Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 121: 1973(Part 2)

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was released in May of 1973 and featured real life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as Depression era, con artist team, and possible father and daughter Mose Pray and Addie Loggins. It was one of two films that year that featured remarkable performances by young girls, in fact Linda Blair of The Exorcist(to be covered shortly in another entry) and O’Neal were both nominated for Oscars. O’Neal won and, in fact, was the youngest winner in history in a competitive category. It was also one of two high profile films about con artists in the Depression, but The Sting(also to be covered later) was the big winner. As mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and wish more of his work lived up to the promise of that film. I know I’ve seen bits and pieces of this film, but sitting down to watch it I realized I hadn’t ever really seen it. Though it didn’t strike the same chord with me as Picture Show, I certainly enjoyed this film a great deal and appreciated its artistry. Mose is a fairly small time con man. His main scam is posing as a door to door Bible salesman, convincing recent widows that their late husbands had placed orders for personally embossed editions. Through a quirk of circumstance, he is recruited into driving recently orphaned 10 year old Addie across country. As it turns out, not only does she serve as a more than adequate prop for his schemes, she seems to have better instincts for the game than he does, though she’s also inclined to take bigger risks. There’s not much story beyond that. On paper it’s pretty much a formula road picture. Two mismatched people forced together through circumstance to spend time together until an arbitrary task is completed. Over the course of the story they develop a begrudging affection for each other and discover that, though neither will admit it, they actually need each other. What makes it unique is the approach towards telling a Depression era story. In his insightful review, Roger Ebert points out that most stories of this era are either just about the Depression or ignore it altogether in favor of escapism. Paper Moon combines the two by taking a standard formula that we know but not ignoring the tragedies around them, including the untimely death of Addie’s mother that sets the plot in motion. We even see that Addie, ruthless as she is, will not take advantage of a mark that has been left with multiple mouths to feed. And when Trixie Delight(Madeline Kahn) enters the story as a love interest for Mose, she’s accompanied by a young African American girl named Imogene(P.J. Johnson) who, due to circumstances, 70 years after the Civil War, is for all practical purposes her slave. These reality checks aside, Paper Moon is still a great deal of fun. Though I’ve never been especially fond of the elder O’Neal, he’s effective here and has great chemistry with his daughter. Bogdanovich is fond of long unbroken shots here which require enormous discipline from his actors. This makes Tatum O’Neal’s performance that much more remarkable. She avoids many of the pitfalls that child actors fall into but for a 10 year old to play a multiple page scene from beginning to end a feat in and of itself. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Laszlo Kovacs, though not the cinematographer for Picture Show, a frequent collaborator with Bogdanovich and cinematographer for a number of other films on this list. It’s been speculated that Bogdanovich’s ex wife, Polly Platt, though credited mainly with production design and costume design for his films, was a collaborator of sorts and was in part responsible for the success in the early part of his career. Though their marriage broke up during Picture Show when he left her for Cybill Shepherd, she continued to work with him through Paper Moon, perhaps even convincing him that a father daughter story would be a good choice as they had two daughters together. One wonders what other great works would have come of the partnership if they’d continued to work together.

