An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #8: Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)

Here's a true story about how dumb I can be. Back in college, in an intro American lit class, I was assigned Robert Stone's 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. If that seems like kind of a quirky selection for a 100-level survey course, it was; the professor only included it on the syllabus because Stone happened to be the visiting writer-in-residence on campus that semester, a fact that failed to impress me because I was a total greenhorn when it came to literature and I'd never even heard of Robert Stone. Lazy bastard that I am, I read something like 50 pages of the book before deciding I'd done enough homework that week and casting it aside. So naturally I skipped class on the day our knowledge of the book was to be tested—the day the professor had arranged for Robert Stone himself to visit our class and discuss his novel with us. I remember feeling a modicum of guilt for willfully missing out on this opportunity, but I shruggingly rationalized it because a) I wasn't prepared and b) a week ago I hadn't even known who the hell this guy was.

Cut to 2010 and the egg on my face is fresher than ever. I'm now more familiar with Stone's literary reputation, although I still haven't read anything by him, and I just watched Karel Reisz's spectacularly good film adaptation of Dog Soldiers, retitled Who'll Stop the Rain in a nod to the CCR song prominently featured on its soundtrack. I'm so fascinated by this movie that not only do I want to finally read Dog Soldiers, I want to go back in time and coerce myself into attending class on the day Robert Stone was there to field our questions.

This is on one level a pulpy adventure film, with a tough-guy hero and a girl trying to outrun thugs who are after their MacGuffin heroin stash. But it's also one of those films about the point at which the beautiful dream of the late '60s curdled into the nightmare of the early '70s, and a study of how the Vietnam War drained the humanity out of, apparently, everyone in America—or at least everyone in this movie, in which even the heroes are criminals or drug addicts. In a performance that earned him comparisons to early Brando by the critics of the day, Nick Nolte plays a soldier, getting ready to ship out of 'Nam, whose war-correspondent buddy (Michael Moriarty, striking the right note of dehumanized creepiness) convinces him to smuggle some heroin (or "scag" as everyone keeps referring to it) into California. Everything goes wrong and Nolte ends up on the run with Moriarty's wife (Tuesday Weld, one of my all-time favorites for her performances in sixties films Lord Love a Duck and Pretty Poison, both in my personal hall-of-fame canon). The movie delivers the goods both viscerally and intellectually, driven by Nolte's perfect underplaying of a character capable of both brutal violence and cockeyed philosophical thought.

You can sort of sense where the movie doesn't catch up to the novel. The Moriarty and Weld characters never come entirely into focus. There's not really sufficient preamble to establish precisely why these basically decent guys have entered the drug underworld; we know it's because the war fucked them up, but Reisz and Stone err a bit too much on the side of vagueness with respect to their motivations. I usually don't like to read the book after seeing the movie, but in this case I have a hunch it will be a great supplementary experience rather than a redundancy. And it'll make up for a youthful indiscretion.

Even though only the first 10 minutes take place in Vietnam, this is a much better Vietnam-related movie than the same year's disgustingly overrated The Deer Hunter.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #7: The Landlord (1970)

A confused, angry, wacky, heartbreaking film for confusing, angry, wacky, heartbroken times, Hal Ashby's directorial debut is one of the most complex, original and intellectually searching movies about race in America—not to mention unquestionably the funniest. If it's finally too diffuse and messy to constitute a coherent sociological statement, well, who wants that from art anyway? Screenwriter Bill Gunn even gets in a jab at the comparative shallowness of Hollywood's previous forays into racial drama: the protagonist's racist mother, cautioning him against getting too involved with black people, says, "Remember when I took you to see Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? Well, you know, they're not all like that." The picture inhabits the same Bermuda triangle of race, class and real estate in '70s Brooklyn as Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, 'cept this is a primary document, and an utterly fascinating one.

