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.

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