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.

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