Beau Bridges plays a rich kid who rebels against his blueblood family by buying an apartment building in the black ghetto, then located in now-gentrified Park Slope. Well, it doesn't necessarily start as rebellion, and it doesn't end that way, either. At first he just has asshole ideas about evicting all the black tenants and using the building for...whatever. It's not clear that he even has a plan; he's just a self-absorbed, pampered dumbass. But as he involves himself more and more in the lives of the black folks—including two separate romantic liasions—he finds a liberal outrage he'd never had, even as most of the people in the black community continue to resent or despise him. But he's too busy with personal entanglements to bother with political ones, and he gets a lot of growing up done via his exposure to that black community. In his adrift coming-of-age, the movie often resembles an interracial take on The Graduate.

The first half of the movie is a daring, freewheeling screwball comedy—complete with Godardian asides, jazzy nonlinear editing, jokey insert-cuts and scenes of dinner-table family humiliation—while the second enters considerably more somber, compassionate territory. I have to wonder if Salon's Andrew O'Hehir fell asleep halfway through the film when he called it "something like a Marx Brothers movie charged up on LSD and left-wing politics." It's tough to think of any movie that treats the commingling of white and black, not just sexual but plain old interpersonal, with this kind of casual, immediate honesty. It turns into something quite moving, its beauty aided greatly by that genius cinematographer Gordon Willis, who finds lovely visual symmetry in the earthtones of the Brooklyn neighborhood locations and the people inhabiting 'em.

Something else unique about this thing: it presents a wide array of interesting, multi-faceted black characters in a movie that isn't expressly for black audiences or made by a black director, or considered a "black" film. Sad to say that's still an extreme rarity in movies today.

Despite its status as a perfect example of what made early dispatches from the New Hollywood so special, The Landlord has never been released on DVD. I recorded it off TCM and enjoyed a not-bad print, though of course I'd jump at the chance to see it projected on film someday. I understand, however, that MGM is about to make it available via that newfangled DVD-on-demand service, in which studios will burn you custom DVD-Rs of films they figure aren't gonna be profitable enough released the standard way. Order here! It's worth it.

And if you want to read a legitimately wonderful review of The Landlord please check out Steven Boone's piece, written for The House Next Door at the time of of a 2007 revival at Film Forum. Here's the money quote: "Thirty-seven years on, The Landlord is still shocking, but not because it's salacious or cynical. The film is shocking because of how tenderly and patiently Ashby attends to certain transgressive moments while asserting that in a sane, just world, they wouldn't be taboo at all." I also love Boone's observation that in one scene, the red light Willis bathes a white and black character in effectively renders them the same color. Good stuff in the comments section, too, as Matt Zoller Seitz jumps in several times. Seitz calls it "Ashby's most adventurous movie, photographically and in terms of editing, performance and variety of tone." From what I've seen of Ashby that is absolutely true. Seitz also claims, as a lead-in to discussing Ashby's radical stylistic choices in The Landlord, that "it might be one of the most influential American films that almost nobody but filmmakers and film buffs has seen." You know what? That's my favorite kind.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #5 and #6: The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Goodbye Girl (1977) [Neil Simon double feature]

Oy, why did I do this to myself? Neil Simon is annoying. I'd recorded both these movies off TCM during their February "31 Days of Oscar" thing—George Burns won for Sunshine Boys, Richard Dreyfuss for Goodbye Girl—so I must have had my reasons for wanting to watch them. Neither one is awful, and I even kinda liked The Sunshine Boys, but if you're talking about the Hollywood revolution of the '70s Neil Simon is one name that will never cross your lips. I think the perfect counterexample of why I'm not a Neil Simon fan is Elaine May's brilliant 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid. Now, Neil Simon is credited with the script for that film, but by all accounts May favored improvisation and ran roughshod over Simon's words to suit her own looser, funnier, far more interesting purposes. But most Neil Simon movies are like sealed ziplock bags; directors (in the case of these two pictures, Herbert Ross) treated his scripts with the utmost reverence, leaving no room for life outside of Simon's contrived, stagey banter. You might get a few chuckles out of his quippy dialogue, but good luck giving a shit about his characters 15 seconds after the movie ends—and, if you're like me, you're going to do more eye-rolling than laughing anyway.