I’m pretty sure I had heard of The Day of the Jackal. At least I’d heard the title. Beyond that, it was completely off my radar, and so I must thank Mr. Clooney for bringing me to it. It starts, in perhaps a too lengthy voiceover, by telling us the circumstances we’ve been brought to in 1973 France. A homegrown terrorist organization has formed opposed to President DeGaulle’s policy in Algeria. After showing us some of their general mayhem and how well financed and organized they are, a presidential assassination plot is hatched. They’re to bring in a foreign mercenary(Edward Fox) with a good track record as he’s most likely to stay under the radar. Under the code name “The Jackal,” we see him methodically plotting his course, planning various false passports, disguises, etc. Eventually, the police catch wind of his scheme, bring in their own expert and, just as methodically, begin hunting him down. The film takes its time and doesn’t resort to tricks or gimmicks to build suspense, but rather takes an almost documentary style approach in letting events unfold. The Jackal, though seductive when necessary, doesn’t operate in a particularly sexy way. He’s just very thorough as is his policeman counterpart in France, Inspector Thomas(Tony Britton). At one point, Thomas uncovers a leak in the police department as a result of a phone tap, he’s asked by one of his colleagues, “How did you know it was him?” Thomas responds that he didn’t. He just had all of their phones tapped. And, yet despite his thoroughness, staying on his trail at almost every twist and turn, the plan almost comes off. The naturalistic documentary style makes the film all the more chilling, making it seem that if one were determined and resourceful enough, someone could not only pull off an assassination of this magnitude and get away with it. I can only imagine how this might have seemed to audiences in 1973 after the spate of high profile assassinations in the ‘60’s beginning with JFK in ’63. The film is actually set in summer of ’63, several months prior. The Day of the Jackal has a lot in common stylistically with The French Connection as well as Z, to some degree. Not only do they have stylistic similarities, but they all show how difficult it is for good people in the system to make sure that right will out. Though Z is more about internal corruption, they all show how what is rotten within can always sabotage even the best policework with the most noble of intentions.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are often cited as bringing an end to the New Hollywood era. Or at least Star Wars and Jaws are. They ushered in the summer event film that opened wide and made it more difficult for smaller director driven films. Though when I call these films small, I’m using the lexicon of today’s cinema as many of these films, though seemingly small and idiosyncratic, were financed by studios and were huge hits, both critically and commercially. In any case, Spielberg and Lucas were certainly part of this movement and Jaws, which will be discussed later, is actually on the list. Lucas, though today he is best known for the sci fi and special effects empire that Star Wars created, made a small film in 1973 with a cast of mostly relative unknowns about teenagers in a small town called American Graffiti. I saw this film years ago on VHS and remembered most of the plot points. It takes place on one evening in late summer of 1962 as two friends, Curt(Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve(Ron Howard), are preparing to go off to college on the other side of the country. The date seems to have been chosen as the moment before American innocence. There was barely a glimmer of what Vietnam was to become and it was more than a year before the Kennedy assassination. In a small California town, 1962 was less the beginning of the ‘60’s than the end of the ‘50’s. The plot is scarcely worth recounting as it’s essentially a slice of life film. Though against the backdrop of the loss of America’s supposed innocence, it’s more specifically about the characters as they all feel on the precipice of moving on with the next stage of their lives, some resisting and some pushing too hard, but emerging the next morning feeling a profound shift, though no doubt the faux profundity the cloak of night provides will fade somewhat with the dawn, for some more than others. This film was essentially as I remembered it and I enjoyed it. As with several titles on this list, it took the trend of using popular songs of the era rather than a traditional score to a whole new level, though some of the supplemental material provided with the disc oddly takes credit for inventing this approach that had been around at least since Easy Rider. There are also a lot of good natural performances here, notably the first really significant role for Dreyfuss. I realize I’m struggling at this point because as much as I admire the work here and think that it achieved what it set out to do, I guess it didn’t especially move me. This is more due to personal taste, though, as well as recent viewings of films with similar themes that I liked better, specifically, a film I’m risking over fetishizing, The Last Picture Show, and in a more peripheral way, the upcoming Mean Streets. American Graffiti digs just as deep as it intends to and in a different mood or a different setting I might appreciate it more. I certainly wouldn’t avoid seeing it again. But I’m unlikely to seek it out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Day 110: 1973(Part 1)

As I write this, I’ve made my way through just over half of the films of 1973. Though still the most prolific year on the list, there are 16 rather than 17 films. Thanks to Matt B. for catching my error. One of the first things that struck me as I started to work my way through these selections is that there seemed to be a large number of period films, some nostalgic and some more realistic than had been seen during the era they represent. It has been said, though, that films of a certain era often reflect the era they were shot in whether or not they are set in it. A perusal of the remaining titles reveal, an eclectic mix of past, present(1973’s present that is), and even the future. Enough stalling. Here’s 1973.

The Long Goodbye is the third Robert Altman title on the list. I saw this a few years back, as I recall, on a substandard VHS copy and have been curious to revisit it ever since. Though technically not a period film, it essentially places a character from another time into the present. I don’t mean it’s a time travel film, but the lead character just doesn’t seem to fit in 1973. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, The Long Goodbye features the character Philip Marlowe(Elliott Gould), a character that from 1944 to 2007 has been featured in 15 films and television shows, perhaps most notoriously played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, but also by Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Powers Boothe to name a few. Not surprisingly, Altman’s take on Marlowe is like no other. He keeps the character’s basic style and attitude from the ‘40’s but places him in Los Angeles in1973. Marlowe is the kind of guy who puts on a tie to go buy cat food at three in the morning. When he returns, he discovers a friend of his who says he needs a ride. Right away. To Mexico. Marlowe obliges, no questions asked, and returns to be greeted by two cops questioning him about the murder of his friend’s wife. This and several other factors lead Marlowe to investigate the murder, eventually leading to what is almost a twist ending in the fact that the murderer is the obvious choice. But, as usual with Altman, the story isn’t the main attraction. He continues the improvisational feel, the sense that we’re eavesdropping rather than being invited in, and the usual overlapping conversations. I’ve read that, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman wanted Warren Beatty to be constantly muttering to himself, sometimes unintelligibly. Beatty indulged him for a time, but eventually dropped it as he felt it was silly, which is why it’s rather inconsistent in that film. He has Gould do a similar thing here, but it’s carried throughout the film. In the traditional Marlowe films, there’s usually a recurring voiceover, telling us what the man of few words is thinking and guiding us through the labyrinthine plot. This serves as somewhat of an alternative to the traditional voiceover in the fact that we hear his voice almost continuously but is more illuminating of his personality than of the plot. There are a number of good performances here, but I was especially struck by Sterling Hayden, a figure from the old Hollywood days, but making his third list appearance, having previously appeared in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather. Here he plays a towering blustery bearded writer somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway. One of the most memorable moments is when he’s revealed to be all bark and no bite. In another memorable performance, Henry Gibson plays his psychiatrist who shows up at a party demanding to be paid what Hayden owes him in front of all his guests. To bring his point across, Gibson, a slight man seemingly half Hayden’s size, slaps him in the face. Hayden instantly crumbles and retreats to get his checkbook. Altman also does an interesting thing with the score. It’s essentially one song with the same title as the film. It’s not unusual to have different versions of the same theme. Just watch any episode of The Brady Bunch. Or Entertainment Tonight, when they play the mournful version of their peppy theme when listing celebrity deaths. But this film takes it a step further. Nearly, if not all of the occurrences of the theme are ambient sound, from a character listening to it on the radio to the pianist at a dive bar. Lynne watched this with me and pointed out to me that one version was sung by Jack Sheldon, known for his skill as a singer and trumpet player, of course, though admittedly probably best known to our generation as the voice of the “Conjunction Junction” train conductor. But perhaps the most unique version was a passing marching band in Mexico. Altman’s articulation of this idea doesn’t seem to be much more than he thought it might be interesting. And it is.

