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.

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