Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 146, 1973(Part 6 of 6)

I think I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Sting over the years, on television and such. In any case, not enough for this not to feel like a new experience. I knew that it was about con men, which is something I generally enjoy. And I remember that it repopularized ragtime music, specifically Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I’m pretty sure there’s a direct link between this film and the fact that my cell phone came with that particular ring tone. This is Robert Redford’s sixth appearance on the list, Paul Newman’s fourth, and reunites them with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director, George Roy Hill. Overall, I found this to be a very pleasant film and more consistently entertaining than Butch and Sundance. Though, with all the truly great films of 1973, I was a little surprised to find it was the big winner at the Oscars that year. Redford plays Hooker, a small time con man, who inadvertently stumbles across a big score, which in turn gets him into deep trouble. Through various connections he gets hooked up with Orndorff(Newman), who takes him under his wing, hides him, and introduces him to grifting on an altogether higher and more elaborate plane. The plot is not so complicated that its difficult to follow, but it would take entirely too much effort to summarize it here in greater detail than I have already. Their mark is Doyle Lonnegan(Robert Shaw), a temperamental and powerful Irish mobster with a violent temper. Watching this made me realize I’d seen very little of Shaw’s work. Perhaps his memorable turn in Jaws(to be addressed later) made me think I’d seen more. In any case, his presence and intensity is undeniable. In every scene he’s in, I found him both utterly watchable and terrifying, as he suffuses every line and facial expression with the sense that he could explode at any moment. This makes his scenes with Newman especially delightful as Newman is completely fearless and deliberately pushes his buttons. I also really enjoyed the scenes where they were putting the operation together, the most elaborate set piece being a gambling parlor, where everyone but Shaw is essentially an actor, including the announcer narrating the races(Ray Walston). As they were setting it up, it was reminiscent of putting a play or a film together, with the sets being built, the costumes distributed, and the roles being cast. I especially remember chuckling a bit when one man, after interviewing for a “role” and being “cast,” is told, “Go pick out a suit,” and he goes to what is essentially a large costume rack. It’s all a great deal of fun even when I was able to see certain twists coming. Though I mentioned that it may not be on a par artistically with some of the other achievements of 1973, it’s great entertainment and certainly worth checking out.

As I mentioned before, Lynne joined me for the final title from 1973, The Exorcist. I’ve seen this one a few times, at least once or twice on video, as well as the extended version several years ago at the (sadly now closed) Astor Plaza theater in midtown Manhattan. So I was glad to have some fresh eyes with me as Lynne had never seen it and had, in fact, built it up in her mind a great deal. The Exorcist is the story of a young girl named Regan(Linda Blair), the daughter of Chris MacNeil(Ellen Burstyn), a movie star shooting a film on location in the Washingtom D.C. area. Subtly at first, Regan starts displaying erratic behavior that blossoms into full blown demonic possession and is subsequently in need of an exorcist. Father Merrin(Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras(Jason Miller), are brought in to free her of the demon. They succeed, but at the expense of Karras’ life. What I found particularly remarkable about the film was the realistic tone it takes. I listened to a bit of William Peter Blatty’s(who wrote the book and subsequent screenplay) commentary on the creative process. Though there were no doubt creative embellishments, this story has its basis in an actual case. The embellishments were mostly due to the extreme secrecy of the Catholic Church and their refusal to assist him in a non-fiction book he wanted to write about the case. It’s clear that Blatty is a believer, but the documentary approach he takes to the subject matter speaks to a rational world that either believes such things don’t happen or that they only happened in Biblical times. As such, both believers and non believers can appreciate the film. Believers should appreciate and recognize the world they live in and what would happen if such a thing happened in present day. Non believers should be able to suspend their disbelief as the world of the film is rooted in reality. Even Father Karras, the younger of the two priests, doesn’t seem to believe that such a thing could be possible. There is such a buildup that, aside from a prologue set in and shot in Iraq, Merrin, the exorcist of the title, doesn’t show up until the last half hour to perform the ceremony. The scenes of Blair in full possession mode are so powerful and shocking its easy to forget how little of the running time they actually consume. William Friedkin directed this one, his second on the list after The French Connection. He’s another director who, though it seems he’s never really stopped working, never really lived up to the achievement of these two titles, though these two contributions alone certainly give him a notable place in cinematic history. This is Burstyn’s third appearance on the list, though she’s always so memorable it feels like more. I mentioned previously that Lynne, though she enjoyed this film, had been expecting something more shocking. I’m inclined to think that she’d seen the most gruesome stuff on clip shows over the years and had assumed that what she hadn’t seen was much worse and more prevalent in the film. I’m envious of the people who saw this film having no idea what to expect. All that being said, I think the film certainly packs a punch. Though this would probably sound strange to audiences in 1973, it seems admirable in its restraint compared to the typical gorefest horror films today. The scenes of a little girl in horrendous blistered makeup projectile vomiting and spewing out lines like, “Fuck me Jesus” and “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” would have been numbing if used in excess.

