titles, though these two contributions alone certainly give him a notable place in cinematic history. This is Burstyn’s third appearance on the list, though she’s always so memorable it feels like more. I mentioned previously that Lynne, though she enjoyed this film, had been expecting something more shocking. I’m inclined to think that she’d seen the most gruesome stuff on clip shows over the years and had assumed that what she hadn’t seen was much worse and more prevalent in the film. I’m envious of the people who saw this film having no idea what to expect. All that being said, I think the film certainly packs a punch. Though this would probably sound strange to audiences in 1973, it seems admirable in its restraint compared to the typical gorefest horror films today. The scenes of a little girl in horrendous blistered makeup projectile vomiting and spewing out lines like, “Fuck me Jesus” and “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” would have been numbing if used in excess.

Well, that’s 1973. I’m ridiculously backed up on this. I’m a week or so away from finishing the viewing process, but I have a backlog of about 17 titles that I haven’t written about. Ah well. It happens as it happens. Part of the process I suppose. I hope to get back here with part one of 1974 soon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 145: 1973(Part 5)

The Last Detail is director Hal Ashby’s second title on the list and Jack Nicholson’s fifth. I’m pretty sure I saw it many years ago on VHS and enjoyed it, but my memory of that is so hazy that this might as well have been the first time. The story concerns two Navy lifers, “Bad ass” Buddusky(Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall(Otis Young) who have to recruit a wet behind the ears recruit named Meadows(Randy Quaid) across several states to a military prison. His crime is that he tried to steal $40 from a charity box. His sentence is eight years. At first, the older sailors are all business, trying to figure out how to get the kid where he’s going as quickly as possible while trying to pocket as much of their per diem as they can. But as they draw him out, they start to sympathize with him. Of course, they’re far too career conscious and aware of the consequences to even consider helping him to escape, but, mostly at Buddusky’s urging, they decide to show the kid a good time for his last few days of freedom. The journey begins modestly with getting drunk in a cheap hotel room and moves on to New York City where they meet some hippies, go to a party, and eventually take Meadows to a whorehouse where he loses his virginity. As they get closer to the end of their journey, the reality of the situation begins to set in. Meadows is so young and weak, a harsh military prison will likely break him. But they have no choice. And when Meadows makes one pathetic run for it, Buddusky doesn’t hesitate in running after him and apprehending, slapping him around a bit in the process. The only satisfaction in the end is when an officious paper pusher at the prison(Michael Moriarty) tries to hassle them about something not being in order, they viciously put him in his place and get out of the jam. Obviously, this is a bit of a hollow victory. Nicholson is great as always, playing a character significantly different than many of the previous films. Though he has an independent streak, he is, for the most part, comfortable with playing by the rules, and even seems to crave the structure that a military lifestyle provides, admitting that his addiction to the life is probably why he couldn’t stay married. Young is effective as well, but Quaid is quite a standout as a guy who towers over everyone but is completely intimidated. He’s been given a raw deal, but he’s the sort of person who is madly accepting of everything thrown his way, almost apologizing for existing. I mentioned that Ashby’s previous work, Harold and Maude, was clearly and unabashedly antiwar. If this represents Ashby’s personal views, he plays them close to his chest in this one, which is entirely appropriate. This is a much more realistic film, though also centered in its characters. It doesn’t take much to highlight the extreme absurdity of some of the things in the military, obviously with this kid’s life getting ruined for one stupid mistake as well as the ridiculous rivalry between Navy guys and Marines in one absurd sequence where they beat the shit out of some Marines in a train station bathroom just because they can. These things merely serve as the backdrop and Ashby allows all the characters truth and dignity, even allowing the hippies to look a little ridiculous. Mulhall, for instance, who is black, is grilled by a young girl at the party about the lack of black officers and his defense of it, though seemingly a rationalization, doesn’t make him look silly. One young man at the party seems determined to stand on his metaphorical soap box while a young woman(Nancy Allen) seems so bowled over by Buddusky’s raw macho charisma that she suddenly loses interest in politics. This was a highlight and I’m glad I saw it again.