Having said all that, The Sunshine Boys is actually pretty cute, and certainly the more enjoyable of the two films. It's Walter Matthau and George Burns as an old vaudeville comedy duo, now doddering old men who hate each other's guts, reuniting for one last show. The strange thing here is that Matthau wasn't doddering yet in 1975 and Burns was. Matthau was 55 playing 20 years older, sort of ironic given his late-career success playing grumpy old men when it was actually age-appropriate, while Burns was already 80—dude was born in the 19th century—and about to be launched into what must have been unprecedented stardom as a nonagenarian. Burns' Oscar was bestowed for purely sentimental reasons, I guess, because his accomplishment here doesn't really extend beyond remembering his lines while being an adorable little old venerated showbiz legend. But Matthau's transformation is remarkable. You truly believe that he is the contemporary of this man 25 years his senior. Certainly no thanks are in order to the amateur-grade makeup; this is all Matthau. Unfortunately it's kind of a two-faced performance, because he has a tendency to go waaaay over the top that I guess Ross didn't feel like reining in. Unusual for Matthau, and pretty annoying, but I still got a kick out of him.

Of course, you also have to deal with what feels like endless screen time for Richard Benjamin playing the world's most boring straight man, Matthau's nephew and agent. And when Simon tries to inject some sentimentality into this uncle-nephew relationship late in the movie...uggghh. No thanks. I also thought it was a mistake to show so much of the sketch rehearsal, because this supposedly classic vaudeville scene was in fact incredibly lame. I was reminded of Aaron Sorkin's pathetic attempts at writing sketch comedy for Studio 60. There is lots of fun stuff here though, like when Matthau tries to explain to his nephew which words are funny and which aren't. "Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny." I wonder if this was the inspiration for Krusty the Clown talking about the word "mukluk." (See also this article.) Simon's quippy style is well-suited to a story of old vaudevillians, and their bickering is amusing most of the time.

I was less amused by The Goodbye Girl. These characters are just so irritating. I don't mean they're unsympathetic or alienating as written, I mean they're unintentionally grating. Marsha Mason with her whining, Dreyfuss with his dumb quirks. I love Dreyfuss, but his Oscar this year should have been for Close Encounters. Alert: this movie also contains a precocious child character. I did enjoy seeing that weird Andre the Giant-lookin', gigantism-afflicted character actor Paul Benedict pop up as a theater director, especially since one of his best-known-to-me roles is the would-be titular character in Waiting for Guffman. But man, the trajectory of the romance is evident from the moment Dreyfuss shows up at Mason's door, and I did not relish the details of its playing out. Boo.

This was sort of a bracing experiment, in a way, moving from a genuinely radical comedy like Hi, Mom! to something so calm and conventional as a Neil Simon double feature. Everything has its place...but I think my allegiances are obvious, then as now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #4: Hi, Mom! (1970)


I don't know where to begin. This movie destroyed me. It is utterly brilliant and insane and a certain addition to my constantly shifting mental list of all-time favorites.

First of all, anyone who still thinks Brian De Palma is just a Hitchcock ripoff-artist with fancy camera moves needs to see this and have their tidy little false narrative shattered to pieces. Hi, Mom!—part of BDP's early output of late-'60s/early-'70s gonzo-comedies that I once read somewhere referred to as his "Godard period"—is completely unlike the director's famous thrillers. It bears several of De Palma's signature thematic obsessions, but examines them within the context of wackily satirical, countercultural irreverence. And just when you think you've got the movie's bizarro tone nailed down, De Palma drops you into a new situation that culminates in one of the most harrowing and vivid scenes the man ever filmed, before tying it all together in mind-blowing fashion.