Well, that’s 1973. I’m ridiculously backed up on this. I’m a week or so away from finishing the viewing process, but I have a backlog of about 17 titles that I haven’t written about. Ah well. It happens as it happens. Part of the process I suppose. I hope to get back here with part one of 1974 soon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 145: 1973(Part 5)

The Last Detail is director Hal Ashby’s second title on the list and Jack Nicholson’s fifth. I’m pretty sure I saw it many years ago on VHS and enjoyed it, but my memory of that is so hazy that this might as well have been the first time. The story concerns two Navy lifers, “Bad ass” Buddusky(Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall(Otis Young) who have to recruit a wet behind the ears recruit named Meadows(Randy Quaid) across several states to a military prison. His crime is that he tried to steal $40 from a charity box. His sentence is eight years. At first, the older sailors are all business, trying to figure out how to get the kid where he’s going as quickly as possible while trying to pocket as much of their per diem as they can. But as they draw him out, they start to sympathize with him. Of course, they’re far too career conscious and aware of the consequences to even consider helping him to escape, but, mostly at Buddusky’s urging, they decide to show the kid a good time for his last few days of freedom. The journey begins modestly with getting drunk in a cheap hotel room and moves on to New York City where they meet some hippies, go to a party, and eventually take Meadows to a whorehouse where he loses his virginity. As they get closer to the end of their journey, the reality of the situation begins to set in. Meadows is so young and weak, a harsh military prison will likely break him. But they have no choice. And when Meadows makes one pathetic run for it, Buddusky doesn’t hesitate in running after him and apprehending, slapping him around a bit in the process. The only satisfaction in the end is when an officious paper pusher at the prison(Michael Moriarty) tries to hassle them about something not being in order, they viciously put him in his place and get out of the jam. Obviously, this is a bit of a hollow victory. Nicholson is great as always, playing a character significantly different than many of the previous films. Though he has an independent streak, he is, for the most part, comfortable with playing by the rules, and even seems to crave the structure that a military lifestyle provides, admitting that his addiction to the life is probably why he couldn’t stay married. Young is effective as well, but Quaid is quite a standout as a guy who towers over everyone but is completely intimidated. He’s been given a raw deal, but he’s the sort of person who is madly accepting of everything thrown his way, almost apologizing for existing. I mentioned that Ashby’s previous work, Harold and Maude, was clearly and unabashedly antiwar. If this represents Ashby’s personal views, he plays them close to his chest in this one, which is entirely appropriate. This is a much more realistic film, though also centered in its characters. It doesn’t take much to highlight the extreme absurdity of some of the things in the military, obviously with this kid’s life getting ruined for one stupid mistake as well as the ridiculous rivalry between Navy guys and Marines in one absurd sequence where they beat the shit out of some Marines in a train station bathroom just because they can. These things merely serve as the backdrop and Ashby allows all the characters truth and dignity, even allowing the hippies to look a little ridiculous. Mulhall, for instance, who is black, is grilled by a young girl at the party about the lack of black officers and his defense of it, though seemingly a rationalization, doesn’t make him look silly. One young man at the party seems determined to stand on his metaphorical soap box while a young woman(Nancy Allen) seems so bowled over by Buddusky’s raw macho charisma that she suddenly loses interest in politics. This was a highlight and I’m glad I saw it again.