Papillon is director Franklin J. Schaffner’s second title on the list, Steve McQueen’s second, and Dustin Hoffman’s fourth. I have a vague recollection of starting this movie a few times in the distant past but never getting especially far. I always attributed it to not being in the right frame of mind, or I started it too late at night, or something like that. I was actually looking forward to it. I know Steve McQueen is greatly respected and I need to see more of his films to really understand his appeal. Not that he was bad here, but I haven’t been especially fond of either of his titles on the list. Papillon is essentially a prison film, though it makes the prison in Cool Hand Luke look like a day at the beach. Ironically, there actually is a beach here as the film is set in the prison on Devil’s Island. Papillon(McQueen) and Dega(Hoffman) are two Frenchmen sent to the island prison. As Dega is small, weak, and rich, he realizes that he may not last long without protection, so he strikes a deal with Papillon. Papillon will keep Dega safe and in return, Dega will finance any escape attempts for Papillon. The rest of the film is essentially Papillon being obsessed with escape. Perhaps the most interesting part in all of this is his long period in solitary confinement as it truly underscores the brutality of the place. At one point late in the film, they seem to realize they’re repeating themselves and speed up the storytelling process. At one point we’re treated to a montage in which it appears he’s succeeded and then he’s caught again. He goes back into solitary and, rather than show us again, it skips to him getting out. At this point he’s given a cottage with relative freedom very near Dega. They’re both pretty broken by the process at this point and seem to be shuffling and a bit senile. Dega has basically accepted his lot, but Papillon is still obsessed with escape. He comes up with a plan that essentially comes down to jumping off a cliff into the water and floating on a burlap sack filled with coconuts to a free island. Dega can’t go through with it, but Papillon insists that it will work. The last shot of the film has Papillon floating on his coconuts and cackling that he “beat the bastards.” Of course, this all looks so absurd that the assumption is that he will drown or get caught. But we’re told by a postscript that Papillon indeed floated to safety and lived the rest of his life a free man. I didn’t know whether to feel cheated or just lied to. Apparently, this is somewhat based on a true story, though there have been elements to this story that have been challenged. But, ultimately, I don’t care about the veracity of the story as much as whether the movie can make me believe it. And it didn’t. If this ending really happened the movie owes it to me to make it more plausible or to show me how it happened. After taking me through two and a half hours of this man struggling through adversity, don’t you owe it to me to show me the triumphant escape rather than present it like some halfassed last minute tacked on happy ending? Guess I didn’t care for this one much. I’ve liked the work of many involved with this film. Just not this one.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an admirer of Roger Ebert’s writing style. Though this project has made me more aware of the times I violently disagree with him, I always find him informative and interesting. His review of Sleeper also added an element of time capsule in the fact that it highlights something I had somehow not noticed. As amazing a time as this period was for film, it was not especially fruitful for comedy. Though this would change significantly in 1974, it was certainly true in 1973. His review states, “Sleeper establishes Woody Allen as the best comic director and actor in America, a distinction that would mean more if there were more comedies being made…Mel Brooks only seems to get geared up every three years or so, but Allen is prolific as well as funny.” Of course, this would change with two classic Brooks films in 1974 as well as a group from England called Monty Python, but this really put things in perspective. When I told some friends about the list early on, some openly scoffed at some of the Allen titles, and I’ve acknowledged that the previous title was a little uneven, but in this context it makes a little more sense. Sleeper concerns Miles Monroe(Allen), who went into St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1973 for a common operation, and for some reason, was cryogenically frozen and finds himself being revived in 2173. It turns out that 2173 is a totalitarian society of some sort where everyone is catalogued, so he’s being defrosted by rebels in an effort to use him because the government has no record of him. And I think I’ll stop with the plot description there, because what I’ve written already makes it sound much more complicated than it is. This is Allen in his silly phase, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have a point or two. The authorities are oppressive, but of course the resistance takes itself too seriously. As Miles navigates this landscape, he serves as somewhat of a commentator on the human condition and the absurdity of political cycles. There are a number of hilarious scenes, some of them an homage to silent cinema, but for some reason, I was struck by one scene where, in an attempt to acclimate Miles to his new environment, they attempt to recreate dinner with his parents. Miles takes a left turn and starts thinking he’s Blanche DuBois. While following the “don’t wake the sleepwalker” rule, they start improving a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire with Diane Keaton doing an impression of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. If anyone is reading this and doesn’t get these references, I think that’s kind of my point. And I think you’ll still find the scene funny.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Day 134: 1973(Part 4)

1973(Part 4) I’ve made no secret in previous entries about a bias I have held with regard to some artists. In this case I’m referring specifically to Robert Redford and his frequent collaborator, director Sydney Pollack. But I’ve been trying very hard to keep an open mind and, even when I find the work lacking, to mention positives and be respectful in my criticism. Because even in work that is not to my taste, I have to respect at the very least their effort and body of work. That being said, I freely confess that I was not looking forward to The Way We Were. I’m pretty sure I saw it years ago, probably in high school, and on broadcast TV. I may have even dozed through parts of it. Admittedly I had low expectations. I’m happy to say, though it may sound like faint praise, that The Way We Were, though not without its flaws, wildly exceeded my expectations. The film follows our main characters, Hubbell(Redford) and Katie(Barbara Streisand), beginning in college prior to World War II and leading them into adulthood into the post war McCarthy Red Scare era in Hollywood. Katie is a rabble rousing Jewish Marxist activist and Hubble is a laid back WASP. Initially, she’s wary of him, assuming that with his privilege comes arrogance. She assumes his relaxed demeanour is indicative of smug apathy. But he actually admires her passion and is drawn to her. Katie was written for Streisand by Arthur Laurents and the character contains many of the traits that her right wing critics use to this day to tear her apart personally. She is quite strident and often humorless. A moment that sticks with me is Hubbell recounting a speech she gave at a demonstration where she caught his eye. In the midst of the speech, where she appeared to have the crowd in the palm of her hand, she’s interrupted by a childish prank insulting her. She immediately loses her cool and the crowd. Hubbell points out to her that she could have kept them if she’d just laughed. Katie just doesn’t get it. The only response she can give is, “But it wasn’t funny.” Apparently, Pollack worked hard with Laurents to flesh out Hubbell’s character. After all, if he’s nothing but teeth and hair, half of the story seems pointless and Katie seems shallow for loving him. Though Hubbell doesn’t share Katie’s passion, he certainly admires her for it, but perhaps the undoing of their relationship is that two people with such different dynamics ultimately can’t live together. Though they certainly try. Though some accounts criticize the story for being only marginally political and merely using it as a backdrop, I think it was probably an ingenious way to introduce such ideas to a mainstream audience, albeit in a soft pedaled way. I would be hard pressed to imagine any other film I’ve ever seen where the lead character, unless the film is more about politics than a love story, would be allowed to be an open unashamed Communist. The supplemental materials include some deleted scenes and refreshingly honest moments from Streisand and Laurents. A couple of scenes were cut that indicated that the primary reason Katie and Hubbell split up near the end of the film and immediately after the birth of their daughter is because her past is going to destroy his career. Laurents laments that without these scenes it appears that they part as a result of an infidelity committed by Hubbell. I have to admit, from an objective point of view, that I disagree with Laurents. Having no knowledge of the missing material, it seemed to me that this was an example of two people who loved each other deeply, cared for each other, and respected each other. But they eventually realized that their fundamental differences made it impossible to live together. In this way, the deletions make it more universal. I will also concede that I was a little puzzled by the epilogue when Katie and Hubbell randomly meet in New York years after the split and it becomes clear that he’s completely uninvolved in his daughter’s life. I suppose that the circumstances they originally split under would make that make more sense. But that’s a minor quibble. I probably won’t seek this one out again. But I’m not sorry for the experience.

