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.

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