Papillon is director Franklin J. Schaffner’s second title on the list, Steve McQueen’s second, and Dustin Hoffman’s fourth. I have a vague recollection of starting this movie a few times in the distant past but never getting especially far. I always attributed it to not being in the right frame of mind, or I started it too late at night, or something like that. I was actually looking forward to it. I know Steve McQueen is greatly respected and I need to see more of his films to really understand his appeal. Not that he was bad here, but I haven’t been especially fond of either of his titles on the list. Papillon is essentially a prison film, though it makes the prison in Cool Hand Luke look like a day at the beach. Ironically, there actually is a beach here as the film is set in the prison on Devil’s Island. Papillon(McQueen) and Dega(Hoffman) are two Frenchmen sent to the island prison. As Dega is small, weak, and rich, he realizes that he may not last long without protection, so he strikes a deal with Papillon. Papillon will keep Dega safe and in return, Dega will finance any escape attempts for Papillon. The rest of the film is essentially Papillon being obsessed with escape. Perhaps the most interesting part in all of this is his long period in solitary confinement as it truly underscores the brutality of the place. At one point late in the film, they seem to realize they’re repeating themselves and speed up the storytelling process. At one point we’re treated to a montage in which it appears he’s succeeded and then he’s caught again. He goes back into solitary and, rather than show us again, it skips to him getting out. At this point he’s given a cottage with relative freedom very near Dega. They’re both pretty broken by the process at this point and seem to be shuffling and a bit senile. Dega has basically accepted his lot, but Papillon is still obsessed with escape. He comes up with a plan that essentially comes down to jumping off a cliff into the water and floating on a burlap sack filled with coconuts to a free island. Dega can’t go through with it, but Papillon insists that it will work. The last shot of the film has Papillon floating on his coconuts and cackling that he “beat the bastards.” Of course, this all looks so absurd that the assumption is that he will drown or get caught. But we’re told by a postscript that Papillon indeed floated to safety and lived the rest of his life a free man. I didn’t know whether to feel cheated or just lied to. Apparently, this is somewhat based on a true story, though there have been elements to this story that have been challenged. But, ultimately, I don’t care about the veracity of the story as much as whether the movie can make me believe it. And it didn’t. If this ending really happened the movie owes it to me to make it more plausible or to show me how it happened. After taking me through two and a half hours of this man struggling through adversity, don’t you owe it to me to show me the triumphant escape rather than present it like some halfassed last minute tacked on happy ending? Guess I didn’t care for this one much. I’ve liked the work of many involved with this film. Just not this one.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an admirer of Roger Ebert’s writing style. Though this project has made me more aware of the times I violently disagree with him, I always find him informative and interesting. His review of Sleeper also added an element of time capsule in the fact that it highlights something I had somehow not noticed. As amazing a time as this period was for film, it was not especially fruitful for comedy. Though this would change significantly in 1974, it was certainly true in 1973. His review states, “Sleeper establishes Woody Allen as the best comic director and actor in America, a distinction that would mean more if there were more comedies being made…Mel Brooks only seems to get geared up every three years or so, but Allen is prolific as well as funny.” Of course, this would change with two classic Brooks films in 1974 as well as a group from England called Monty Python, but this really put things in perspective. When I told some friends about the list early on, some openly scoffed at some of the Allen titles, and I’ve acknowledged that the previous title was a little uneven, but in this context it makes a little more sense. Sleeper concerns Miles Monroe(Allen), who went into St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1973 for a common operation, and for some reason, was cryogenically frozen and finds himself being revived in 2173. It turns out that 2173 is a totalitarian society of some sort where everyone is catalogued, so he’s being defrosted by rebels in an effort to use him because the government has no record of him. And I think I’ll stop with the plot description there, because what I’ve written already makes it sound much more complicated than it is. This is Allen in his silly phase, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have a point or two. The authorities are oppressive, but of course the resistance