As noted before, 1973 is easily the most prolific year on the list. Sidney Lumet’s Serpico begins December 1973, the most prolific month on the list with seven titles altogether. Serpico is Lumet’s third of six list titles and actor Al Pacino’s second of four. Though it’s Lumet’s first appearance on the list in nearly a decade since The Pawnbroker, he’s lost none of his edge and, in fact, stands toe to toe with the best vibrant younger directors of this era. Though anyone as prolific as Lumet is bound to have a misstep now and again, I’ve always been impressed that, not only in this era, but even today manages to seem not only fresh and relevant but vital. I’ve mentioned before my penchant for NYC location shooting, but this one is incredible in its depth and breadth of the city. Not only are there dozens of locations throughout four of the five boroughs(Staten Island might as well be New Jersey anyway), but I have an even more personal association than usual. One scene is shot on the N train platform at the Ditmars Blvd. stop which is steps from my apartment, as is Astoria Park, where a scene is shot under the infamous Hellgate Bridge. I’m well aware that there is a degree of narcissism in enjoying things that remind me of my life, but there you have it. Baggage declared. Pacino plays the title role in the real life story of NYC cop Frank Serpico. Serpico is an honest cop. Pathologically so, one might say, though at the risk of making it sound negative. Unfortunately, being a cop with ethics makes it very difficult for him to get along. Corruption runs so deep that he sees examples of it his very first day as a beat cop, such as the local deli owner who gives them free food in exchange for special treatment. Frank tries to look the other way. He tries to abstain. But everywhere he turns he’s drowning in dirty cops and, as a clean cop, becomes a pariah. Eventually, it becomes too much for him and he tries to do something about it. One superior asks him to gather information but never seems to do anything about it. Another has a friend at the mayor’s office but can’t seem to get anything going. Serpico sometimes seems to have the fervor of what it must have been like to be an abolitionist in pre Civil War America. Sure, plenty of people agree with him that the system’s awful, but the overwhelming attitude seems to be “what can you do about it?” In his stringent form of idealism, Serpico bears a lot of resemblance to Katie in The Way We Were, making this a curious companion piece, albeit executed in an entirely different fashion. They both are so passionate as well as being right that they wind up alienating even those who agree with them. Serpico keeps fighting his battles until he’s shot in the line of duty under somewhat mysterious circumstances, shown in the immediate aftermath in the film’s opening and the actual circumstances much later in the film. Serpico survives and is served with a promotion while recovering in the hospital. His response is to resign and move to Europe. In researching this, I came across some more recent information about Serpico. According to the Village Voice, he came back a few years ago to testify about something and spent a little time with the current NYPD. According to him, nothing has changed significantly and it appears that the name Serpico is still a dirty word to cops today. Pacino’s performance is passionate and riveting. On the surface, he has some similarities to Michael Corleone from The Godfather. They both consider themselves to be men of honor. But Serpico is someone truly worthy of admiration. Michael has one encounter with a dirty cop and abandons law and order entirely to loyalty to his family. And, of course, in doing so, becomes increasingly ethically challenged. But Serpico, though it costs him professionally and personally in various and sundry countless untold ways, he sticks to what is actually right rather than retreat to the world of situational ethics. Lumet has a tremendous naturalistic and gritty style that really makes New York in the ‘70’s come alive. My only complaint was that the score, though not overused, tended a bit towards the overbearing. So it was no surprise to me to find that Lumet wanted to do it with no score, but producer Dino DeLaurentiis insisted. Lumet, fearful of having final cut taken away from him, hired Mikis Theodorakis, who agreed that it should have no score, so he tried to be minimal. He didn’t quite succeed, but the effort is appreciated. It doesn’t ruin the movie either, it would just be better if it wasn’t there.

