Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day 100: 1972(Part 3)

Lynne and I sat down to screen Jeremiah Johnson as the second of a daylong triple feature on Day 86 of this project. Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford in the title role, this beautifully shot film is based on the true story of a man drawn to the wilderness and the life of a mountain man in the mid 1800s. He learns how to survive and thrive in the environment and, at first, lives in peace with the native Americans, but eventually becomes their bitter enemy. This is a curious example of how the western was, depending on whose perspective you follow, in its death throes or evolving. The original cowboy and Indian western always depicted the Indians as cartoonish savages. Eventually, we came around to films like Dances with Wolves, depicting the other extreme where all the natives are noble and precious. The latter interpretation is, of course, well intentioned, springing from justified cultural guilt, but almost does the natives a disservice by deifying them rather than depicting them as real people who are sometimes noble and sometimes savage, just as their oppressors are, though, admittedly, the European invaders certainly bested them when it came to savagery. Jeremiah Johnson is a curious connective tissue between these extremes. We see their nobility and we see their unforgiving savagery when their trust is violated. Jeremiah’s reaction to this is to come back at them with savagery ten times over, in what seems like the destiny of any white man entering into this situation. He may begin with the noblest intentions. Or even less perhaps. Maybe he just wants to live off the land peaceably and be left alone. But invariably he gets sucked into the conflict that his forefathers started and, all too predictably, when push comes to shove, takes the side of those with the skin that matches his. One might say his actions are justified, but really, when it comes down to it, he never should have been there in the first place. Though this academic reading of the film is fascinating, I found the film to be less than compelling. As noted before, the scenery is breathtaking, but the actual execution of the film is less than compelling and reminds me of what I like least about Redford and Pollack in other works. No matter how much of a beard he’s sporting(which he shaves off at one time for reasons that left me scratching my head), he always seems just a little too coiffed for his surroundings. On top of that, we both felt that, aside from the situation, there was nothing inherently interesting about Jeremiah himself. Periodically he would run across other colorful characters who would enliven the situation for a few scenes and then go away, leaving us with sullen dull Jeremiah again. One thing I found curious about the films of 1972, at first, was that films with intermissions seemed to be going out of style. Though every title on the list previous to this year with a long running time had an intermission, The Godfather, with a running time of two hours and fifty one minutes, did not. Jeremiah Johnson, on the other hand was just under two hours with an intermission. And it felt like it needed it. The repetitive nature of the story combined with the lack of a compelling central character just left me wanting more. That being said, I appreciate the contribution this makes to the evolution of the genre, and I look forward to seeing other works on the list by Redford and Pollack that I’m able to connect with more.

The King of Marvin Gardens reunites the BBS team from Five Easy Pieces of director Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson as David Staebler, a mild mannered Philadelphia based radio personality. One day, he gets a call from his brother Jason(Bruce Dern) about some kind of a deal that he needs his help with, but he needs him to come to Atlantic City. David reluctantly goes and finds that his brother, a fast talking hustler, is keeping company with some questionable types(himself included) with regard to business and shacking up with Sally(Ellen Burstyn) and her young stepdaughter Jessica(Julia Anne Robinson). It becomes clear early on that Jason’s schemes are less than he makes them out to be and things continue to spiral downward and eventually lead to tragedy. I’m not being vague to protect plot points, but because the plot really isn’t the point. In a sense this is a continuation of the antiheroes featured in many of these films, or perhaps a subset of the category I’ve heard referred to as “beautiful losers,” which may or may not be a reference to the book by Leonard Cohen. These are characters that have little going for them, are perhaps leading lives of quiet desperation or worse, and things at the end of the journey are either less well off or basically the same as where we came in. But because of the actors who inhabit them, they are always compelling, a word I may be on the verge of overusing. Though perhaps not as continually engaging as Five Easy Pieces, this is film is definitely worth seeing for a number of reasons. Nicholson was apparently originally on deck to play Jason, but he and Rafelson wisely chose to have him play the more introspective and quiet character, not only to further showcase his range but to put someone intrinsically interesting in the role. While viewing this, I was trying to figure out what it is about Nicholson that makes him so watchable, whether he’s playing someone openly volatile or someone notably less choleric. I think it has something to do with his intelligence. It’s what all the characters seem to have in common. Even when he’s not saying much there seems to be a lot going on. He is given a few key scenes where we’re able to get just enough insight into what makes him tick without spelling everything out. Primarily it’s in scenes with him at work, delivering confessional monologues over the radio, but there’s also one great scene where we find out he really does believe in his brother. Or at least he wants to. Dern is also great and immediately recognizable as that manic guy who always has a million great ideas and may have a few that actually have potential, but he oversells it so much that it all sounds like bullshit. To continue with the beautiful loser theme, the entire film is set in Atlantic City during the off season. All the tourists are gone and the entire boardwalk seems to be sparsely populated by desperate people like Jason and Sally, punctuated by the occasional busload of elderly daytrippers. This one requires a bit of patience, but is worth the investment of time.

I was glad to have Lynne join me for Last Tango in Paris as I’d seen it fairly recently and appreciated the fresh eyes(she hadn’t seen it). I’ve actually seen this on twice on the big screen, first, some 20 odd years ago in Dayton, and most recently in 2008 on my 40th birthday at the Film Forum. Marlon Brando is Paul, a troubled man who has just lost his wife to suicide. He meets Jeanne(Maria Schneider), a young woman who seems to be at a crossroads herself. The film chronicles their brief, intimate, and anonymous relationship. Lynne expressed surprise and acquired increased respect for the film to discover how much more there was to it than the sex scenes. Indeed, the frank depiction of sexuality in the film, particularly the sequence often referred to as “the butter scene” has frequently overshadowed the reputation of a beautiful and thoughtful film featuring what is one of Brando’s best performances in a career filled with great performances. Paul and Jeanne get to know each other intimately, both physically and emotionally, while keeping all details of their personal lives secret. The world they create is a small and precious one containing only two inhabitants with a unique existence that only they share. One of the advantages to watching these films in chronological order is that I had never put two and two together and realized that this and The Godfather came out the same year. If one never saw A Streetcar Named Desire or Apocalypse Now or any of his other work and only saw these two films, the sense of the breadth of Brando’s talent would be conveyed. Schneider is quite compelling as well, but it’s more Paul’s story. I mentioned before that the characters connect emotionally despite their anonymity. Though perhaps it’s not despite, but rather because of the anonymity. When we strip away our names, our backgrounds, our professions, our professed beliefs, everything we’ve been led to believe defines us or how we struggle to define ourselves, aren’t we more likely to get at our emotional cores? Of course there’s always the possibility that removing one mask reveals not one’s true face but merely another mask beneath it. In addition to the great acting and photography, both interior and exterior, of Paris, Gato Barbieri’s score is unforgettable. Though it occasionally toys with becoming overbearing, it’s generally quite complementary without ever telling us what to feel. When watching it I found it to often sound quite traditional and occasionally even veering into what I’d expect from a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score. I’m now playing the film in the background as I write this and I’m noticing other elements including jazz. Though this may sound schizophrenic it all fits. I’m struggling to find any more words of my own, so I’m going to shift to an oft referenced source in this forum, Roger Ebert. I’ve gotten away from referencing him because I’ve been a little disappointed at his less than glowing reviews of some of my favorite films, particularly in 1972. I don’t know why the feeling should be disappointed, but there it is. So in the same sense, I was very pleased to know that he shared my fondness for this one, enough to have written about it in 1972, 1995, and 2004, each time revising and refining his opinion, his esteem rising with each revision. I think that’s all I have for this one.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is the only title in this last chunk that Lynne didn’t join me for. I was looking forward to this as I was unfamiliar with it, had Paul Newman as the main character, who I’ve been enjoying a great deal in this venture, and was directed by John Huston, whose work I’ve always enjoyed. I saw this one by myself, but got a little bit of insight about it from my friend Darryl in an online forum. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It had an irreverent spirit and a quirky sense of humor. In a sense it highlights, through a lens of frontier life, the contradictory, arbitrary, hypocritical, and sometimes entirely subjective approach to what is supposed to be impartial justice. Roy Bean(Newman), a thief, comes into a town bragging of his haul in a recent bank robbery. The residents of the tavern/brothel brutally attack him and leave him for dead. He returns, slaughters all of them, and decides to set up house and declare himself Judge. He will seek out criminals, confiscate their booty, hang them, and live off the proceeds. Along the way he reforms a gang and makes them his marshals, among them Ned Beatty and Bill McKinney, previously seen in Deliverance as rape victim and rapist, respectively. Here they’re on the same team. He also hooks up with a young Mexican girl(Victoria Principal), who eventually has his baby, who is eventually played by Jacqueline Bisset. Periodically, “guest stars”(as they’re listed in the opening credits) drop by to have a colorful scene and leave, such as Anthony Perkins, Stacy Keach(particularly memorable), Tab Hunter, and Ava Gardner as Lilly Langtree. Huston himself even drops in to play a cameo as Grizzly Adams and to saddle the Judge with a beloved pet bear. I mentioned oddly anachronistic song choices in some of these films. The bear leads to a peculiar montage with Newman, Principal, and the bear frolicking about in the woods, sharing a picnic, giving the bear a bath, all while Andy Williams croons “Marmalade, Molasses, and Honey.” I swear I’m not joking. Clearly the scene is not to be taken seriously. It may even be a jab at the similar scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” I guess what I found tricky about this film is that it felt a little scattershot and uneven. Sometimes it seemed to be flat out silly comedy. Sometimes it almost bordered on a serious action film. Other times a satire on frontier justice. Ultimately, I felt it took too sentimental a turn at the end. In a coda of sorts, Lilly Langtree, the Judge’s idol, whom he never got to meet, visits the town years after the Judge is dead, while his former disciple(Beatty) is essentially the caretaker of the Judge Roy Bean Museum. It seems to simultaneously mourn our loss of innocence while acknowledging that the times it mourned weren’t as innocent as we’d like to believe. In a sense, big business and corporate America are the true villains shown running roughshod over the frontier, but Roy Bean’s America isn’t one I’d particularly like to live in either. Darryl supplied me with the following quote from John Huston, “"It was in the fine old American tradition of The Tall Tale, the Whopper, the yarn. At the same time it said something important about frontier life and the loss of America's innocence…There was a breadth and a generosity and carelessness about it that I fostered in the picture. It was an allegory, and the vengeance of the past was interesting to me.... I loved the audacity of the film.” I certainly see this spirit in the film, but I suppose the carelessness, which could be seen as a fresh anarchic spirit, is what resulted in my mixed reaction to the film. By having Beatty, who, in a series of narrators, essentially takes over the narration once he enters the film, speak in a reverent tone about the Judge, I feel Huston is telling the viewer that we should feel reverently toward him as well. It may have a scattershot style, but moments like this felt heavyhanded. I do appreciate the evolution of the comic western, though. Between this and Cat Ballou, I see a direct link to Blazing Saddles, coming up on the list in 1974. Perhaps this is on the list to show the progression.