takes itself too seriously. As Miles navigates this landscape, he serves as somewhat of a commentator on the human condition and the absurdity of political cycles. There are a number of hilarious scenes, some of them an homage to silent cinema, but for some reason, I was struck by one scene where, in an attempt to acclimate Miles to his new environment, they attempt to recreate dinner with his parents. Miles takes a left turn and starts thinking he’s Blanche DuBois. While following the “don’t wake the sleepwalker” rule, they start improving a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire with Diane Keaton doing an impression of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. If anyone is reading this and doesn’t get these references, I think that’s kind of my point. And I think you’ll still find the scene funny.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Day 134: 1973(Part 4)

1973(Part 4) I’ve made no secret in previous entries about a bias I have held with regard to some artists. In this case I’m referring specifically to Robert Redford and his frequent collaborator, director Sydney Pollack. But I’ve been trying very hard to keep an open mind and, even when I find the work lacking, to mention positives and be respectful in my criticism. Because even in work that is not to my taste, I have to respect at the very least their effort and body of work. That being said, I freely confess that I was not looking forward to The Way We Were. I’m pretty sure I saw it years ago, probably in high school, and on broadcast TV. I may have even dozed through parts of it. Admittedly I had low expectations. I’m happy to say, though it may sound like faint praise, that The Way We Were, though not without its flaws, wildly exceeded my expectations. The film follows our main characters, Hubbell(Redford) and Katie(Barbara Streisand), beginning in college prior to World War II and leading them into adulthood into the post war McCarthy Red Scare era in Hollywood. Katie is a rabble rousing Jewish Marxist activist and Hubble is a laid back WASP. Initially, she’s wary of him, assuming that with his privilege comes arrogance. She assumes his relaxed demeanour is indicative of smug apathy. But he actually admires her passion and is drawn to her. Katie was written for Streisand by Arthur Laurents and the character contains many of the traits that her right wing critics use to this day to tear her apart personally. She is quite strident and often humorless. A moment that sticks with me is Hubbell recounting a speech she gave at a demonstration where she caught his eye. In the midst of the speech, where she appeared to have the crowd in the palm of her hand, she’s interrupted by a childish prank insulting her. She immediately loses her cool and the crowd. Hubbell points out to her that she could have kept them if she’d just laughed. Katie just doesn’t get it. The only response she can give is, “But it wasn’t funny.” Apparently, Pollack worked hard with Laurents to flesh out Hubbell’s character. After all, if he’s nothing but teeth and hair, half of the story seems pointless and Katie seems shallow for loving him. Though Hubbell doesn’t share Katie’s passion, he certainly admires her for it, but perhaps the undoing of their relationship is that two people with such different dynamics ultimately can’t live together. Though they certainly try. Though some accounts criticize the story for being only marginally political and merely using it as a backdrop, I think it was probably an ingenious way to introduce such ideas to a mainstream audience, albeit in a soft pedaled way. I would be hard pressed to imagine any other film I’ve ever seen where the lead character, unless the film is more about politics than a love story, would be allowed to be an open unashamed Communist. The supplemental materials include some deleted scenes and refreshingly honest moments from Streisand and Laurents. A couple of scenes were cut that indicated that the primary reason Katie and Hubbell split up near the end of the film and immediately after the birth of their daughter is because her past is going to destroy his career. Laurents laments that without these scenes it appears that they part as a result of an infidelity committed by Hubbell. I have to admit, from an objective point of view, that I disagree with Laurents. Having no knowledge of the missing material, it seemed to me that this was an example of two people who loved each other deeply, cared for each other, and respected each other. But they eventually realized that their fundamental differences made it impossible to live together. In this way, the deletions make it more universal. I will also concede that I was a little puzzled by the epilogue when Katie and Hubbell randomly meet in New York years after the split and it becomes clear that he’s completely uninvolved in his daughter’s life. I suppose that the circumstances they originally split under would make that make more sense. But that’s a minor quibble. I probably won’t seek this one out again. But I’m not sorry for the experience.