Lynne joined me for Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I think it’s important for perspective to keep these entries in chronological order, but I feel I should point out that I actually saw this after The Exorcist. I only bring it up because I may find it necessary to compare the two. John and Laura Baxter(Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are a couple living in England. In the first scene of the film, their young daughter accidentally drowns in a stream behind their house. In this eerie sequence, John seems to have a premonition of what is going on, but he finds her lifeless submerged body moments too late. The film then moves to Venice where it remains. John is an architect and is supervising the restoration of a cathedral. Laura is with him and it’s clear they’re still processing their daughter’s death. I mentioned his premonition in the earlier scene because it’s a theme that is carried persistently and subtly throughout. Early on, they meet two elderly ladies, one of whom is blind and claims to be a psychic. Laura believes them absolutely when she’s told that their little girl is on the “other side” and wants them to be happy. The woman also has premonitions that John is in danger and, indeed, has the gift of second sight as well. John indeed has visions, but is in so much denial about it he can’t tell the difference between the visions and reality, which is what leads him to the predicted danger and his demise. I realize that these details seem a little vague and perhaps even a bit preposterous. But what makes it work is the subtlety. Unlike The Exorcist, with its tremendous(and undeniably effective) special effects show as it approaches the climax, Don’t Look Now portrays the supernatural in an entirely psychological way, which is why John’s visions are so confusing to him. For instance, he has a flash of his Laura at his funeral procession, which confuses him because he thinks she’s out of town. Now that sounded silly. Trust me, the mood Roeg creates for this film is spellbinding and unnerving. I just realized I almost forgot to mention the intensely erotic and fairly explicit love scene between Sutherland and Christie early in the film, parts of it rivaling Last Tango in Paris with regard to content. As the scene unfolds, Roeg starts juxtaposing these shots with shots of them getting dressed, perhaps showing the dichotomy of how intimate they are while being closed off to each other as well. Okay, that intellectual thing I just said is true, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that the scene is really hot. I think I caught part of this film at a friend’s house on cable or something back in the late ‘80’s and am pretty sure it’s part of what got me to start paying attention to the name Nicolas Roeg. Oddly, in America this one doesn’t have the cult status of some of his better known films like Walkabout or The Man Who Fell to Earth. In England, however, this was named as the #8 film by the British Film Institute of top 100 British films as well as #18 of greatest of all time by the London Times. Maybe it got lost in the shuffle in December of 1973 in the U.S. I will also add that Lynne had never seen The Exorcist and was anticipating it with much more enthusiasm than this film. We watched them essentially back to back. Days later, Don’t Look Now was the one she was still talking about.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day 131: 1973(Part 3)

I know I saw Bang the Drum Slowly years ago on VHS. I remember thinking it was all right, but I felt like I was missing something. Watching it again years later clarified this for me but not for the better. Before I speak my mind on this film, I should say I tried to unearth the appeal of it. I got various responses from my friend Matt B. and found a few interesting avenues from Ebert’s original review. To paraphrase a bit, Matt thought it was a simple story of friendship, as well as a study to deal with slow death, and of course featured some good performances. Ebert points out that it was the first time we really got a backstage look at what life on the road was for a professional sports team. I must admit I also found it interesting to see how much things have changed with regard to the economic structure of baseball. There’s a great contract negotiation scene where the central character, Henry(Michael Moriarty), has to settle for a salary infinitely smaller than today’s counterparts and even has to sell insurance in the off season to make ends meet. It is also notable that this is Robert DeNiro’s first appearance on the list and that he delivers a memorable performance as Bruce, Henry’s uncouth hick of a roommate who, at the start of the film is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Overall, I just found the tone of the film to be disingenuous. The film is framed with Henry in voiceover. The opening bit, paraphrased more than a little for comedic and clarification purposes, goes something like this, “I never liked Bruce. He was stupid, smelled bad, and pissed in the sink. And he was a terrible ballplayer. But then I found out he was dying so I decided to be his best friend.” This is basically the trajectory of the film. The rest of the team essentially viewed Bruce the way Henry used to, but as they slowly discover his secret, they start coming together as a team by being nice to him. This new coming together brings the team victory and they have a winning season. The closing scene has Henry at Bruce’s funeral, telling us in voiceover what he’s learned and that he never “ragged” anyone ever again. So essentially we have a team full of asshole jocks who need one of their teammates dying to be reminded to be decent human beings. And then they’re richly rewarded merely for a normal act of human kindness. I’m reminded of a Chris Rock routine about certain people who boast about doing things that common sense dictates all decent human beings should do, ending with the refrain, “That’s what you’re supposed to do!” Henry’s voiceover is reminiscent of a pushy born again Christian who likes to tell you in detail what a sinner he was in great detail before he came to Jesus. I have to admit, I also have a difficult time watching Moriarty without thinking of his peculiar decline over the years. He developed a reputation for himself, both on stage and screen, and was in the original cast of the long running series Law and Order, appearing in the first 88 episodes. But in the early years of the Clinton administration, he famously had a meltdown, ranting about how Attorney General Janet Reno was trying to shut his show down and shortly after left the show claiming he was fired for his politics. Apparently, he’s continued to work, though in more low profile projects including what appears to be a passion project, a film he wrote and starred in called Hitler Meets Christ(he played Hitler). Of course, Jon Voight is also known for being a bit of a batshit conservative and, though he continues to work in more high profile projects, arguably fell from a higher perch. I can’t help wonder if there are secret meetings between Voight, Moriarty, and others of their ilk who get together, smoke cigars, play poker, and bitch about the conspiracy in liberal Hollywood that robbed them of their careers. What was my point? Oh yeah. Bang the Drum Slowly is not my favorite film of 1973. And I guess I didn’t learn the lesson of be nice to people because they might die. Oh well. On to more worthy subjects.

