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.

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