I’m putting this one out there on Day 100, which was my original very loose goal to finish this project. I would like to be further along, but I’m glad to be past the halfway point. I have a few goals as to when I’d like to have it done by, but I’ve always felt that the best way to sabotage a plan is to say it out loud. I have an intense aversion to having concrete evidence of failed intentions. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the second half of this, especially as I’m entering the most prolific year on the list, 1973, with 17 films, seven released in December alone. Thanks to all who have stuck by this so far and to all those who I may pick up along the way from here to the end. 1973 awaits!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Day 98 1972(Part 2)

I was joined by Lynne for all but one of the remaining seven titles in 1972, giving her the new record for screenings attended. Congratulations, Lynne. The Candidate is the second Redford title of ’72 and is very well suited to his talents. This is also the first of three films directed by Michael Ritchie and the 50th title on the list, officially bringing me to the halfway point on the list. Bill McKay(Robert Redford) is a liberal activist who also happens to come from a wealthy political family. Marvin Lucas(Peter Boyle) is a Democratic strategist looking to make a name for himself. He needs someone to run against a popular incumbent Republican senator. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will lose. But if he picks a good candidate and makes a decent showing it will probably advance his career. So he approaches McKay and talks him into running, essentially telling him that because he’s going to lose he can tell the truth and shine a light on important issues. Things start out well enough. But as the campaign progresses, Lucas is troubled that they’re going to lose by a landslide which could cause him immeasurable embarrassment. Slowly he seduces McKay into losing his soul. Positions are tweaked. Controversial opinions, while not abandoned, are smoothed into palatable sound bites. The numbers get better. Then the unthinkable happens. He wins. The final moments of the film have McKay and Lucas wondering, “what now?” The Candidate is a remarkably sharp and incisive look into the ugliness and shallowness of politics. As the stakes get higher, more and more attention is paid to photo ops, creating good television, etc. I was particularly taken by the debate scene where both candidates are asked about their opinions on abortion. McKay is clearly pro choice. His opponent, Crocker Jarmon(Don Porter) is clearly the opposite. Yet their choice of words is so cleverly crafted that pro choice voters hear enough language to think that McKay’s on their side, anti choice voters hear enough to think Jarmon’s on their side, and people uncomfortable with the issue hear enough nuance to not hear a strong position either way. I wasn’t surprised to see that screenwriter Jeremy Larner worked in politics as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy. There’s an authenticity to this film that some may call cynical, but sadly, feels all too real. I hope my comments regarding Redford in previous posts haven’t come across as too critical. I hope they reveal more about my previously held notions than about his abilities. Because I can’t imagine anyone more pitch perfect for the role. He’s attractive, charming, and intelligent, which makes him perfect to play a Kennedyesque politician on the eve of being discovered. Ronald Reagan, at this point, had been governor of California for several years, so the idea of using a charismatic actor for politics was nothing new. In fact, due to his activism, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Redford has been urged by some to enter politics over the years. I read somewhere(apologies for lack of specific sources) that he had a lot to do with the development of the project so I salute him for his savvy and intelligence in bringing it to fruition. I should also point out that, when I say he loses his soul, the film is very subtle. He doesn’t lose his soul entirely. He changes his message just enough that he believes his core message is still there. But when his activist friends meet up with him late in the film, they congratulate him reservedly, as if he’s infiltrated the system by aping the “bullshit” that they all mocked. Apropos of nothing, I also really liked the way the film implied that McKay was cheating on his wife with very subtle touches. A woman is seen in three separate scenes, always in public, and with no dialogue. There’s no doubt as to the implication, but the film doesn’t need to spell it out. This one is added to my list of welcome discoveries and I thank Mr. Clooney for bringing me to it.

I’ve seen Deliverance a few times. The first time was probably 20 or more years ago on VHS, the next time was likely a few years later, probably on hotel HBO, and the most recent time was likely in the last 10 years on standard DVD. It’s one of my all time favorites and I was looking forward to it and was glad to have Lynne, a first time viewer, join me. Lewis(Burt Reynolds), Ed(Jon Voight), Bobby(Ned Beatty), and Drew(Ronny Cox), are four Atlanta businessmen who decide to take a weekend white water rafting trip. Due to construction projects, the river is about to be unalterably changed, so they view this as their last chance to experience unspoiled nature. The first day, though not without its snags, is basically what they expected, but a sequence of events leaves one of them dead, one sexually assaulted, one maimed, and the other a murderer. All right, the maimed one kills someone too, but it’s a little more clearly justified. In any case, civilization does battle with the elements and, though civilization emerges victorious, it does so with permanent scars. I remember when I saw this before thinking that the characters seemed to break down into archetypes and this notion stayed with me. Lewis is the primitive man, Drew is civilized man, Bobby, though his own archetype of privileged snob, is essentially catalyst for the action, and Ed is everyman. That is, he is the audience surrogate. He has fewer preconceived notions and has to decide how to react. He’s fallible and unsure, even at the end, if his actions are justified. I found this film just as riveting as ever. Say what you will about the 2011 version of him(and I could say plenty), it’s very exciting to see Jon Voight emerging in this period as a true talent. His work in this one is vastly different but equally compelling as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, not to mention his work in Catch 22(despite my misgivings about that film I thought he was very good in it). Burt Reynolds is perhaps the best he ever was, before or since. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, essentially unknowns at the time, distinguish themselves as well. It’s a fascinating story and beautifully shot. Having never seen it on the big screen, it was great seeing the Bluray disc in sharp definition as big as I’ve ever seen it and in proper proportion. Anything I say beyond this feels superfluous. It’s a great film.

It had been a long time since I’d seen Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex(But Were Afraid To Ask). Again, probably many years ago on VHS. Don’t know that I’ve seen it since. I think I was first drawn to Woody Allen after he’d passed his silly period and had entered into more serious work. I think I was more drawn to Manhattan, enjoyed Annie Hall, but thought that it was a little overrated, and thought those that complained that they missed his early funny work were a bit misguided. I don’t think my attitude’s changed much over the years, though I should probably give Annie Hall another chance(I should say there are parts of it I loved and have quoted over the years), and like some of his more overtly funny films that hint at his emerging maturity. This one isn’t quite there but is a lot of fun, if a bit uneven. Thanks to Lynne for joining me for this one as well. This is ostensibly an adaptation of the popular sex advice book of the same name, but is essentially just an excuse to comically riff on sexual themes as well as an excuse for Allen to lampoon a number of styles, from the chamber period film to Fellini to science fiction horror(among others). One of the funniest is a sequence that has Dr. Doug Ross(Gene Wilder), coincidentally(?) the name of George Clooney's character on ER, falling in love with a sheep, though puzzlingly, this is included as a lesson on sodomy rather than bestiality. Not so puzzlingly I suppose. As I said before, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the structure, but it appears to be purposefully so. Clooney clearly has a place in his heart for silly humor and this is a good example, not only of this category, but as a great cultural marker with regard to the acceptable boundaries of humor as they evolved through this period. There are future endeavours that are perhaps more consistent, but this one serves as a good example of the progression.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Day 97: 1972(Part 1)

So I’ve screened all ten titles from 1972 on the list between day 80 and day 93 and am just getting started on entries. I don’t want to give anything short shrift, but I may attempt to abbreviate my thoughts a bit in an effort to plow through. Then again, that may not be possible. We’ll see. 1972 is a combination of some best films of all time that I’ve seen repeatedly, some pleasant surprises that had barely crossed my radar previously, and a couple of mild disappointments. So let’s dive in.