Mean Streets marks director Martin Scorsese’s first appearance on the list. Thanks to Lynne for joining me. I’m a big fan of Scorsese, though this one took some patience for me to really appreciate. I saw it on VHS many years ago and at the Film Forum sometime in the last 10 or so. The titular streets of this film are located in present day New York City, specifically the Little Italy neighborhood of Lower Manhattan where Scorsese grew up. Though many characters seem like throwbacks to an earlier era, we’re quite clearly we’re in 1973 when, in one of the opening scenes, we see a hippie shooting up in a bar washroom and subsequently being chased away. Perhaps this is a metaphor for these people, clinging to old world values, chasing away the inevitable. But, of course, the people speaking nostalgically of a simpler time are hardly innocents. They may dress well and speak in a courtly manner, but their idea of a more innocent time is hardly the one we saw in American Graffiti. Scorsese was greatly influenced by the verite style of John Cassavetes, though the style is clearly filtered through the lens of Scorsese’s experience. Though there are arcs to characters, story takes a back seat to characters and showing how they exist in this world from day to day. The story, such as it is, focuses on Charlie(Harvey Keitel) and his struggle to find his way in life. Though there are people in the film who are clearly what might be defined as mobsters in a more traditional gangster film, they’re more about atmosphere to define this world. They’re always around, the main characters show them respect or don’t if they’re not bright, but this film isn’t about the movers and the shakers. Charlie has a good relationship with one of them, but he doesn’t appear to have ambitions to be one of them. He just wants to be set up in a restaurant. The biggest thing potentially standing in his way seem to be his friend Johnny Boy(Robert DeNiro) and Johnny’s sister Teresa(Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is a loose cannon who owes money to everyone in town including Michael(Richard Romanus) who seems to be losing patience. Charlie has a secret relationship with Teresa, an epileptic, an affliction the old timer who can help Charlie refers to as “sick in the head.” As Charlie wrestles with his ambitions and his torn loyalties, we follow him and his friends through some incredible location shooting in New York. I was shocked to read that most of the interiors were shot in L.A. and that New York location shooting was all done during one chaotic week. Scorsese makes it all fit together in a remarkably realistic and naturalistic setting. The first time I saw this, I think I found it a little difficult to absorb, due to my youth and the smaller screen. The second time I definitely appreciated it more, but found myself more viscerally connected with Scorsese’s later work. Truthfully, that’s probably still the case to some degree, but this one definitely grows on me more every time. It’s very exciting seeing Keitel and DeNiro here, with the tremendous energy they have individually as well as the chemistry they have together. Lynne and I were both particularly taken with an early scene in the back room of the bar where DeNiro is explaining to Keitel why he hasn’t paid his debts. The whole film is great, but the scenes between the two of them stand apart. I can’t say enough good things about this one. I’m very glad Scorsese finally made it to the list. Looking forward to revisiting his other contributions.

Lynne also joined me for Terence Malick’s Badlands, his first feature length film. His second was five years later. His third didn’t turn up until 1998, 25 years after his debut. I know I’ve read stories about the reasons behind this gap, but I’m unable to access them specifically right now. Apparently, he was and is very meticulous, taking two years to edit his second film. As that was released near the end of this fertile period of creativity in Hollywood, it seems that the 1980’s either had no use for Malick or he had no use for the 1980’s as it existed in Hollywood. Much like Orson Welles, he’s an auteur with a grand vision that, when indulged, can hardly subsist on a shoestring. According to some accounts he overshoots tremendously and then finds the film in the editing room. The good news is that he’s back to releasing a film every few years, including the upcoming Tree of Life. I first saw Badlands some time ago on VHS and was happy to revisit it. Loosely based on a real life murder spree perpetrated by Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate in 1958, Malick changed the names of the characters to avoid a potential lawsuit. This also allowed him creative freedom to shape the story how he wished. I don’t know how 1973 audiences viewed the film, but, having little specific knowledge of it, I never really thought about what was real and what was fabricated as I had no difficulty accepting the reality of the film for what it was. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play Holly and Kit, the standins for Starkweather and Fugate. The story is fairly simple. Kit, a troubled 25 year old romances Holly, a not especially bright 15 year old. Her father(Warren Oates) disapproves and Kit kills him. They leave town, hiding in various cities, killing whoever gets in their way, always narrated by Spacek’s flat emotionless voiceover. Sometimes characters who do terrible things are played as over the top cartoon villains. Some, as mentioned many times in these entries, are occasionally portrayed in sympathetic ways or at least in ways that try to get us to understand their point of view. But Kit and Holly, especially Holly, just seem kind of disconnected. Kit likes to come up with justifications with why he has to kill people, but when Holly begins to object, it seems less out of distaste or horror and more that she’s grown tired of the routine. This portrayal, rather than demonizing or romanticizing, just lets it speak for itself. It’s a far cry from Bonnie and Clyde. Sheen and Spacek are great. I saw this in early February, but am writing it just as Sheen’s son, Charlie, is having a famous meltdown, giving bizarre self-confident rants about how various self-destructive and erratic behaviors he’s been engaging in are perfectly sensible. I can’t help seeing a similarity between that and his father’s portrayal of Kit, who always has some odd version of “I meant to do that” in everything he does. I would be remiss in not mentioning how beautifully shot the film is. A long section of the film has Kit and Holly essentially reverting to childhood and living in a treehouse which includes many beautiful shots of the pastoral setting scored primarily to Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” used prominently in many subsequent films, such as the early ‘90’s young lovers on the run film, True Romance. Malick really is a visionary and though I can’t always wrap my head around his visions, this made me want to revisit some of his other films.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 121: 1973(Part 2)

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was released in May of 1973 and featured real life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as Depression era, con artist team, and possible father and daughter Mose Pray and Addie Loggins. It was one of two films that year that featured remarkable performances by young girls, in fact Linda Blair of The Exorcist(to be covered shortly in another entry) and O’Neal were both nominated for Oscars. O’Neal won and, in fact, was the youngest winner in history in a competitive category. It was also one of two high profile films about con artists in the Depression, but The Sting(also to be covered later) was the big winner. As mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and wish more of his work lived up to the promise of that film. I know I’ve seen bits and pieces of this film, but sitting down to watch it I realized I hadn’t ever really seen it. Though it didn’t strike the same chord with me as Picture Show, I certainly enjoyed this film a great deal and appreciated its artistry. Mose is a fairly small time con man. His main scam is posing as a door to door Bible salesman, convincing recent widows that their late husbands had placed orders for personally embossed editions. Through a quirk of circumstance, he is recruited into driving recently orphaned 10 year old Addie across country. As it turns out, not only does she serve as a more than adequate prop for his schemes, she seems to have better instincts for the game than he does, though she’s also inclined to take bigger risks. There’s not much story beyond that. On paper it’s pretty much a formula road picture. Two mismatched people forced together through circumstance to spend time together until an arbitrary task is completed. Over the course of the story they develop a begrudging affection for each other and discover that, though neither will admit it, they actually need each other. What makes it unique is the approach towards telling a Depression era story. In his insightful review, Roger Ebert points out that most stories of this era are either just about the Depression or ignore it altogether in favor of escapism. Paper Moon combines the two by taking a standard formula that we know but not ignoring the tragedies around them, including the untimely death of Addie’s mother that sets the plot in motion. We even see that Addie, ruthless as she is, will not take advantage of a mark that has been left with multiple mouths to feed. And when Trixie Delight(Madeline Kahn) enters the story as a love interest for Mose, she’s accompanied by a young African American girl named Imogene(P.J. Johnson) who, due to circumstances, 70 years after the Civil War, is for all practical purposes her slave. These reality checks aside, Paper Moon is still a great deal of fun. Though I’ve never been especially fond of the elder O’Neal, he’s effective here and has great chemistry with his daughter. Bogdanovich is fond of long unbroken shots here which require enormous discipline from his actors. This makes Tatum O’Neal’s performance that much more remarkable. She avoids many of the pitfalls that child actors fall into but for a 10 year old to play a multiple page scene from beginning to end a feat in and of itself. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Laszlo Kovacs, though not the cinematographer for Picture Show, a frequent collaborator with Bogdanovich and cinematographer for a number of other films on this list. It’s been speculated that Bogdanovich’s ex wife, Polly Platt, though credited mainly with production design and costume design for his films, was a collaborator of sorts and was in part responsible for the success in the early part of his career. Though their marriage broke up during Picture Show when he left her for Cybill Shepherd, she continued to work with him through Paper Moon, perhaps even convincing him that a father daughter story would be a good choice as they had two daughters together. One wonders what other great works would have come of the partnership if they’d continued to work together.