As noted before, 1973 is easily the most prolific year on the list. Sidney Lumet’s Serpico begins December 1973, the most prolific month on the list with seven titles altogether. Serpico is Lumet’s third of six list titles and actor Al Pacino’s second of four. Though it’s Lumet’s first appearance on the list in nearly a decade since The Pawnbroker, he’s lost none of his edge and, in fact, stands toe to toe with the best vibrant younger directors of this era. Though anyone as prolific as Lumet is bound to have a misstep now and again, I’ve always been impressed that, not only in this era, but even today manages to seem not only fresh and relevant but vital. I’ve mentioned before my penchant for NYC location shooting, but this one is incredible in its depth and breadth of the city. Not only are there dozens of locations throughout four of the five boroughs(Staten Island might as well be New Jersey anyway), but I have an even more personal association than usual. One scene is shot on the N train platform at the Ditmars Blvd. stop which is steps from my apartment, as is Astoria Park, where a scene is shot under the infamous Hellgate Bridge. I’m well aware that there is a degree of narcissism in enjoying things that remind me of my life, but there you have it. Baggage declared. Pacino plays the title role in the real life story of NYC cop Frank Serpico. Serpico is an honest cop. Pathologically so, one might say, though at the risk of making it sound negative. Unfortunately, being a cop with ethics makes it very difficult for him to get along. Corruption runs so deep that he sees examples of it his very first day as a beat cop, such as the local deli owner who gives them free food in exchange for special treatment. Frank tries to look the other way. He tries to abstain. But everywhere he turns he’s drowning in dirty cops and, as a clean cop, becomes a pariah. Eventually, it becomes too much for him and he tries to do something about it. One superior asks him to gather information but never seems to do anything about it. Another has a friend at the mayor’s office but can’t seem to get anything going. Serpico sometimes seems to have the fervor of what it must have been like to be an abolitionist in pre Civil War America. Sure, plenty of people agree with him that the system’s awful, but the overwhelming attitude seems to be “what can you do about it?” In his stringent form of idealism, Serpico bears a lot of resemblance to Katie in The Way We Were, making this a curious companion piece, albeit executed in an entirely different fashion. They both are so passionate as well as being right that they wind up alienating even those who agree with them. Serpico keeps fighting his battles until he’s shot in the line of duty under somewhat mysterious circumstances, shown in the immediate aftermath in the film’s opening and the actual circumstances much later in the film. Serpico survives and is served with a promotion while recovering in the hospital. His response is to resign and move to Europe. In researching this, I came across some more recent information about Serpico. According to the Village Voice, he came back a few years ago to testify about something and spent a little time with the current NYPD. According to him, nothing has changed significantly and it appears that the name Serpico is still a dirty word to cops today. Pacino’s performance is passionate and riveting. On the surface, he has some similarities to Michael Corleone from The Godfather. They both consider themselves to be men of honor. But Serpico is someone truly worthy of admiration. Michael has one encounter with a dirty cop and abandons law and order entirely to loyalty to his family. And, of course, in doing so, becomes increasingly ethically challenged. But Serpico, though it costs him professionally and personally in various and sundry countless untold ways, he sticks to what is actually right rather than retreat to the world of situational ethics. Lumet has a tremendous naturalistic and gritty style that really makes New York in the ‘70’s come alive. My only complaint was that the score, though not overused, tended a bit towards the overbearing. So it was no surprise to me to find that Lumet wanted to do it with no score, but producer Dino DeLaurentiis insisted. Lumet, fearful of having final cut taken away from him, hired Mikis Theodorakis, who agreed that it should have no score, so he tried to be minimal. He didn’t quite succeed, but the effort is appreciated. It doesn’t ruin the movie either, it would just be better if it wasn’t there.