I had never heard of The Hot Rock before I started this project. I can say that of scarcely any other title on this list. I screened this one with Matt B. This was Matt’s first visit to the screening room although we’ve discussed other list titles in an online forum as well as in person. This is one of three titles in 1972 starring Robert Redford. I’ve mentioned my previous reservations about Redford, but this title certainly helps him to grow in my estimation. The plot is fairly simple. Dortmunder(Redford), newly released from prison, is asked by Kelp(George Segal) to organize a heist. They’re going to steal a diamond from the Brooklyn Museum for a wealthy representative of a fictional African nation(Moses Gunn). They put together a four man crew and get to work. Various circumstances lead them to subsequently break into prison, a police station, and a bank in the pursuit of their booty. This one was a lot of fun with engaging performances and a tight plot. The screenplay is by William Goldman and Donald Westlake. Goldman is best known previous to this for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Westlake is better known for a number of dark noirish type films with criminal enterprises. Apparently, this one started out darker, but as Westlake has been quoted as saying, “it kept turning funny.” This one also has some great NYC location shooting and in some locations I hadn’t seen utilized before. Most unique is a shot of the World Trade Center towers under construction. Curiously, the film isn’t so much anti authoritarian, but, as sort of a corollary to what was in Little Murders, authority seems to be neutral or irrelevant. In the various heists, the authorities rarely know what the target is. In fact, when they break into a police station from the roof, they do such a good job at creating a diversion that the desk sergeant is sure that the revolution has come. He seems to have been expecting it for some time. There are no sides to be taken. There is almost an amoral approach. Does it matter who the diamond really belongs to? Is it clear who the diamond really belongs to? After all, we only have the client’s word that he’s the rightful owner. We never hear the other side. Ultimately, the thieves prove to be the most honorable figures in the film. Not to say that they’re especially honorable in their chosen field, but the leaders of the gang(Dortmunder and Kelp) accept their mission and, through various complications, carry it out. That’s ultimately the entire story. But it’s an awful lot of fun getting there.

I’m pretty sure I saw the film version of Cabaret many years ago on VHS. At the time, I wasn’t prepared for how much it differed from the direct source material. By that I mean the Broadway musical that it was purportedly based on. I had seen a community theatre production and have seen it several times since, most recently the Broadway revival several years ago directed by Sam Mendes. Mendes made his vision a bit bleaker than Broadway had seen it before, but in seeing it, I felt he was a little hamstrung by the book, which just felt, well there’s no other way to say this, but too traditional presentational musical theatre. It was tweaked a bit to allow material that had been cut from the original run, but the writing style was essentially the same. But in directing the film, Bob Fosse found a way around this. The musical had been previously represented as a film, a play, and a book. Fosse took what he liked from the musical and instructed screenwriter Jay Presson Allen to go back to the original material, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and recraft the project as a realistic film. With one exception, all songs were performed in the Kit Kat Club, the Berlin nightclub where Sally Bowles(Liza Minnelli) works and no songs were done musical theatre style where people break into song for no apparent reason. I found this especially impressive as Fosse came from the world of musical theatre but apparently wanted to make his mark as a legitimate film director and not just someone making a filmed musical. I don’t want to legitimize the Oscars, but I think its telling that Fosse won the directing award for this over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather(more about that one to come). We essentially see this through the eyes of Brian(Michael York), a young English writer who comes to Berlin in the early days of the Third Reich beginning to mobilize. Sally introduces him to the decadent pleasures of ‘30’s Berlin, forming a rather unconventional relationship, including a mysterious wealthy German that they both have affairs with. Fosse manages to convey what was exciting, seductive, and thrilling about this time, but also never lets us forget the sense of dread and bleakness to the landscape. I’ve never been a huge fan of Minnelli as she’s often verged on self caricature, but she was absolutely spot on perfect for the role at this time. The nightclub isn’t especially glamorous. It feels a bit low rent. Minnelli is an incredible performer with a vivacious personality but, while attractive, is not conventionally so. As such, she’s completely convincing as a huge star in a shithole. You want her to succeed. When she talks about studying acting and becoming a movie star, you want it to be possible. But it seems more to be a line of bullshit from someone who’s so emphatic about her plans because she’s struggling to believe it herself. Even when she gets to sing her big ballad, “Maybe This Time,” it’s late in the evening and the club is practically empty. Because when the club is packed, well, that’s when the money acts get to go. Like mud wrestling. But it’s three in the morning. There’s a couple of guys half asleep at the bar. We’re closing soon. Yeah, let Sally sing that song she’s been pestering us about all night. York provides Brian with a sexual ambiguity that Broadway musical theatre couldn’t go near at the time. He’s portrayed as bisexual, and indeed, he does embark on an affair with Sally, but it seems more because he’s caught up in her infectious enthusiasm. And when Sally finds out she’s pregnant, there’s a scene, fairly close in outline at least to the Broadway musical, where they decide she’s going to keep it and they’re going to get married. In the musical, this feels almost possible. Here, it seems mostly desperate. And when she goes behind his back and gets an abortion, onstage it seems like a horrible betrayal. Here, it seems like the best option. After all, they’d most likely just make each other miserable and sleep with other men, all while Hitler rises to power. Is that really any environment to raise a child in? Though it wasn’t his first work as a film director, I find it pretty impressive that a dancer, choreographer, and stage director, could take a Broadway musical and turn it into a bleak riveting realistic ‘70’s film. I was very glad to see this one again with a little more perspective.

I’m puzzled when thinking what new words I can bring to a discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. When a film scholar is asked what the greatest film of all time, he’s expected to respond with something like Citizen Kane. But the average moviegoer will more often than not say The Godfather. Including the current President of the United States. I’ve seen it a few times. First on VHS many years ago. Then, I believe, in 1997 perhaps, at the same theater in Dayton I’ve referenced before. And then, just over two years ago, the Film Forum had both this and its sequel back to back. So I spent essentially an afternoon and an evening with the Corleones. As I struggle to know where to begin, I also must admit that I remember later in the evening having a conversation that led to my life changing profoundly. Well, not so profoundly I suppose. It was the beginning of the end of my marriage. It happens to people every day, I know. But when it happens to you, it feels profound. I think that’s all I have to say about that. The Godfather is undoubtedly a great film. But why does it strike such a chord with the masses? I guess the theme of family is a big part of it. The quotes I always hear people referencing and the scenes they mention speak of the family admirably. In their own way, they’re as seductive as Alex from A Clockwork Orange. All right, they’re more seductive. Perhaps that makes them even more dangerous. I want to clarify that I don’t think this is Coppola’s fault. I think he takes great pains to show us the worst side of this even while seducing us into half believing these are people of honor. Yes, the horrific scenes of violence are remembered, but often when they’re spoken of, whether it’s an arrogant movie producer waking up in bed with his horse’s head, Sonny Corleone(James Caan) getting riddled with bullets on the turnpike, or Moe Green(Alex Rocco) getting shot in the eye while getting a massage, I never hear of anyone referring to these scenes as difficult to watch. Mostly they just seem to think they were pretty cool. These same people remember lines like “never go against the family.” This seems like a pretty good idea. But people seem to forget that the code of honor these people have can sometimes contradict itself. If Tom Hagen(Robert Duvall), the family lawyer, unofficially adopted Corleone brother, and consigliere had to write a law book explaining the family code of honor, these seeming absolute tenets would have addendums and exceptions. Something like “Never go against the family. In the event a member of the family goes against the family, this rule may be rendered null and void. Extended family, such as those who marry in, may be exempt from this rule. In such an event, having someone else carry out revenge upon said family member will not be seen as directly going against the family, especially if said extended family member has voided family privileges.” Again, I’m not faulting Coppola. Audiences will often pick and choose what they like from a film, often subverting the film’s entire intention. I’ve always felt that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a brilliant subversion of the gunslinger myth, deconstructing the character to represent it as the bloodless assassin that he is. And then people walk out of the theater quoting all the cool lines Eastwood said before he killed everyone. The Godfather is Michael Corleone’s(Al Pacino) journey. He starts out trying to distance himself from the family, intending to live a straight and narrow life, but gets sucked into it in order to protect his father after an assassination attempt. In doing so, he comes face to face with the worst example of how the authorities he’s been trying to respect are horribly corrupt. It becomes clear that a police chief(Sterling Hayden) is deliberately trying to facilitate the assassination and when Michael thwarts his efforts, he physically and brutally attacks him. From that moment on, Michael’s loyalties are clear. It seems like a pretty clearheaded decision. But, of course, as Michael rises to the top and replaces his father as Godfather, he sees these platitudes have a lot of gray area. As he purports to be loyal to the family, he alienates himself from them. Like every dysfunctional father, he convinces himself that he’s doing it for their own good. In the last reel, Michael’s actions distance himself from his brother, his sister, and in the chilling final shot of the film, his wife. Is this where the “code of honor” leads you? This is the story I got from the film and I think Coppola tells it beautifully. I sometimes wish that the time stamp were not visible on my DVD player because I find it distracting. I’m often figuring out how much time I have to get something done or how much time I have left until the end of the film. That being said, I was amazed to really see both the leisurely pace at times and the economy of storytelling in the film. The first scene lasts nearly 30 minutes. Not only are all the main characters introduced, but a strong sense of who they are is conveyed. The assassination attempt happens a mere 45 minutes in. And yet, at that early point in the film(nearly three hours long), I had such a strong sense of the character that I knew exactly what a big deal it was. I think that’s all I have to say about it now. I may have more when we get to The Godfather Part II. I’d better, anyway.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Day 95 :1971(Part 3)