I’m pretty sure I had heard of The Day of the Jackal. At least I’d heard the title. Beyond that, it was completely off my radar, and so I must thank Mr. Clooney for bringing me to it. It starts, in perhaps a too lengthy voiceover, by telling us the circumstances we’ve been brought to in 1973 France. A homegrown terrorist organization has formed opposed to President DeGaulle’s policy in Algeria. After showing us some of their general mayhem and how well financed and organized they are, a presidential assassination plot is hatched. They’re to bring in a foreign mercenary(Edward Fox) with a good track record as he’s most likely to stay under the radar. Under the code name “The Jackal,” we see him methodically plotting his course, planning various false passports, disguises, etc. Eventually, the police catch wind of his scheme, bring in their own expert and, just as methodically, begin hunting him down. The film takes its time and doesn’t resort to tricks or gimmicks to build suspense, but rather takes an almost documentary style approach in letting events unfold. The Jackal, though seductive when necessary, doesn’t operate in a particularly sexy way. He’s just very thorough as is his policeman counterpart in France, Inspector Thomas(Tony Britton). At one point, Thomas uncovers a leak in the police department as a result of a phone tap, he’s asked by one of his colleagues, “How did you know it was him?” Thomas responds that he didn’t. He just had all of their phones tapped. And, yet despite his thoroughness, staying on his trail at almost every twist and turn, the plan almost comes off. The naturalistic documentary style makes the film all the more chilling, making it seem that if one were determined and resourceful enough, someone could not only pull off an assassination of this magnitude and get away with it. I can only imagine how this might have seemed to audiences in 1973 after the spate of high profile assassinations in the ‘60’s beginning with JFK in ’63. The film is actually set in summer of ’63, several months prior. The Day of the Jackal has a lot in common stylistically with The French Connection as well as Z, to some degree. Not only do they have stylistic similarities, but they all show how difficult it is for good people in the system to make sure that right will out. Though Z is more about internal corruption, they all show how what is rotten within can always sabotage even the best policework with the most noble of intentions.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are often cited as bringing an end to the New Hollywood era. Or at least Star Wars and Jaws are. They ushered in the summer event film that opened wide and made it more difficult for smaller director driven films. Though when I call these films small, I’m using the lexicon of today’s cinema as many of these films, though seemingly small and idiosyncratic, were financed by studios and were huge hits, both critically and commercially. In any case, Spielberg and Lucas were certainly part of this movement and Jaws, which will be discussed later, is actually on the list. Lucas, though today he is best known for the sci fi and special effects empire that Star Wars created, made a small film in 1973 with a cast of mostly relative unknowns about teenagers in a small town called American Graffiti. I saw this film years ago on VHS and remembered most of the plot points. It takes place on one evening in late summer of 1962 as two friends, Curt(Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve(Ron Howard), are preparing to go off to college on the other side of the country. The date seems to have been chosen as the moment before American innocence. There was barely a glimmer of what Vietnam was to become and it was more than a year before the Kennedy assassination. In a small California town, 1962 was less the beginning of the ‘60’s than the end of the ‘50’s. The plot is scarcely worth recounting as it’s essentially a slice of life film. Though against the backdrop of the loss of America’s supposed innocence, it’s more specifically about the characters as they all feel on the precipice of moving on with the next stage of their lives, some resisting and some pushing too hard, but emerging the next morning feeling a profound shift, though no doubt the faux profundity the cloak of night provides will fade somewhat with the dawn, for some more than others. This film was essentially as I remembered it and I enjoyed it. As with several titles on this list, it took the trend of using popular songs of the era rather than a traditional score to a whole new level, though some of the supplemental material provided with the disc oddly takes credit for inventing this approach that had been around at least since Easy Rider. There are also a lot of good natural performances here, notably the first really significant role for Dreyfuss. I realize I’m struggling at this point because as much as I admire the work here and think that it achieved what it set out to do, I guess it didn’t especially move me. This is more due to personal taste, though, as well as recent viewings of films with similar themes that I liked better, specifically, a film I’m risking over fetishizing, The Last Picture Show, and in a more peripheral way, the upcoming Mean Streets. American Graffiti digs just as deep as it intends to and in a different mood or a different setting I might appreciate it more. I certainly wouldn’t avoid seeing it again. But I’m unlikely to seek it out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Day 110: 1973(Part 1)

As I write this, I’ve made my way through just over half of the films of 1973. Though still the most prolific year on the list, there are 16 rather than 17 films. Thanks to Matt B. for catching my error. One of the first things that struck me as I started to work my way through these selections is that there seemed to be a large number of period films, some nostalgic and some more realistic than had been seen during the era they represent. It has been said, though, that films of a certain era often reflect the era they were shot in whether or not they are set in it. A perusal of the remaining titles reveal, an eclectic mix of past, present(1973’s present that is), and even the future. Enough stalling. Here’s 1973.

The Long Goodbye is the third Robert Altman title on the list. I saw this a few years back, as I recall, on a substandard VHS copy and have been curious to revisit it ever since. Though technically not a period film, it essentially places a character from another time into the present. I don’t mean it’s a time travel film, but the lead character just doesn’t seem to fit in 1973. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, The Long Goodbye features the character Philip Marlowe(Elliott Gould), a character that from 1944 to 2007 has been featured in 15 films and television shows, perhaps most notoriously played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, but also by Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Powers Boothe to name a few. Not surprisingly, Altman’s take on Marlowe is like no other. He keeps the character’s basic style and attitude from the ‘40’s but places him in Los Angeles in1973. Marlowe is the kind of guy who puts on a tie to go buy cat food at three in the morning. When he returns, he discovers a friend of his who says he needs a ride. Right away. To Mexico. Marlowe obliges, no questions asked, and returns to be greeted by two cops questioning him about the murder of his friend’s wife. This and several other factors lead Marlowe to investigate the murder, eventually leading to what is almost a twist ending in the fact that the murderer is the obvious choice. But, as usual with Altman, the story isn’t the main attraction. He continues the improvisational feel, the sense that we’re eavesdropping rather than being invited in, and the usual overlapping conversations. I’ve read that, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman wanted Warren Beatty to be constantly muttering to himself, sometimes unintelligibly. Beatty indulged him for a time, but eventually dropped it as he felt it was silly, which is why it’s rather inconsistent in that film. He has Gould do a similar thing here, but it’s carried throughout the film. In the traditional Marlowe films, there’s usually a recurring voiceover, telling us what the man of few words is thinking and guiding us through the labyrinthine plot. This serves as somewhat of an alternative to the traditional voiceover in the fact that we hear his voice almost continuously but is more illuminating of his personality than of the plot. There are a number of good performances here, but I was especially struck by Sterling Hayden, a figure from the old Hollywood days, but making his third list appearance, having previously appeared in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather. Here he plays a towering blustery bearded writer somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway. One of the most memorable moments is when he’s revealed to be all bark and no bite. In another memorable performance, Henry Gibson plays his psychiatrist who shows up at a party demanding to be paid what Hayden owes him in front of all his guests. To bring his point across, Gibson, a slight man seemingly half Hayden’s size, slaps him in the face. Hayden instantly crumbles and retreats to get his checkbook. Altman also does an interesting thing with the score. It’s essentially one song with the same title as the film. It’s not unusual to have different versions of the same theme. Just watch any episode of The Brady Bunch. Or Entertainment Tonight, when they play the mournful version of their peppy theme when listing celebrity deaths. But this film takes it a step further. Nearly, if not all of the occurrences of the theme are ambient sound, from a character listening to it on the radio to the pianist at a dive bar. Lynne watched this with me and pointed out to me that one version was sung by Jack Sheldon, known for his skill as a singer and trumpet player, of course, though admittedly probably best known to our generation as the voice of the “Conjunction Junction” train conductor. But perhaps the most unique version was a passing marching band in Mexico. Altman’s articulation of this idea doesn’t seem to be much more than he thought it might be interesting. And it is.

