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.

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