I first saw A Clockwork Orange in one of my previous excursions at the U.D. library(see my M*A*S*H entry circa 1970). I don’t know how it caught my attention, but I’d heard of it. I saw it again not long after at the same theater I saw The Last Picture Show at, probably for a midnight show. In the interim, I bought the video, watched it probably a couple of times, then again at the Film Forum in New York City, probably in, I don’t know, 2000 or 2001. I guess my point is, I was born in 1968 and I somehow managed to see this 1971 film on the big screen at least three times. It’s clearly one of my favorites. On top of that, I’ve read the book, wrote a paper(in high school) on the use of language in it. So I needed fresh eyes. Fortunately, Lynne joined me for this one as well. Whether she added any new and relevant perspective remains to be seen. A Clockwork Orange was directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the novel by Anthony Burgess, and stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, who’s in every scene and narrates throughout in a futuristic teenage slang invented for the novel known as Nadsat, a combination of a number of influences including, but not limited to, Russian and Cockney rhyming. Alex and his droogs(slang for friends) roam the night, stealing, raping, pillaging, and wreaking mayhem in general. There’s tension in the ranks, one of them betrays him, and he’s sent to prison for murder. While there, he volunteers for a special program that will garner him early release. In this view of the not too distant future, prisons are being overcrowded by political prisoners(a subtlety I just gleaned from this viewing). As such, a controversial new technique has emerged, wherein a criminal can be deprived of his ability to commit crime by rendering him paralyzed with nausea at the mere thought of violence. This way, the, in effect, neutered inmates can be turned loose in order to accommodate the true enemies of the state. Alex submits to the technique, is set free, and finds himself helpless in a world where all his victims are able to enact revenge on him, leaving him unable to defend himself. A Clockwork Orange was and still is a controversial work for a number of reasons. Of course, the graphic and stylized rape and violence is a major reason. If any film warranted the X rating, this was it. Some couldn’t get past it. In addition, the film, albeit subtly, invites us to sympathize with Alex and his droogs. Well, not the film in general as much as Alex specifically. He’s very charming, charismatic, and speaks to us directly, in effect making us co-conspirators in what unspools before us. While viewing it this time, I found myself equally conscious of my memories as I was self conscious about the woman on the couch next to me and that she might be horrified and disgusted. For the record, she wasn’t. Or if she was, not enough to turn her off the film. I think some of the outrage over the film is angry at Kubrick not just for asking us to sympathize with Alex, but more so for succeeding. I must confess that I, as a teenage boy, eager to get any glimpse of the unclothed female form, was somewhat titillated by these scenes. The focus on these scenes, though, ignores the larger and harsher political point. The film equally indicts those on the far right and on the far left and offers no solution. The “reformers” want to artificially psychologically and perhaps even physically alter criminals, taking away part of their humanity. The liberals, on the other hand, want to defeat those on the other side, even if it means martyring someone they’re ostensibly trying to protect. Suffering from the effects of his “treatment,” Alex is found by a writer, a former victim of his. The writer is part of a group agitating to take down the conservative government. They deliberately drive him to a suicide attempt, he survives, and then is bought off by the conservatives not to speak ill of them. With all the sniping between the two groups, does it really matter which side wins? The people lose because amid all this, a sociopath is let back on the streets, his pockets filled with cash. Many of the films on this list show the reflection of the time directly, though in his typically timeless way, Kubrick shows a parallel. Much has been said, here and elsewhere about the antiauthoritarian thread running through this era. Much of it is portrayed as benign, and indeed much of it is. Those who wore the hippie uniform were all about free expression and doing your own thing. A laudable tenet to be sure and worthy of praise. But in 1969, some wearing this very uniform were responsible for a horrifying mass murder in southern California. I certainly don’t think this film is, in any way, speaking against the peace movement. But it is, perhaps, telling, that in the rise of challenging the norms, a great deal of violent imagery came to the surface, even if some of it was merely skewed as propaganda to demonize the counter culture. The dark side of antiauthority is anarchy. There’s certainly an element of class warfare in this film. Alex lives in what is clearly a version of the projects and his gang’s uniforms are a parody of upper crust formal wear and, though there’s a brutal scene where the droogs assault a homeless man, their main targets are the obscenely wealthy. All this theorizing aside however, there are many elements that make this a brilliant and entertaining film in addition to being intellectually challenging. There’s the usual Kubrickian attention to detail. Everything’s beautifully, perfectly, and meticulously shot. If Altman makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping on a hypernaturalistic version of the real world, Kubrick always makes me feel like I’m entering his world. Each film, whether it’s in the past, present, or future, is a world distinctly of his own making. All of it comes together with Malcolm McDowell. Kubrick himself reportedly said, “If Malcolm McDowell hadn't been available I probably wouldn't have made the film.” His voice as well as his presence, guide us through, in some ways seducing us into sympathizing with a horrible sociopath. We celebrate his triumphs, mourn his troubles, and at the end we see the workings of his mind as the treatment has been expunged from his system. As visions of future mayhem go through his head, a look of ecstasy appears on his face, and he tells us, “I was cured all right,” we feel his triumph. At least I did.

Harold and Maude brings us back to the more pleasant and quirky signposts of this era. I first saw this in the late ‘80’s on a big screen in Dayton and have seen it at least twice since then, most recently little more than a year ago with Maureen and Justin, who have also joined me for some of the titles in this series. Harold(Bud Cort) is a rich eccentric 20 year old living with his mother. He’s obsessed with death and is constantly staging mock suicides, drives a hearse, and goes to funerals in his copious spare time. Maude(Ruth Gordon) is an 80 year old force of nature, attacking everything she does in life with great gusto, wringing every bit of feeling out of experience. They meet at a funeral and fall in love. Over the course of a week, Maude essentially teaches Harold many things, but mostly how to live. And then she kills herself. Maude seems so sure of herself in everything she does, it doesn’t seem like a contradiction. This is the debut of director Hal Ashby on the list as a director. His work as an editor for Norman Jewison is credited as making Jewison’s work better, represented here by In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. Ashby directed five films in this period. Four of them are on this list. Though similar on a superficial level to The Graduate in the fact that it’s about an alienated youth of privilege and scored by pop music of one artist, it’s as different in tone as Five Easy Pieces is. It is at once dark, obsessed with death, and life affirming. Maude teaches Harold how to appreciate life, in large part by not being afraid to march to your own drummer, something he’s already been exploring, but she helps him to find joy in it. This is also definitely a time capsule film, with a clear anti Vietnam message, though more expressed in peripheral subplots with protestors and Harold’s insanely hawkish military uncle. And, of course, when we see Maude’s house, there’s more than a little of the aging flower child thing there. In a very different way from A Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude essentially creates its own world as well, which is why I was able to forgive and indeed revel in some of Maude’s outrageous actions that would be unacceptable in a more realistic depiction, like stealing cars and of course, her suicide. It’s almost a fable of sorts, taking place in a less realistic parallel universe where Maude is sort of a mythical being, swooping in to open Harold’s eyes and then swooping away when her work is done. Sort of a Mary Poppins for young adults? It’s a very difficult tone to maintain and did not resonate well with audiences or critics upon its release. But it always makes me smile. I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite scene in the film, one I’ve quoted for years. Harold presents Maude with a ring. Maude says, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” and throws it into the ocean. As Harold looks on incredulously, Maude says, “So I’ll always know where it is.” I was recently imparting this story to a young man, perhaps in his early 20’s. I didn’t get to the end of the story. Because when I said she threw the ring in the ocean, he said, “I’d throw her in!” I tried to finish, but he couldn’t get over the disregard for the precious rock. I don’t mean this to be a tirade against the materialism of today’s generation. But it did make me a little sad. I should also mention the great score of Cat Stevens songs. I mentioned at the beginning of this blog about the emergence of jazz scores and more vague underscoring of films. But I haven’t yet addressed on a greater level the use of pop songs. There are songs created for the films that don’t necessarily seem to fit, like The Windmills of Your Mind in The Thomas Crown Affair and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But what seems to work much better is films set in the period they’re made, of the period they’re made, using popular songs of the time. There are a number of these, but Easy Rider really pioneered this. Then there’s the sub genre of using pop songs primarily of one artist to essentially score the film, such as The Graduate, McCabe and Mrs. Miller(though a western, the music still fit), and Harold and Maude. The music of Cat Stevens is almost its own character in the film, and it would be something else entirely without it. Well, that does it at long last for 1971. 1972 looks promising and is coming soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 88: 1971(Part 2)