Lynne joined me for Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I think it’s important for perspective to keep these entries in chronological order, but I feel I should point out that I actually saw this after The Exorcist. I only bring it up because I may find it necessary to compare the two. John and Laura Baxter(Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are a couple living in England. In the first scene of the film, their young daughter accidentally drowns in a stream behind their house. In this eerie sequence, John seems to have a premonition of what is going on, but he finds her lifeless submerged body moments too late. The film then moves to Venice where it remains. John is an architect and is supervising the restoration of a cathedral. Laura is with him and it’s clear they’re still processing their daughter’s death. I mentioned his premonition in the earlier scene because it’s a theme that is carried persistently and subtly throughout. Early on, they meet two elderly ladies, one of whom is blind and claims to be a psychic. Laura believes them absolutely when she’s told that their little girl is on the “other side” and wants them to be happy. The woman also has premonitions that John is in danger and, indeed, has the gift of second sight as well. John indeed has visions, but is in so much denial about it he can’t tell the difference between the visions and reality, which is what leads him to the predicted danger and his demise. I realize that these details seem a little vague and perhaps even a bit preposterous. But what makes it work is the subtlety. Unlike The Exorcist, with its tremendous(and undeniably effective) special effects show as it approaches the climax, Don’t Look Now portrays the supernatural in an entirely psychological way, which is why John’s visions are so confusing to him. For instance, he has a flash of his Laura at his funeral procession, which confuses him because he thinks she’s out of town. Now that sounded silly. Trust me, the mood Roeg creates for this film is spellbinding and unnerving. I just realized I almost forgot to mention the intensely erotic and fairly explicit love scene between Sutherland and Christie early in the film, parts of it rivaling Last Tango in Paris with regard to content. As the scene unfolds, Roeg starts juxtaposing these shots with shots of them getting dressed, perhaps showing the dichotomy of how intimate they are while being closed off to each other as well. Okay, that intellectual thing I just said is true, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that the scene is really hot. I think I caught part of this film at a friend’s house on cable or something back in the late ‘80’s and am pretty sure it’s part of what got me to start paying attention to the name Nicolas Roeg. Oddly, in America this one doesn’t have the cult status of some of his better known films like Walkabout or The Man Who Fell to Earth. In England, however, this was named as the #8 film by the British Film Institute of top 100 British films as well as #18 of greatest of all time by the London Times. Maybe it got lost in the shuffle in December of 1973 in the U.S. I will also add that Lynne had never seen The Exorcist and was anticipating it with much more enthusiasm than this film. We watched them essentially back to back. Days later, Don’t Look Now was the one she was still talking about.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day 131: 1973(Part 3)

I know I saw Bang the Drum Slowly years ago on VHS. I remember thinking it was all right, but I felt like I was missing something. Watching it again years later clarified this for me but not for the better. Before I speak my mind on this film, I should say I tried to unearth the appeal of it. I got various responses from my friend Matt B. and found a few interesting avenues from Ebert’s original review. To paraphrase a bit, Matt thought it was a simple story of friendship, as well as a study to deal with slow death, and of course featured some good performances. Ebert points out that it was the first time we really got a backstage look at what life on the road was for a professional sports team. I must admit I also found it interesting to see how much things have changed with regard to the economic structure of baseball. There’s a great contract negotiation scene where the central character, Henry(Michael Moriarty), has to settle for a salary infinitely smaller than today’s counterparts and even has to sell insurance in the off season to make ends meet. It is also notable that this is Robert DeNiro’s first appearance on the list and that he delivers a memorable performance as Bruce, Henry’s uncouth hick of a roommate who, at the start of the film is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Overall, I just found the tone of the film to be disingenuous. The film is framed with Henry in voiceover. The opening bit, paraphrased more than a little for comedic and clarification purposes, goes something like this, “I never liked Bruce. He was stupid, smelled bad, and pissed in the sink. And he was a terrible ballplayer. But then I found out he was dying so I decided to be his best friend.” This is basically the trajectory of the film. The rest of the team essentially viewed Bruce the way Henry used to, but as they slowly discover his secret, they start coming together as a team by being nice to him. This new coming together brings the team victory and they have a winning season. The closing scene has Henry at Bruce’s funeral, telling