1974 brings us twelve titles, many with familiar names to those who have been reading this or, indeed, anyone who loves cinema. All but three directors for this year have appeared on the list before, two of whom appear twice each and delivered what to this day are considered some of the finest works of their respective careers. At the time of this writing, its been over three months since I’ve seen some of these, so I think I’m going to abbreviate the pithy ruminations and just dive right in. Not that I’m not up to the task, but I’m eager to get started.
Blazing Saddles was released in February of 1974 and is director Mel Brooks’ second appearance on the list. My earliest recollection of this film is an edited for television version. If you’ve ever seen this film, you can well understand that this hardly counts. I think the first time I saw it in its full glory was at the Victory Theatre(for more on that venue see my Lion in Winter entry from 12/25/10). That was probably around 1986 or 1987. I also saw it a few(more than five and less than ten) years ago at the Film Forum on a double bill with Young Frankenstein(more on that later). Lynne joined me for this one. She had fond memories of viewing it repeatedly in her youth on an early home video device. She was so familiar with it she was practically giggling before the gags in anticipation. And, of course, Blazing Saddles is full of gags. I often think that really good comedy doesn’t benefit from a great deal of deconstruction. What always impresses me the most about this film is its anarchic spirit. Brooks constantly plays with form, throwing in anachronisms, having characters occasionally address the camera directly, and eventually turning the entire town into a set. I think I’m actually going to leave it there as I’m feeling very selfconscious about finding anything original to say about it. But it’s always an enormous pleasure revisiting this one.
I’d never seen this or any other adaptation of The Great Gatsby, released in March, starring Robert Redford in the title role, directed by Jack Clayton, and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. I remember being assigned to read the book in high school, never really connecting with it, and, as I wasn’t a Redford fan at the time, having no desire to see a film of an overrated novel starring an overrated actor. Now, I have much more respect for the actor and, having seen the film, a keen interest in revisiting the novel. Though I have to admit, I found the film, though watchable, somewhat unremarkable. Months later, I’m a little fuzzy on why. Mediocrity is always harder to pinpoint than extremes. I should, however, give the film credit for at least giving me some idea as to why the book is so popular. It certainly didn’t ruin the story. With all the beautiful photography and the elegant settings, I think that some may gloss over the fact that Gatsby is, at heart, an exposure of the fallacy of the American dream. Gatsby, or Gatz as we later find out is his real name, is a selfmade millionaire. From the time he was born to a small rural family, he was determined to transcend his station. And when he fell in love with a rich girl named Daisy Buchanan(Mia Farrow), he became even more determined, learning how to talk like them, dress like them, eventually throwing lavish parties that they all attend just to catch her attention. Though she married someone more of her station, the two reconnect and resume their romance. All the while her husband Tom(Bruce Dern), is having an affair with a woman beneath his station(Karen Black). Eventually everything goes sour when Farrow runs over Black with Gatsby’s car and lets everyone believe it was Gatsby. Tom then spreads this myth to Black’s grief stricken husband, who finds Gatsby, shoots him, and then turns the gun on himself. Having let the lower classes take care of each other, Tom and Daisy are free to continue to be terrible shallow rich people and will continue to destroy lives of those lesser than them. Not limiting these attitudes to merely Tom and Daisy, all those who were more than happy to come to Gatsby’s parties, drink his booze, eat his food, and partake in the merriment, none of them showed up at his funeral. I especially liked the touch that Gatsby retained his soul throughout. When his country father shows up, he doesn’t have a harsh word to say about him, indicating that Gatsby was kind to the end and took care of his family. My friend Matt B. mentioned to me that his take on it after reading it recently was that it was the story of a man moving heaven and earth for a woman who wasn’t worth it. He’s not wrong. But it seemed to me that Daisy was a metaphor for something larger. We want to believe that Americans can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become anything they want, but the truth is that the true power is wielded by the ones who were born into it. You can acquire as much wealth and property and business as you want. You can even be elected President of the United States. They might even go to your parties and invite you to theirs. But unless you were born into their club, they’ll never truly forget that you’re not one of them, and, in fact, are always eager to point out evidence that you’re not. This may be the “land of opportunity,” but make no mistake, there are limits.
Lynne joined me for The Conversation, a film that started off a remarkable year for Francis Ford Coppola. It’s remarkable not just as an achievement of filmmaking, but as a demonstration of what promise and versatility Coppola seemed to contain. The Conversation adds to the theme of paranoia in the ‘70’s where everyone is trying to eavesdrop on everyone else and everyone assumes they’re being eavesdropped on. In this world, they’re usually right. Unlike Klute, which was a character study masquerading as a thriller, this is a character study with a genuinely thrilling plot. According to Ebert’s review, Coppola said he was influenced by Antonioni’s Blow Up, where a photographer obsessively studies his photos for clues. In this film, a professional surveillance expert repeatedly goes over the details of an audio recording in a similarly obsessive manner. Said expert is Harry Caul(Gene Hackman, in a brilliant performance), who has been hired by a powerful eccentric to follow two people and record their conversation. Over the course of the film, we follow Harry as he tries to piece together the mystery, and as he does, we get to know this tightly wound, sometimes unassuming, and deeply troubled individual. The character study aspect is somewhat slowly paced and requires patience. Fortunately, Hackman is always fascinating to watch. From their previous work, both Coppola and Hackman certainly well known for showier work, most notably for The Godfather and The French Connection, respectively, so its great to see how skilled they both are at something more subtle. As noted before, the plot pays off as well. I lost count of how many times the titular conversation is repeated, as it’s often fragmented. It’s heard so many times that one might think that the context and meaning is absolutely clear. But the end brings a twist that puts everything into an entirely different context and, indeed, made me want to watch it again right away. I didn’t, but I wanted to. Not surprisingly, this was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to Godfather II. Surprisingly, it lost Best Sound to Earthquake. And even though I’ve never seen that film, I will buy anyone a beer who convincingly makes a case for me that Earthquake was a greater achievement in sound. Ah, the Academy.