Thanks to Justin for joining me for the next two titles, bringing his total to seven, the current record. I know I saw Carnal Knowledge years ago on VHS, but I definitely only saw it once. As such, it’s another one of those titles that felt like I was viewing it for the first time. Carnal Knowledge was originally written by Jules Feiffer for the stage. When he showed it to Mike Nichols, Nichols suggested it might make a better film. It’s a great return to form for Nichols after Catch 22 and gives me increasing respect for Feiffer after Little Murders. As much as this list inspires me to explore other works by actors and directors included, these two works make me want to get to know Feiffer better. Carnal Knowledge is the story of Jonathan(Jack Nicholson) and Sandy(Art Garfunkel) following them from the end of high school through middle age, never maturing much in the process. The opening scene is a voiceover as the two boys discuss the prospect of losing their virginity and what they’re looking for in a woman when they go off to college. We immediately jump to them in college in approximately 1950(possibly earlier). At the end of this sequence we jump abruptly forward about 10 years. The final sequence(more of an epilogue than a fully realized act) is another 10 years later, presumably the present. Throughout, we see their struggle and inability to connect with women. In college, they both pursue the same woman, Susan(Candice Bergen), behind Sandy’s back. Eventually, Jonathan realizes Susan will never choose Sandy over him and leaves her. When we cut to 10 years later, Sandy is married to Susan, unhappily, and Jonathan is single. This section focuses more on Jonathan as he finds love with Bobbie(Ann Margaret), whom he truly connects with. As soon as they start to embrace how happy they make each other, they proceed on the path towards making each other miserable. And it all starts with an unseemingly foreboding question from Bobbie, “You think it would be a fatal mistake in our lives if we shacked up?” The answer turns out to be a resounding yes. They move in together. He convinces her to quit her job. Energetic and carefree lovemaking is replaced by shouting matches. And in the height of all this sturm and drang, Bobbie comes up with a solution. They should get married. Because that will fix everything. In the midst of all this Sandy leaves Susan and embarks on a pattern of serial monogamy, alternating between rhapsodizing about how perfect his current partner is until it inevitably devolves into him whining about how he’s unfulfilled. At the end of this section, Sandy’s with a controlling woman who really doesn’t respect him and Bobbie has OD’d. When we cut to the next section, we discover that Bobbie survived her overdose and got her wish. Jonathan married her. They had a daughter. And then they divorced. Sandy is dating a much younger woman(Carol Kane) and Jonathan gets his kicks showing slides of all the “ballbreakers”(re: every woman he’s ever been involved with) to company and in intensely scripted roleplay with a prostitute(Rita Moreno). Though Jonathan may seem to be the worse of the two on the surface, he seems to be much more focused on what he wants and is honest about it. Sandy, on the other hand, seems somewhat delusional. He puts on a passive and weak front and seems sensitive at first but still generally behaves like a shit. He’s constantly telling Jonathan, “You’re such a bullshitter” when he seems to actually believe his own bullshit. He’s the sort of person, in his 40 year old self, to say of his teenage girlfriend, “In some ways she’s actually smarter than me” and actually believe it. Or at least he does while he’s saying it. Some might dismiss these characters as simply misogynist and there’s certainly a degree of that. However, the women don’t come off so well either. Though there are a few stylistic flourishes, particularly in the first section, this is mostly a naturalistic look at communication or lack thereof in relationships between men and women. Frank language and sexuality had certainly come a long way in the five years since Nichols did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and had to overdub a “Screw you!” with “Goddamn you!” Some corners of the United States struggled with this and, in fact, one city in Georgia prosecuted a theater for showing it under the grounds that they were distributing obscene material. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was finally overturned. It probably should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that this is another step in Nicholson’s rise and continued example of how he makes an unsympathetic character compelling.

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show has always been one of my favorites and stands out in my memory as a film that defined, for me, what filmmaking could be. I saw it on the big screen in late 1986 or early 1987. I don’t think I’d ever seen a film as beautifully shot that actually had depth of character. As a teenager discovering what film could be, I was beginning to dismiss Hollywood directors like Spielberg who, in my opinion, were very good at making pretty pictures but had little character depth. Having just discovered John Sayles, I was developing a preference for films that looked cheap but felt real. This was the first film I’d seen that used the visual language of epic filmmaking but felt small and intimate when it needed to. In my modest research efforts and comparing it to the other notable works of the time these are some of the factors that set it apart, even during the new Hollywood movement. Bogdanovich loved movies and had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and, specifically, directorial style. Altman reportedly derisively referred to him as “the Xerox director” as he was constantly referring to which director he was attempting to emulate on each project. In this vein, The Last Picture Show was his John Ford picture. At least it looked like an old black and white John Ford western. But within that frame was a warts and all look at a small town in Texas. This not only included the nudity and sexual frankness that had been showing up first in European new wave films and more increasingly in American films but what is often the quiet desperation of small town life. Though the filmmaking language is different, this town reminds me somewhat of the one Joe Buck left in the opening shots of Midnight Cowboy, including a dying movie theater with a John Wayne movie on the marquee. Now that I think of it, I’m sure that the themes of being in a small town and yearning to escape resonated with me in those years as well. I grew up in Dayton, OH, where I saw this the first time and, no disrespect intended to Dayton, was already plotting my escape. The film shows us the passage of one year, with the primary focus on several young people just graduating high school at the start and, as the year unfolds, realizing the limits of life in this town. In history and civics class, we’re taught that we live in the land of opportunity where we can do or be whatever we want. As the real world emerges, we start to see how few choices we may actually have. Sonny(Timothy Bottoms) and Duane(Jeff Bridges) are stars of the high school football team. Even though it’s a losing team, they’re still celebrities of a sort. Everyone in town knows who they are. Of course, in a town like this, everyone knows who everyone is and who’s doing what to whom. Sonny is depressed and bored and even when he begins an affair with a married woman(Cloris Leachman) it doesn’t seem to quicken his pulse much. Duane finally escapes town by joining the army. Jacy(Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town, is told by her mother (Ellen Burstyn), that her only chance for happiness is escape from the town by finding a man who will take her away from it. Though this may sound depressing and it is certainly languidly paced, the film is never less than riveting. There are many theories as to why Bogdanovich never again made a film quite as accomplished as this one. Over the course of his lead up to this film, Bogdanovich met and befriended many of his idols, including Orson Welles. Apparently in one conversation with Welles, he was lamenting that one of his favorite actresses(perhaps Garbo) had made something like 40 films but only three or four of them were any good. Welles apparently responded, “You only need one good one.”

I was happy to have Lynne join me again for The French Connection. I seem to recall seeing this one years ago. Or at least parts of it. It seemed that it was often on television and was often cited on clip shows, particularly when talking about the best car chases. Aside from these flashes and a few vague recollections about the Mad magazine parody, this one was essentially new to me. It’s another great example of New York location shooting, venturing out beyond Manhattan to spend time in the outer boroughs as well. Popeye(Gene Hackman) and Cloudy(Roy Scheider) are two New York City cops working in narcotics. The film essentially takes us through their routine, focusing on a huge drug deal coming in from France, thus, the “French” connection. This is the first appearance on the list from William Friedkin, another director who burned brightly during this era and has never quite lived up to the promise he showed. To be fair, he’s certainly done work in more recent years, that I’ve enjoyed, but nothing on this level. And I’m certainly reminded of Orson Welles’ words again. Especially as Friedkin had two at the very least. The French Connection has a very authentic naturalistic feel to it. Apparently, New York City police officers were always on the set, sometimes even working as principal and background actors as well as advisors. In the commentary, Friedkin notes that in several scenes depicting testing heroin for authenticity, real heroin was used. One of the primary sources for advice was Eddie Egan who was the basis for Hackman’s character. Aside from the authenticity, the film is shot in almost a documentary style much of the time, letting key plot points out casually in a way that one could almost miss it. As Lynne noted, the film gives the audience credit for being smart enough to pay attention. I’m still not entirely sure of all the aspects of the drug deal. Of course, the reason the car chase is so memorable is because one of the cars is an elevated train in Brooklyn and the whole sequence is integral to the plot. And it’s also extremely well shot and acted. All performances are good, but Hackman’s especially noteworthy. Though he’s certainly not by the book and he often seems to ignore procedure, it always seems to be done in a believable way. He’s not especially arrogant about it, but he does what needs to get done. It’s a great credit to the NYPD at the time that they were willing to not only let, but accommodate such an unvarnished reality. Clearly they were able to see past the seediness and the sometimes questionable procedures and note that, ultimately, cops were the heroes of the piece and it’s a tribute to smart police work. The film has a curious epilogue that reminds me a great deal of Z. In a similar fashion, it wraps up showing the good guys essentially triumphing, with followup text about what happens with each of the characters, e.g., the cops got transferred, many involved got light sentences, some “mysteriously” died, and the main drug kingpin got away. The honest working stiffs won the day, but the corrupt system won out in the end.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Day 82: 1971(Part 1)

1971 contains nine titles, though as I write this, I’ve only seen eight of them. From here on out, each year contains no less than eight, and in one glorious year for cinema, seventeen, so I expect from here on out to have more to say about patterns at the end of the year rather than the beginning. If I have anything to say about patterns at all. After a couple of years dominated by men, 1971 has a real advancement for women’s roles, though two of the most memorable are whores. It also continues great work from directors previously seen on the list as well as the emergence of some new talent as well as the only appearance on the list from Sam Peckinpah. So let’s get this started.