High Plains Drifter is the only Clint Eastwood title on the list. Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were both curious figures when I was coming of age in the ‘80’s. They both came of age around the same time doing television and both developed personas that became iconic in their own way. But, due in part to my own prejudices and to some of their unfortunate career choices when I was first discovering cinema, neither was someone I would be first in line to see on opening weekend. More about Reynolds when I get to The Longest Yard on the list. I gave Eastwood a chance eventually with Pale Rider, which I found perfectly respectable and I also saw his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me at the revival house in Dayton I’ve mentioned before. It was well made and an interesting story, especially as I believe I saw it after Fatal Attraction, so it was interesting to see the parallels. But mostly my impression of Eastwood at the time(the only time I really knew) was that he was a limited actor who had gone to the Dirty Harry well one too many times. I’m glad to say that as Eastwood, though occasionally acting in films, has eclipsed his acting career as a renowned director. Maybe eclipsed isn’t the right word. But he’s rightly acclaimed as a director and if someone from another planet were introduced to his work strictly as a director, that career is much more nuanced and, though sometimes uneven, prolific, sometimes brilliant, and completely stands on its own. I’m also glad to say that I’ve come around to realize his gifts. High Plains Drifter, though only his second film as a director, shows that he must have been paying attention to the great directors he’d worked with. It’s been a long time since I saw Misty, but this film seems to have a much more assured directorial hand. Of course, his familiarity with the genre no doubt helped him relax, but this is hardly a standard genre piece. In fact, in its own way, it’s almost a subversion of the genre, though in a very different way than his 1992 film, Unforgiven. The Stranger(Eastwood) quietly comes into a small town in the Old West, the townspeople eyeing him suspiciously as he rides his horse down the thoroughfare. First stopping by the saloon and then the barber’s, he shoots three men who attempt to ambush him and shortly after rapes a woman in the stables. The sheriff comes to see him the next day, not to charge him for his crimes, but to hire him to protect the town from some criminals who have just been released from prison and are out for revenge. The Stranger resists until he is told he can have anything he wants. Thus begins the downward spiral where he essentially destroys the town in the guise of saving it. He loots all the merchants saying he needs supplies. He makes Mordecai(Billy Curtis), the town outcast because he is a little person, sheriff and mayor. He eventually does brutally murder the three criminals, but destroys the town to do so. The three men had whipped their previous sheriff to death while the town watched and did nothing, some of them having actively participated in this, others complicit in their inaction. In any case, the Stranger seems to have been sent to punish all those responsible. As the Stranger leaves town, Mordecai says to him, “I don’t believe I know your name.” The Stranger responds, “Yes you do,” and rides off as the camera pulls in for a closeup of the dead sheriff’s tombstone, perhaps implying the Stranger has the same name. Apparently, the original screenplay explicitly named him as the sheriff’s brother, but Eastwood changed it to keep it deliberately vague, implying a supernatural element. I must admit, making the character an avenging ghost or demon works best for me. Only such a figure would be imbued with the knowledge he seems to possess about what these people deserve, particularly where it comes to the rape scenes. But maybe that’s just my 2011 mentality. After watching this, I mentioned in an online forum how much I liked it. A childhood acquaintance, Matt L., who apparently identifies as conservative, ribbed me for my affinity towards the film, suggesting that I might be leaning right in my dotage. This struck me as odd because, though filled with Old Testament style vengeance, it really takes a low view of the residents of what could be seen as small town America. When Lars Von Trier covered similar ground in Dogville, he was accused in many quarters as being anti-American. After all, doesn’t Sarah Palin tell us that those who live in small towns are supposed to be more noble and represent the “real America?” All this made me realize the film was even better than I thought. Perhaps even a bit of a Rohrschach test of sorts where people of all different political persuasions think it’s speaking to them. Though John Wayne apparently didn’t think so. For years, Eastwood had wanted to do a western with him, but Wayne reportedly refused to after seeing this film. According to reports, he disapproved as this wasn’t what the Old West was supposed to be about, or words to that effect. As Eastwood was taken by surprise, it makes me think that the political overtones are merely happenstance. He was just trying to tell a good story and succeeded magnificently.