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!

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