I’d never seen Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders before. Based on his play of the same name, it had flopped on Broadway, had a successful run in London, and then had a new successful production mounted Off Broadway. Elliott Gould had starred in the Broadway production and, using much of the Off Broadway cast, produced and starred in the film version. Though he initially courted Jean Luc Godard to direct it, Gould apparently rubbed him the wrong way when he asked for assurance that he would show up when necessary to make the studio people happy. Godard, by Gould’s recollection, responded, “When my wife and my children ask me if I love them, I tell them to go fuck themselves.” So Gould looked instead to the director of the Off Broadway remounting, Alan Arkin. As far as I can tell, Little Murders was reasonably well reviewed at the time, though New York Times critic Roger Greenspun acknowledges that, after reading the play, he thought it might work better as a creature of the stage. I’m admittedly very curious to read it after seeing this version. This is another great source of NYC location shooting, but has a decidedly more pessimistic view of it even than Midnight Cowboy. Though some are understandably nostalgic for it, New York, by all accounts, was in a state of decline. I would venture to say that it was more than just New York. America seemed to be descending into chaos. On a larger scale, we couldn’t trust our government as it was spying on us and entrenched in an unpopular war. With all these resources squandered, it seemed we couldn’t keep order in the streets. Assassinations of high profile figures were becoming more common. So how could we expect the authorities to keep control of things like beatings, muggings, robberies, random violence, etc. Little Murders takes this and escalates this to a level of absurdity. Gould’s character repeatedly is beat up by street thugs to the point where he doesn’t resist because he knows they’ll eventually get tired. Housewives regard stray bullets damaging their groceries as an annoyance. And over the course of the film, more locks appear on the door and windows are covered with iron shutters. The one appearance by authority is a visit by a detective(Arkin) ostensibly visiting as a followup to a murder investigation revealed as someone who’s been rendered ineffectual and being reduced to slowly going mad as he’s unable to keep order. One of the most frequently used images from the film, and one that many from middle America probably still think represents New York City is Gould on the subway, his face and shirt spattered in blood, while his fellow commuters just do their best to ignore him. Gould is a successful photographer whose current specialty is shit. Literally. He describes himself at various times as an apathist, a nihilist, and an atheist. But he meets a woman who slowly teaches him to care. And as soon as she’s reached him, as soon he manages to open his heart just a little, she’s killed by a random sniper. He moves in with her damaged parents and brother as they descend further into the hell that their world is becoming. There’s a wonderful montage of Gould wandering through the city, seemingly having figured it all out, at peace with his existence somehow. He arrives back at the family apartment to share his secret of enlightenment with his father in law and brother in law. He’s bought a rifle. The film ends with them taking turns happily shooting randomly through a small gap in the iron shutters. It may not be clear but this is a comedy. And it has some very funny moments as Arkin continually keeps things off balance enough to recognize the world as ours while keeping things slightly askew. Feiffer mentions in the commentary that he was depressed while writing it, not only because of the world he was living in, but because he was going through the end of his marriage. This title and the upcoming Carnal Knowledge offer a truly unique perspective and I wish Feiffer had written more for the cinema and theatre. I speak of him in the past tense but I should note that he’s still alive and, according to some accounts I’ve read, going back to writing for the theatre. I’m looking forward to it.

Granted, I haven’t seen all of Jane Fonda’s work prior to 1971, and I shouldn’t treat the list as if it exists in a vacuum, but having seen her delightfully silly work in Cat Ballou and the non list title Barbarella(which, coincidentally I happened to see fairly recently), I was totally unprepared for what she brought to the table in Klute. The title actually refers to Donald Sutherland’s character, a private investigator who’s been brought to New York to investigate a rich businessman who’s gone missing and seems to have a connection to a prostitute named Bree Daniels(Jane Fonda). Fonda’s portrayal is dark and unsentimental. It doesn’t try to explain why she is what she is. Its only look into her psyche is her visits to an analyst, which focuses less on what led her here than on how she can stop, which seems to be her goal. She’s attempting to pursue a career as an actress and model, fields so fraught with rejection outside her control that she seems to stay with prostitution more because she thinks she knows exactly what she’s doing and how to keep ultimate control of the situation. This is almost Midnight Cowboy with an artificial plot thrown in. Some reviews I’ve looked at criticize the murder mystery thriller aspect of it as somewhat lacking but all universally praise Fonda. I suppose it’s valid criticism, but I’m not sure if the thriller is really the point. I think director Alan J. Pakula just wanted to make a film about the life of a prostitute, but threw in the thriller aspect as something to hang it all on. Her performance is inarguably the best part of it and, if an Oscar can ever be considered deserved, she certainly deserved this one, but the screenplay also gives her wonderful scenes to play. This title also gives the first glimpse of Roy Scheider on the list in a supporting role as a dangerous pimp. More about him later. Or sooner. One account lists Klute as the first in Pakula’s trilogy of paranoia, as a significant part of the film involves Bree being recorded and surveilled. The other two points on this triangle are The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, two titles which also just happen to be on the list.

If you read my entry about M*A*S*H, you know I’m a big Robert Altman fan. I’m also a huge fan of Canadian singer/ songwriter/ poet Leonard Cohen. So I was really looking forward to revisiting McCabe and Mrs. Miller, directed by Altman, scored by Cohen songs, and starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the title roles. I first saw this title on VHS, probably in the late ‘80’s, when I was just getting into Altman and before I’d discovered Cohen. The second time was in 1998 at a small very low rent revival house in the East Village called Cinema Classics(now shuttered). The theater space was in the back room of a bar/ coffee house with uncomfortable seats salvaged from a closed Jehovah’s Witness church and projected old style on a two projector system. I say two projector, but only one of them was operational. So every time it came to the end of a reel, there was a brief pause as the new reel had to be put on the projector and threaded. Even so, it was great to see it on a bigger screen with music I’d grown to love. And, as is almost always the case with Altman, it improved with a repeat viewing. I hadn’t disliked it the first time, but I was more prepared for the style, I knew the basic story, and I was able to appreciate the general vibe of it. I didn’t find that I got that much more from it this time out, aside from really appreciating the performances, especially the two leads. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m generally more impressed with Beatty’s accomplishments than his acting. That being said, this is one of his finest and fully realized characterizations, no faint praise intended. It’s hardly original to praise Christie for her beauty, and its certainly a component in what I’m about to say, but she’s one of the most eminently watchable screen presences I’ve ever seen. According to various sources, she’s scrupulous in her preparation and yet makes it look completely effortless. And, of course, there are many familiar supporting faces continued over from M*A*S*H all doing fine work. I may have more to say about this as Altman makes more appearances on the list.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Day 80: 1970(Part 2)

After Patton, we tried to venture out into the aftermath of the storm. It had pretty much subsided, but as the streets and sidewalks were still a mess, we went no further than we had to for dinner and came back to spend our evening watching Catch 22. None of us had seen it before and, quite honestly, we were all a little underwhelmed. Though I’d never seen it, I read the Joseph Heller novel years ago, maybe 1995 or 1996. I thought it was quite good, though specifics elude me. One memory sticks with me though. I was working as an actor at a theme park. One of my coworkers, let’s call him Dean, because that’s his name, noticed the book and mentioned something about the title and that it was a phrase people occasionally used. As he seemed unfamiliar with the book itself, I pointed out that the phrase came into existence because of the book. He insisted it hadn’t. I asked how he thought the expression came about. His response? “It just…uh…evolved.” Sigh. Anyway, I was looking forward to this film. I found it curious that so many of the titles in 1970 were focused on war. It was filled with actors I liked, both in general and specific to the list. And it was directed by Mike Nichols, who I’ve always liked, but for whom this project has given me an even deeper appreciation. The actors are all good. Some of the scenes work well. But it just doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. To be fair, seeing this so soon after M*A*S*H tilts the scales. But, of course, 1970 audiences had the same choice and is likely one of the reasons why it didn’t do well. Nichols himself, according to the book Easy Riders Raging Bulls said, “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch 22. It just cut us off at the knees.” I’ve really appreciated how much more of early Alan Arkin this list has exposed me to and he’s great here as Yossarian, the central figure. The title refers to a clause that keeps his character from being declared insane. His doctor can’t request that he be declared insane unless he asks to be removed from duty because he’s going insane. But if he asks to be removed from duty, he can’t be insane because no sane man would want to do the job, thus, he can’t remove him from duty. My take on the film is that Yossarian is legitimately going insane and that we’re seeing things through his perceptions, even though there are a small number of scenes where he’s off screen. The absurdism with which its presented is actually completely different from the naturalism of M*A*S*H, even though they both have somewhat comic takes on the subject. Clearly audiences were ready for challenging antiwar material as M*A*S*H was not only a critical but a commercial success. I think the reason lies in the fact that, though the war continues and people keep getting shot at, blown up, killed, maimed, and stitched up to go through the whole ridiculous cycle again, there’s an underlying sense in M*A*S*H that small victories are being achieved. Authority figures are constantly being undermined. The bureaucrats and sticklers for procedure are repeatedly bested and in the end our “heroes” get to go home. In Catch 22, it seems rationality never has a chance. The odds are stacked against us. The targets are broader and more ambitious. It not only takes on war but capitalism, in a sense taking on the entire military industrial complex. Using World War II as a frame is especially bold as it’s always the war that’s held up as the good war, the noble war, fought by the “greatest generation.” If even that war can be held up to the mirror of absurdity, what’s left? I greatly respect all these intentions, but I have to admit this. I was constantly enthralled by M*A*S*H. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t really connect with Catch 22. I will probably watch M*A*S*H again. And I might read Catch 22 again. But I probably won’t watch it again. To give Nichols credit, I’d rather see three great films(I’m including the upcoming Carnal Knowledge) and one noble misfire than four mediocre yet watchable films.