The film stars a pre-stardom Robert De Niro as the same character from De Palma's previous film Greetings (which I haven't seen but now desperately want to), an aspiring filmmaker/pornographer named Jon Rubin with a fetish for voyeurism he hopes to translate to cinematic success via a new form of "peep art." In checking over contemporary reviews I see that many people have noted an eerie prescience in this character's similarity to Travis Bickle, and I would have to agree, although Rubin's particular form of sociopathy manifests itself such that De Niro gets to play creepily funny rather than creepily tragic. The movie's first scene is Rubin's hilarious encounter with a porno producer who says things like, "Look at that cleavage! You're not gonna find that in a Fellini film!" and warns Rubin never to enter the men's room at a XXX theater. Rubin's peep-art ambitions fail, hilariously, but he ends up forging a fraudulent romance with one of the subjects of his peeping, based on a series of outrageous prevarications. She thinks he's an insurance salesman up to the very end.

I may be making it sound like a farcical sex comedy, but that's only a tiny fraction of what the film is. I don't want to get into endless plot summary here, but let's just say that Hi, Mom! turns out really to be two films in one, and the other one involves a radical theater troupe of black-power activists documented in black-and-white verité-style for an ostensible TV documentary. When the troupe stages their performance art it's one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen on film—more disturbing, to me, than anything in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, to name one film whose shock value I think has been overstated. And it's all the more unsettling for the sick joke with which De Palma buttons up the scene.

Oh, I don't know. De Palma auteurists can and have written about how the themes of voyeurism and meta-textual awareness in Hi, Mom! fit into his larger career; check out this piece at Reverse Shot, whose author agrees with me about the devastating power of the "Be Black Baby" sequence, calling it "the best moment of De Palma's career, and perhaps the key to it, as well." All I know is that the movie's wild mix of tones and uniquely skewed take on sixties counterculture did a number on me. I'm a long ways from being a Brian De Palma completist—I'd kill for a retrospective to hit Chicago, because if anyone's work demands to be seen on film, it's De Palma's—but this movie's iconoclastic gamesmanship has burrowed into my brain more than anything I've seen by him to date. Stay tuned for my "Lost in the '00s" feature, when I cast my lot in with the defenders of De Palma's underrated Mission to Mars!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #3: The New Centurions (1972)

Sucks to be a cop, man.

That's the not-terribly-nuanced thesis statement of this aggressively pessimistic police drama, an adaptation of the first novel by L.A. cop-turned-author Joseph Waumbaugh. Or at least by its last half-hour or so.

One of the first things I observed when I started exploring this period of American cinema was how pessimism and cynicism were so fashionable, almost the status quo. Even otherwise innocuous or generic movies seemed to take narrative turns that support a stiflingly bleak view of human nature and society. In its home stretch, The New Centurions takes several such turns that I just didn't buy. A key character commits suicide for no discernible reason other than sentence one of this blog post, which I felt was horribly misguided; suicide is a trump card that dramatists should basically never, ever pull unless it's abso-fucking-lutely the necessary and best choice for the character. After that, the other main character's life goes into a similarly unconvincing tailspin and the movie becomes a lot less interesting to me.

Which is a shame, because for a while there in the early going, it's pretty great. One of the fascinating things about this era is that movie clichés as we know them didn't really exist yet. Sure, there were clichés and tropes of Hollywood v1.0, but when those were discarded in the late sixties following the collapse of the Hays Code and the sea change in American culture, the slate was suddenly blank. New forms and ideas would eventually ossify into cliché, but for a brief, thrilling period everything was up for grabs. So here, you have a situation—innocent rookie cop (Stacy Keach) shown the ropes by cynical, near-retirement older cop (George C. Scott, wonderful even in an underwritten role)—that sounds clichéd now, but plays fresh in the film. In fact, what the early scenes feel like—as directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, one of those guys who was around in the old days but adapted well to the New H.—is an episode of Law & Order as directed by Robert Altman. There is that sense of free-floating possibility that I associate with Altman. Fleischer avoids a strict narrative, opting for a collage of seedy Los Angeles ghetto activity: a hooker roust (Scott just gets them drunk, drives them around and deposits them back on the street), an intense domestic disturbance, dealings with various shady crooks and lowlifes. Fleischer decorates these scenes with plenty of location ambiance, and the funky Quincy Jones score helps make everything feel very '70s and cool.