High Plains Drifter is the only Clint Eastwood title on the list. Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were both curious figures when I was coming of age in the ‘80’s. They both came of age around the same time doing television and both developed personas that became iconic in their own way. But, due in part to my own prejudices and to some of their unfortunate career choices when I was first discovering cinema, neither was someone I would be first in line to see on opening weekend. More about Reynolds when I get to The Longest Yard on the list. I gave Eastwood a chance eventually with Pale Rider, which I found perfectly respectable and I also saw his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me at the revival house in Dayton I’ve mentioned before. It was well made and an interesting story, especially as I believe I saw it after Fatal Attraction, so it was interesting to see the parallels. But mostly my impression of Eastwood at the time(the only time I really knew) was that he was a limited actor who had gone to the Dirty Harry well one too many times. I’m glad to say that as Eastwood, though occasionally acting in films, has eclipsed his acting career as a renowned director. Maybe eclipsed isn’t the right word. But he’s rightly acclaimed as a director and if someone from another planet were introduced to his work strictly as a director, that career is much more nuanced and, though sometimes uneven, prolific, sometimes brilliant, and completely stands on its own. I’m also glad to say that I’ve come around to realize his gifts. High Plains Drifter, though only his second film as a director, shows that he must have been paying attention to the great directors he’d worked with. It’s been a long time since I saw Misty, but this film seems to have a much more assured directorial hand. Of course, his familiarity with the genre no doubt helped him relax, but this is hardly a standard genre piece. In fact, in its own way, it’s almost a subversion of the genre, though in a very different way than his 1992 film, Unforgiven. The Stranger(Eastwood) quietly comes into a small town in the Old West, the townspeople eyeing him suspiciously as he rides his horse down the thoroughfare. First stopping by the saloon and then the barber’s, he shoots three men who attempt to ambush him and shortly after rapes a woman in the stables. The sheriff comes to see him the next day, not to charge him for his crimes, but to hire him to protect the town from some criminals who have just been released from prison and are out for revenge. The Stranger resists until he is told he can have anything he wants. Thus begins the downward spiral where he essentially destroys the town in the guise of saving it. He loots all the merchants saying he needs supplies. He makes Mordecai(Billy Curtis), the town outcast because he is a little person, sheriff and mayor. He eventually does brutally murder the three criminals, but destroys the town to do so. The three men had whipped their previous sheriff to death while the town watched and did nothing, some of them having actively participated in this, others complicit in their inaction. In any case, the Stranger seems to have been sent to punish all those responsible. As the Stranger leaves town, Mordecai says to him, “I don’t believe I know your name.” The Stranger responds, “Yes you do,” and rides off as the camera pulls in for a closeup of the dead sheriff’s tombstone, perhaps implying the Stranger has the same name. Apparently, the original screenplay explicitly named him as the sheriff’s brother, but Eastwood changed it to keep it deliberately vague, implying a supernatural element. I must admit, making the character an avenging ghost or demon works best for me. Only such a figure would be imbued with the knowledge he seems to possess about what these people deserve, particularly where it comes to the rape scenes. But maybe that’s just my 2011 mentality. After watching this, I mentioned in an online forum how much I liked it. A childhood acquaintance, Matt L., who apparently identifies as conservative, ribbed me for my affinity towards the film, suggesting that I might be leaning right in my dotage. This struck me as odd because, though filled with Old Testament style vengeance, it really takes a low view of the residents of what could be seen as small town America. When Lars Von Trier covered similar ground in Dogville, he was accused in many quarters as being anti-American. After all, doesn’t Sarah Palin tell us that those who live in small towns are supposed to be more noble and represent the “real America?” All this made me realize the film was even better than I thought. Perhaps even a bit of a Rohrschach test of sorts where people of all different political persuasions think it’s speaking to them. Though John Wayne apparently didn’t think so. For years, Eastwood had wanted to do a western with him, but Wayne reportedly refused to after seeing this film. According to reports, he disapproved as this wasn’t what the Old West was supposed to be about, or words to that effect. As Eastwood was taken by surprise, it makes me think that the political overtones are merely happenstance. He was just trying to tell a good story and succeeded magnificently.