My parents tried to leave town Tuesday night. Their flight was cancelled. They tried to leave Wednesday morning. The airline bribed them to wait 24 hours. So on Wednesday night, we wrapped up 1970 with Five Easy Pieces. My dad and I both thought we had seen it before. I’m still pretty sure I did, though it was many years ago on video. My dad thinks he may have been confusing it with Carnal Knowledge. In any case, I was very glad to revisit this one as most of my memory of it has faded. If Easy Rider got Jack Nicholson noticed, this one solidified him as a star unique to the era and, obviously, one who has maintained and perhaps transcended it since. Nicholson plays a young man working in a California oil field. It’s clear that he doesn’t quite belong there. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, but he scoffs at the whole notion of getting up every morning to go do a job you hate. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that he comes from a wealthy family of artists and had been expected to follow in their footsteps. He developed piano skills but for reasons that are never quite clear, he abandoned it, perhaps to seek an existence among a more grounded world. But he doesn’t really fit in there either. He clearly has some affection for his waitress/ country singer wannabe girlfriend, but he constantly mocks her, cheats on her, and seems to be trying to drive her away. He enjoys hanging out with his buddy Elton, but when told that his girl’s knocked up and he should “do the right thing,” he dismisses his pal as a redneck living in a trailer. We see him trying and failing in the working class world for the first part of the film. Then we see him with his family. Though he alternately mocks them and tries to get along, he clearly doesn’t fit in there either. At the end of the film, we see him abandoning both of these lives to try something else similarly uncertain and likely just as unsatisfactory. Whatever’s wrong seems to be within him, which neither he nor the audience can discern. It’s a credit to Nicholson that he’s able to make such a character compelling and sympathetic, continuing with the antihero theme noted before. It occurred to me that this would be an interesting companion piece to The Graduate as Benjamin seemed similarly lost, though somewhat more inert. They both come from wealthy families with their paths mapped out for them and both have this indefinable yearning for something else. Of course, Benjamin comes from more of a business background, more often connected with conservatives or Republicans. Nicholson’s character, Bobby, comes from artists, more traditionally liberals or Democrats. But what these two sides have in common, aside from money, is that they both represent different sides of the establishment. Antiestablishment is more of a general term than merely the conservative side. To take things a step further, Bobby even seems to be aware of the emptiness of being antiestablishment in a general sense. The most frequently referenced scene in the film, often called the “chicken salad scene” is one where Bobby tries to order toast in a diner, concluding in him ordering a toasted chicken salad sandwich, and the waitress should hold the chicken salad “between her knees.” Rarely quoted is the following scene where a hitchhiker he’s picked up congratulates him on taking a stand. Bobby notes, “But I still didn’t get my toast.” Within the new Hollywood movement, Five Easy Pieces was especially significant as it marked the progression not only of Nicholson’s career as, by some accounts, he was getting a little disillusioned and possibly ready to hang it up, but as a progression of the brilliant but short lived producing organization BBS Productions, who made a splash with the previous list entry Easy Rider. BBS was run by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner. Nicholson was their star player. As a director himself, Rafelson(who directed Five Easy Pieces as well as upcoming list entry The King of Marvin Gardens) had immense respect for directors and supported their visions. Well, that does it for 1970. On to 1971.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Day 73: 1970(Part 1)

1970, like 1969 only brings four titles to the list. Three of them have a war theme and one cements the reputation of a rising star of the era. My parents joined me for all of the 1970 titles, most of which we had all seen previously, though, of course, they were the only ones who had seen them during their original release. The war films are set in Korea and in World War II, but being released in 1970, they were all, in some form or another, about Vietnam. In addition to having my parents for all four, I was also joined by Lynne for M*A*S*H. She was supposed to be present for the first screening some 70 odd days ago, but, due to a situation that I’m not going to detail here, was unable to join me for a list screening until now. It was nice to finally have her here and I hope she’s able to join me for a good deal more.

In addition to being obviously thematically joined to the other 1970 titles as well as the era in general, M*A*S*H marks the debut of director Robert Altman on the list. I’ve long been an admirer of Altman, though I don’t think I quite got the film when I first saw it as a teenager. Maybe I was expecting something more like the long running television series of the same name. I saw it again a few years later. Some of my early encounters with modern classics involve living nearby to the University of Dayton(Ohio) growing up. In my high school years I often went to their library when researching term papers as they had a more scholarly collection than the public library. On one of my visits, I saw a flyer about a weekend screening series involving many films I was curious to see. Soon, “going to U.D. library to study” became my excuse to see films. One weekend, they showed a plethora of Altman films because Altman himself was coming to speak. I not only attended all the screenings(M*A*SH, Nashville, and California Split), but went to see him speak as well as field questions and answers. I have no idea why he was speaking at a university with so little film cred, but I was grateful for the opportunity. This was before his resurgence(I use this word rather than “comeback” as it was a word Altman himself rejected. His scale may have changed, but he never stopped working despite riding various waves of popularity and lack thereof) with The Player. Most of his work was concentrated on adaptations of stage plays and he was talking about doing an adaptation of The Diviners but was meeting resistance as he couldn’t find financing unless he gave it a happy ending. I appreciated M*A*S*H more this time out though I had a hard time connecting with the other two. I don’t think I’d seen anything like his work, and the more I saw his films, especially on repeat viewings, the more I appreciated them. Conventional wisdom tells us that if you can’t get a film on its first viewing then the director hasn’t done his job. That’s sometimes true. But Altman is so subtle and naturalistic, there’s so much more to see once freed from the burden of following the story. I haven’t seen all of his films more than once, but I always feel rewarded when I do, even with a “lesser” film like The Gingerbread Man, a film I saw twice just a few weeks apart upon its release in 1998. I still think, not to damn it with faint praise, the best John Grisham film I’ve seen. All this baggage declared, I still was not prepared for how much M*A*S*H would impress me in the context of the list. There is nothing in any of the preceding 33 titles on this list to prepare me for the style of this film. Though Altman has said there’s nothing original about his form, that everything he learned he learned from studying the masters, when filtered through his sensibilities, there’s nothing like him. Though formerly blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for his screenplay, the dialogue is mostly improvised(though some accounts dismiss this a myth, all interviews on the supplemental materials back this account up, including Lardner himself). Though Altman had been around for awhile, it was mostly television work and what impact he made was largely negative, not due to the work, but because of his style and his ability to alienate bosses. According to Altman, there were a few other big budget war films(including upcoming list title Patton) and his main strategy was to fly under the radar, in large part by working as cheaply as possible. No doubt this was part of the strategy for hiring so many literal unknowns in the film, over a dozen listed in the opening credits as “and introducing”(movie lingo for making their film debut). The fewer stars attached, the less attention he got, and, of course, had less of an impact on the budget. The cinematography, the sound mixing, and the spontaneity involved made it feel in some ways almost like a verite documentary, and yet the few obvious punch lines in the dialogue still ring true because they’re not delivered like punch lines. I could go on and on about this one, citing the brilliant use of graphic operating room scenes, without which the crude behavior wouldn’t make as much sense or underline the absurdity of an existence where the main characters spend all their time stitching up people so they can go out and create more death and dismemberment. I think I’m going to save more of that for my entry on Catch 22, because I think the two deserve side by side comparison. I should add that all my guests thoroughly enjoyed it as well, my father in particular remarking on how many memories it brought back. All in all, a nice way to spend Christmas.

