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.

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