us in voiceover what he’s learned and that he never “ragged” anyone ever again. So essentially we have a team full of asshole jocks who need one of their teammates dying to be reminded to be decent human beings. And then they’re richly rewarded merely for a normal act of human kindness. I’m reminded of a Chris Rock routine about certain people who boast about doing things that common sense dictates all decent human beings should do, ending with the refrain, “That’s what you’re supposed to do!” Henry’s voiceover is reminiscent of a pushy born again Christian who likes to tell you in detail what a sinner he was in great detail before he came to Jesus. I have to admit, I also have a difficult time watching Moriarty without thinking of his peculiar decline over the years. He developed a reputation for himself, both on stage and screen, and was in the original cast of the long running series Law and Order, appearing in the first 88 episodes. But in the early years of the Clinton administration, he famously had a meltdown, ranting about how Attorney General Janet Reno was trying to shut his show down and shortly after left the show claiming he was fired for his politics. Apparently, he’s continued to work, though in more low profile projects including what appears to be a passion project, a film he wrote and starred in called Hitler Meets Christ(he played Hitler). Of course, Jon Voight is also known for being a bit of a batshit conservative and, though he continues to work in more high profile projects, arguably fell from a higher perch. I can’t help wonder if there are secret meetings between Voight, Moriarty, and others of their ilk who get together, smoke cigars, play poker, and bitch about the conspiracy in liberal Hollywood that robbed them of their careers. What was my point? Oh yeah. Bang the Drum Slowly is not my favorite film of 1973. And I guess I didn’t learn the lesson of be nice to people because they might die. Oh well. On to more worthy subjects.

Mean Streets marks director Martin Scorsese’s first appearance on the list. Thanks to Lynne for joining me. I’m a big fan of Scorsese, though this one took some patience for me to really appreciate. I saw it on VHS many years ago and at the Film Forum sometime in the last 10 or so. The titular streets of this film are located in present day New York City, specifically the Little Italy neighborhood of Lower Manhattan where Scorsese grew up. Though many characters seem like throwbacks to an earlier era, we’re quite clearly we’re in 1973 when, in one of the opening scenes, we see a hippie shooting up in a bar washroom and subsequently being chased away. Perhaps this is a metaphor for these people, clinging to old world values, chasing away the inevitable. But, of course, the people speaking nostalgically of a simpler time are hardly innocents. They may dress well and speak in a courtly manner, but their idea of a more innocent time is hardly the one we saw in American Graffiti. Scorsese was greatly influenced by the verite style of John Cassavetes, though the style is clearly filtered through the lens of Scorsese’s experience. Though there are arcs to characters, story takes a back seat to characters and showing how they exist in this world from day to day. The story, such as it is, focuses on Charlie(Harvey Keitel) and his struggle to find his way in life. Though there are people in the film who are clearly what might be defined as mobsters in a more traditional gangster film, they’re more about atmosphere to define this world. They’re always around, the main characters show them respect or don’t if they’re not bright, but this film isn’t about the movers and the shakers. Charlie has a good relationship with one of them, but he doesn’t appear to have ambitions to be one of them. He just wants to be set up in a restaurant. The biggest thing potentially standing in his way seem to be his friend Johnny Boy(Robert DeNiro) and Johnny’s sister Teresa(Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is a loose cannon who owes money to everyone in town including Michael(Richard Romanus) who seems to be losing patience. Charlie has a secret relationship with Teresa, an epileptic, an affliction the old timer who can help Charlie refers to as “sick in the head.” As Charlie wrestles with his ambitions and his torn loyalties, we follow him and his friends through some incredible location shooting in New York. I was shocked to read that most of the interiors were shot in L.A. and that New York location shooting was all done during one chaotic week. Scorsese makes it all fit together in a remarkably realistic and naturalistic setting. The first time I saw this, I think I found it a little difficult to absorb, due to my youth and the smaller screen. The second time I definitely appreciated it more, but found myself more viscerally connected with Scorsese’s later work. Truthfully, that’s probably still the case to some degree, but this one definitely grows on me more every time. It’s very exciting seeing Keitel and DeNiro here, with the tremendous energy they have individually as well as the chemistry they have together. Lynne and I were both particularly taken with an early scene in the back room of the bar where DeNiro is explaining to Keitel why he hasn’t paid his debts. The whole film is great, but the scenes between the two of them stand apart. I can’t say enough good things about this one. I’m very glad Scorsese finally made it to the list. Looking forward to revisiting his other contributions.