On December 26 and 27, New York City was hit with something like the fifth worst snowstorm in its recorded history. So instead of taking my parents out to spend time with the city, we sat down on a snowy afternoon to watch Patton. This was the big winner on Oscar night, though a surprising number of winners, either on purpose or otherwise, didn’t show up to collect their awards. George C. Scott, in the title role, demurred deliberately as he found competition among actors to be demeaning. As noted in my introductory remarks, war movies in 1970 were implicitly about Vietnam. Roger Ebert, in his 2002 review remarks that the film “…was described by many reviewers at the time as "really" an anti-war film. It was nothing of the kind.” I see where Ebert’s going with this, but “nothing of the kind” is a bit of a stretch. Francis Ford Coppola, a name you’ll be seeing a lot in upcoming entries, wrote the first draft of the script long before it was produced and is given co-credit with Edmund H. North, who he never worked with directly. In his opening remarks on the disc, Coppola said, that in writing the screenplay, he took pains to appeal to both those who thought Patton was a genius and hero and to those who thought he was a right wing maniac. As a result, he came up with a work that combined those two sides brilliantly. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film acts somewhat as a Rorschach test for political leanings. If you think Patton was a gung ho insane bloodthirsty hawk, well you’ll find plenty to back that up. But if you think he was a brilliant military strategist who was hamstrung by bureaucrats, well that’s there as well. He’s presented warts and all. In fact, its implied(in the world of the film of course) that the Germans respected Patton more than his own commanders, in the sense that in several scenes the Germans can’t possibly consider that Patton’s location could be intended as a decoy as they couldn’t be squandering such a tremendous military talent. I can’t help but bring up comparisons between this and M*A*S*H, as Patton definitely has his parallels with the procedural wonks Hot Lips Houlihan(Sally Kellerman) and Frank Burns(Robert Duvall). There’s also a similar dynamic in the way the two different approaches clash in both films. In M*A*S*H, those who insist on decorum and procedure are routinely mocked, ostracized, and in Burns case, literally driven to madness. Though Patton’s methods are treated with more respect in the sense that it’s suggested he whipped a lackluster army into shape, there’s definitely a sense that the audience is supposed to think he’s going too far. In the most direct parallel, he insists that all hospital personnel wear helmets. When it’s pointed out to him that they can’t use their stethoscopes, he suggests they add earholes. This nuanced approach allowed Scott to truly shine in the role. In a sense, though he is considered to literally be a hero, this lets Patton stand with the antihero tradition that suffuses so much of this list. I don’t know if it’s the combination of a young screenwriter and old school director, cinematographer, and composer, but this film looks and feels like an old style epic while constantly surprising with the substance involved. I found it especially interesting contrasting the visual style between this and Altman’s film. Though this was shot on many locations, most of the interiors felt, due I’m presuming to the lighting and setup, like a set. Altman’s film was shot entirely on a Hollywood backlot but felt like a location.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Day 72: 1969(Part 2)

My feelings about Midnight Cowboy parallel many of my feelings about Easy Rider. I first saw it on video around the same time, saw it again not long after, and I don’t think I’ve seen more than the occasional clips since then. I still think it’s a brilliant film with remarkable performances, but I didn’t experience a great deal more than I did on initial viewings, aside from the incredible location shooting of 1969 New York City, not a high point in beauty for the city, but great to see nonetheless. Joe Buck(Jon Voight), in continuing peripherally with the western theme noted earlier is a young Texan who has decided that his lot in life is to go to New York City and make his fortune having sex with rich women. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t as easy as he had assumed. Much like immigrants who came to America believing the streets were paved with gold, Joe isn’t quite ready for big city living. The clients never materialize. His first(Sylvia Miles) hustles him out of $20. Even when he hits a low and decides to let what he assumes to be a young rich kid(Bob Balaban) blow him, it doesn’t pan out. One lowlife named Rizzo(Dustin Hoffman) even swindles him out of much of his cash to meet an alleged pimp who just turns out to be a batshit Bible thumper(John McGiver). When Joe stumbles across Rizzo(whom everyone calls Ratso, much to his chagrin), he’s homeless, penniless, and at the end of his rope. Though he’s ready to throttle him, Rizzo makes peace with him by offering him shelter in a dump that he’s squatting in. These are the people who live on the margins in New York City and it follows them as they scrape, not even to get by, in the conventional sense, but to keep breathing. Ratso literally has a problem with the latter and after Joe scrapes together enough cash by dubious means to get them a bus ticket so he can get them to a climate that might improve his health. But it’s too late. Ratso dies in his arms on the bus, leaving him as alone if not more than he was when he arrived from Texas. Curiously, this is the second title on the list which ends with Dustin Hoffman on a bus, presumably trying to improve his life, but with less than positive results. Though, to be fair, this makes the ambiguous ending of The Graduate look positively uplifting by comparison. Another similarity this one has to comparison is that it’s a great time capsule, in this case of ‘60’s NYC. Hoffman made quite a splash with The Graduate, but this must have established him as someone who could do just about anything, as the crippled lowlife Ratso Rizzo couldn’t be a further cry from Benjamin Braddock and garnered him his second Oscar nomination. Voight is compelling and memorable as well, especially considering that it’s basically his story. The film is filled with flashbacks that tell just enough without spelling out all the details of his damaged psyche. As noted in the intro, this is one film that shows that even Oscar voters(in some categories anyway) were ready for challenging material that showed the most lowly and seedy parts of society. Despite an unpleasant subject matter, it was nominated for seven Oscars and won three for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. On top of that it was initially rated X, one of two X films in history to be nominated as such. The curious thing about Midnight Cowboy is that, despite this, the vast majority of the film can, by today’s standards, be shown on broadcast television. I can’t say the same for the other title, A Clockwork Orange. How many times have I brought that title up? Is it obvious I’m looking forward to it?

On Dec. 24, my parents arrived and they were game enough, through their slightly extended stay(due to a blizzard in NYC) to join me for the next five screenings, including the next title on the list, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As noted earlier, 1969 was a strange year for the western as a genre. True Grit was more a relic of old Hollywood, The Wild Bunch was groundbreaking in its portrayal of graphic violence in the genre, and this film, in the words of critic J. Hoberman, “insouciantly trashed the genre’s remaining moral pretensions.” Watching this one brought Bonnie and Clyde to mind more than once, most specifically because it portrays a version of real life events and people, also buying into(or perhaps commenting on) folk legends about them. And, of course, Butch and Sundance are similarly charming, witty, and doomed. I mentioned earlier about the mix of movie stars and new talent present on the list. Paul Newman was an established star with, apparently, the soul of an artist. Always recognizable as the star that he was, he seemed to gravitate towards more challenging material. Redford is an even more curious figure. Though he’d been working fairly steadily for nearly a decade, this is the film that made him a star. Unlike more quirky stars like Hoffman and Nicholson, Redford had more of the conventional qualities that could have made him a movie star in any era. I must admit, when I first found myself being drawn to acting in my teens, I had a hard time understanding his appeal. Admittedly, I was more dazzled by chameleons like Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, and as far as my generation goes, Sean Penn. I always found Redford to be rather bland. I should say that as I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate him on many levels, though at this point, more as a producer, humanitarian, and the founder of the Sundance Institute and film festival. He’s got a lot of titles on this list, many of which I haven’t seen, and I’m looking forward to giving him a closer look. I saw this film on video for the first time just a few years ago and enjoyed revisiting it. Newman has his usual easygoing smiling charm and Redford plays it a little more sullen than in a lot of his work, sort of the tightly wound angry straight man to Newman’s clown, and their chemistry is undeniable. The film has a jokey tone with a fatalistic underpinning. I was particularly impressed with the sequence, criticized for its length by some, where they’re pursued by a “super posse” consisting of some of the best known lawmen of the time. Though they’re named in a later scene, the choice to make them faceless was inspired. When they emerge from their hiding place you mostly just see the hooves of the horses. When seen pursuing, they’re shot either from a distance, from behind, and other obscuring techniques. They almost serve as Butch and Sundance’s past chasing them. It comes out later that the super posse is costing the banker more than the money they’re protecting. Screenwriter William Goldman mentions in one of the accompanying interviews that this was actually true and he included it because it was so unusual. But it doesn’t seem that unusual to me as it is indicative of what a rich man will do to, not to hold onto his wealth, but to hold onto his power. Though we’re told that anyone in America can scrabble to the top, those that are already there will do whatever they can to push you back down. You may be able to best them occasionally, but their deep pockets and entrenchment with the powers that be will win out every time. I realize that this may make it sound as if I’m buying into the myth and sympathizing too much with characters that even some of their accessories in the film refer to as “two bit thieves.” Though it romanticizes them and shows how much everyone likes them and is charmed by them, it never shies from the truth of what they are and what their eventual fate will be. Katharine Ross, as Sundance’s girlfriend, eventual accomplice, and surrogate mother to them both, periodically repeats, “I’m not going to watch you die” and, indeed, vanishes just soon enough to avoid it. I also want to salute the innovative storytelling techniques involved, first with the opening newsreel, and more notably, with a transition scene in the middle. When the three decide they’re going to move to Bolivia, there is a shift showing their trip to New York and eventual departure entirely through a musical montage showing only a sepia toned series of still photographs. Overall, this one doesn’t quite rank with the best of these as far as I’m concerned, but I found it very enjoyable nonetheless.