Thursday, July 28, 2011

1975(Part 1)

The first title in 1975 is Shampoo, directed by Hal Ashby, written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, and starring Beatty. Though this project has given me great appreciation for Ashby’s somewhat unsung talent, this was probably my least favorite. Harold and Maude is one of my all time favorites. The Last Detail, though to a lesser extent, was also great, and the upcoming Bound For Glory(1976) is also quite memorable. But Shampoo just didn’t really do it for me. I wasn’t surprised to read that, according to some sources, Ashby had less control over this film than his others. His star was falling somewhat and by getting involved in a Beatty project, he gave his career new vitality. But whereas Altman seemed to take delight in battling with Beatty, Ashby seemed to succumb. Ashby was the director, but Beatty pretty much ran the show, at least according to the account in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. There were a number of good performances and it serves as a good time capsule and…well…honestly I’m having a hard time remembering exactly what I thought of it. This was over four months ago and I mostly recall trying to like it, but eventually growing weary. In approaching this writing, I found myself wanting to write about something else, so tonight I watched Ashby’s debut, 1970’s The Landlord. I wish Clooney had put this one on the list. It stars Beau Bridges as a wealthy young man who buys a tenement building in Park Slope. One of my favorite unintentionally funny lines in the film was, “Park Slope? Isn’t that a colored neighborhood?” If you don’t know why that is funny, ask someone from New York. What starts out looking like a caricature of both rich whites and poor blacks and then looks like it might segue into a heartwarming tale of unity winds up being neither. By taking elements of both genres and twisting it into an honest unflinching portrait of race relations in the 70’s it becomes something truly unique and truthful. Bridges’ character, Elgar, who believes he is enlightened, enters this world with the best of intentions and still ultimately winds up behaving, to some degree, like a plantation owner. But that’s not the extent of his character. What’s remarkable about this film is that the end somehow doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Everyone hasn’t magically learned to live in peace and harmony. But there does seem to be a slight muted note of guarded optimism. Ashby had worked as Norman Jewison’s editor and got this project as a result of Jewison handing it off to him when he wasn’t able to direct. They apparently clashed over the ending, but congratulations to Jewison for launching this brilliant and too brief directorial career. And if Shampoo isn’t my cup of tea, it can, at the very least, claim credit for giving him the commercial success he needed to move forward.

I know I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, oh, probably some time back in the ‘80’s on VHS. I’ve probably seen it once or twice since, perhaps once on the big screen. Even the first time I saw it, so many bits were iconic that I’d heard them countless times. I greatly envy those who saw it in theaters in 1975 with none of this baggage. And yet, despite all this, despite the recognition of large portions of the film, I think I enjoyed it more than any other time I’d seen it. This film has never stopped playing. Midnight screenings have played on college campuses continuously as well as alternative houses. Though I didn’t partake due to timing issues, its even played in one or more venues locally since I’ve been writing this. A musical version ran for a significant time on Broadway and is likely still touring the country. If anyone runs across this posting and hasn’t seen this film, I’d be doing you a disservice by disseminating any further details. Be it my previously stated rule that comedy suffers by deconstruction or the fact that there’s nothing new to say about this film, I’m going to stop here. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean. If you haven’t, see it and enjoy it.

I’ve devoted a lot of space to singing the praises of Robert Altman, and Nashville is always a title cited as one of his masterpieces. It deserves the reputation. As noted, well, sometime back around six months or so ago, this was a film I first saw before I truly appreciated how much repeated viewings deepened the Altman experience, as part of a large ingestion of Altman films at a screening room at the University of Dayton. I saw it again a few years later on VHS. Altman only achieved perfection with this style a few times, most notably with this film and with Short Cuts. He took a number of stories that likely could have each been their own films and spread them across a canvas, intertwining them. Often characters with a larger story might do a walk on in someone else’s story. The reason Altman’s films often revealed more on repeated viewings is that once one knows what the basic story is, it’s easier to experience the subtle naturalistic interplay between characters. The smaller revealing moments are much more fascinating than the machinations of the plot. In recent years I’ve thought that Alabama congressman Jeff Sessions is merely a riff on Henry Gibson’s character in this film. After seeing this again, I believe I need to restate that. Gibson’s character, the preening, conservative, miniature country version of Liberace, Haven Hamilton, has a great deal more dignity. I could go on and on about this film. It stands on its own and has so many hallmarks of what was best about Altman. It has a remarkable amount of good acting. I’m not a fan of country music, but I found the music compelling, entertaining, and illustrative. And of course, there’s an undercurrent of political satire that is omnipresent and yet somewhat subtle. Thanks for steering me back to this one, George. It won’t be the last time.

Jaws is a film that is often cited as the end of the auteurist movement of this period. It, along with Star Wars, ushered in the era of the summer tent pole film. The exciting and thrilling movie that everyone wants to see and now opens on thousands of screens after being talked about endlessly spurred on by a ubiquitous media blitz. I’ve never seen this film in a theater. The first time was sometime back in the early ‘90’s on a color TV set that could only display in black and white. The next time was maybe five or more years ago on DVD. This time on a 42” plasma was likely the closest I’d ever gotten to the big screen experience. I have to say that I found this film quite enjoyable. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, Jaws lives up to the hype. The film is, of course, about a shark that surfaces on the beaches of a small New England town. The mayor wants to keep the beaches open. The sheriff(Scheider, who doesn’t like the water), wants to close them. It all ends up in a massive battle between man and shark. But the greatest moments of the film are in the character conflict. Shaw is a grizzled working class sort who thinks he’s better than everyone else, especially Dreyfuss, a spoiled rich kid who also happens to be a brilliant scientist. Scheider just came to this town because he wanted to escape the excitement of the big city and though he wants to do the right thing, probably thought this job would be a cakewalk. No doubt a big part of the concentration on character was because the special effects didn’t always work as they should. But the end result is thrilling. Often the best movie villains are those least seen as they build up in the audience’s expectation. Despite the films and the trends it would inspire, Jaws is an exciting, well crafted, and eminently watchable film.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

1975, 1976, and it’s time to wrap this up already

I’m going to do my best to stay away from self-flagellation here but I still need to be honest. Its been awhile since I finished all the titles on the list. The final 16 titles on the list were viewed from late February through early April. It’s now late July. While it’s true that I have trouble finishing things, there may be something more here. I think when it comes down to it, I just like watching films and discussing films more than I like writing about them into what more often than not feels like a vacuum. That being said, I appreciate the positive feedback I’ve gotten from some of you. That, coupled with the fact that I need to finish this is why I’m going to struggle through. Some of this are all time favorites of mine that I’ve seen multiple times. Some I’m lukewarm about. Some I barely remember. In the spirit of this experiment being what it is and striving to be no more, I will conclude this project by sharing all of the following entries with the circumstances under which they were watched and under the extreme delay I’ve approached to writing about them. I’m not going to try to find something that links these together. I’m not going to handicap the Oscars for the two years in question. I’m just going to finish this in whatever method I can. I recently started and finished Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. In it, she says that Saturday Night Live executive producer, enigma, and sometime cryptic Buddha figure Lorne Michaels has a saying which I’m going to paraphrase and most likely butcher. “The show(SNL) doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.” I don’t know if any of this is ready. But it’s well past 11:30. Here goes.