Lynne also joined me for Terence Malick’s Badlands, his first feature length film. His second was five years later. His third didn’t turn up until 1998, 25 years after his debut. I know I’ve read stories about the reasons behind this gap, but I’m unable to access them specifically right now. Apparently, he was and is very meticulous, taking two years to edit his second film. As that was released near the end of this fertile period of creativity in Hollywood, it seems that the 1980’s either had no use for Malick or he had no use for the 1980’s as it existed in Hollywood. Much like Orson Welles, he’s an auteur with a grand vision that, when indulged, can hardly subsist on a shoestring. According to some accounts he overshoots tremendously and then finds the film in the editing room. The good news is that he’s back to releasing a film every few years, including the upcoming Tree of Life. I first saw Badlands some time ago on VHS and was happy to revisit it. Loosely based on a real life murder spree perpetrated by Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate in 1958, Malick changed the names of the characters to avoid a potential lawsuit. This also allowed him creative freedom to shape the story how he wished. I don’t know how 1973 audiences viewed the film, but, having little specific knowledge of it, I never really thought about what was real and what was fabricated as I had no difficulty accepting the reality of the film for what it was. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play Holly and Kit, the standins for Starkweather and Fugate. The story is fairly simple. Kit, a troubled 25 year old romances Holly, a not especially bright 15 year old. Her father(Warren Oates) disapproves and Kit kills him. They leave town, hiding in various cities, killing whoever gets in their way, always narrated by Spacek’s flat emotionless voiceover. Sometimes characters who do terrible things are played as over the top cartoon villains. Some, as mentioned many times in these entries, are occasionally portrayed in sympathetic ways or at least in ways that try to get us to understand their point of view. But Kit and Holly, especially Holly, just seem kind of disconnected. Kit likes to come up with justifications with why he has to kill people, but when Holly begins to object, it seems less out of distaste or horror and more that she’s grown tired of the routine. This portrayal, rather than demonizing or romanticizing, just lets it speak for itself. It’s a far cry from Bonnie and Clyde. Sheen and Spacek are great. I saw this in early February, but am writing it just as Sheen’s son, Charlie, is having a famous meltdown, giving bizarre self-confident rants about how various self-destructive and erratic behaviors he’s been engaging in are perfectly sensible. I can’t help seeing a similarity between that and his father’s portrayal of Kit, who always has some odd version of “I meant to do that” in everything he does. I would be remiss in not mentioning how beautifully shot the film is. A long section of the film has Kit and Holly essentially reverting to childhood and living in a treehouse which includes many beautiful shots of the pastoral setting scored primarily to Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” used prominently in many subsequent films, such as the early ‘90’s young lovers on the run film, True Romance. Malick really is a visionary and though I can’t always wrap my head around his visions, this made me want to revisit some of his other films.