The movie spends a lot of time showing how policework destroys a cop's personal life. Nowadays, this is about as banal and clichéd an observation as you can make about cops. There's nothing wrong, exactly, with how the scenes of Stacy Keach's troubled home life are handled, and I liked Jane Alexander's performance as the wife, but they feel boilerplate compared to the gritty, funky rhythms of the cops' late-night rounds. Then the aforementioned suicide happens, and the Altman-esque sense of possibility is replaced by a banal fatalism. Still, if you have any sort of fondness for crime fiction and/or the '70s, it's impossible not to be delighted by at least some parts of this film.

Postscript: What the fuck is going on in that poster? Just look at it. It is hilariously awful. "Hey, this movie is based on a book, so let's put a GIANT BOOK on the poster and have characters from the movie climbing—stairs? a ladder?—into the pages of the book," or something. What.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #2: Hester Street (1975)

Less to say about this one, as it's perhaps more interesting for its novelty value than anything else. What makes it an oddity? For one thing, it was an independently produced, self-distributed film in an era when the word "indie" didn't yet exist and non-studio films were made mostly for the grindhouse. It's a near-plotless film in black-and-white, about a group of Jewish immigrants in 1890s New York, and here's the kicker: writer-director Joan Micklin Silver's commitment to authenticity was so strong that half the movie's dialogue is in fucking Yiddish.

I couldn't believe it either. One of the basic items of disbelief-suspension in American movies is that when characters from non-English-speaking countries talk to each other, they're probably going to speak English, because the movie is for English-speaking audiences who don't want to read subtitles. Not so here. I wonder—did the actors actually learn the dead language, or just train to read their lines phonetically? The only known quantity in the cast is Carol Kane, whose wonderfully subtle performance is several worlds away from her familiar flighty comic schtick. (She was nominated for an Oscar for the role, which is kind of cool.) Her character is an old-worlder just off the boat who's having trouble adjusting to life in America, while her husband, who's already been in New York for a while working at a sweatshop, already considers himself a proud Yankee. That's the only real conflict in this loose, episodic film, which verges on tedium at times but is ultimately rescued by charm and authenticity.

This is surely the only movie ever made to climax in an elaborate Jewish divorce ritual—and still somehow end on a happy, upbeat note. Silver's blithe disregard for audience-coddling makes this a notable film, albeit not the most engaging the decade had to offer. It's no classic, but it's an odd little gem that's both of its time and unique. Oh, and Ray Romano's mom from Everybody Loves Raymond is in it. Jeez, was she ever young? Alas I don't think she speaks Yiddish in the movie. But pretty much everyone else does.

Lost in the '70s, #1: Play Misty for Me (1971)

Usually when I pop onto this blog to electronically scribble some semi-coherent ramblings about movies, it's contemporary fare that inspires me—gushing over Greenberg, for instance, or defending Shutter Island from the wrath of A.O. Scott. I'm more of a "purist" these days: less interested in home video, all about the 35mm theatrical experience. But lately I've been feeling the urge to dive back into the era of cinema that I started exploring on DVD in earnest a few years ago: the wild and woolly 1970s. Although every decade since the medium's inception has much to offer, there is something enduringly exotic and exciting about the '70s, and not just for the well-worn mythology concerning the period—the creative freedom given to young film-school auteurs by major studios, the rise and fall of the New Hollywood, all that obvious stuff—but for reasons less easily defined than that, more mysterious and elusive.

In the spirit of investigating that weird X-factor that makes '70s films so special, I'm launching a new feature here at Strictly From Hunger, the not-too-creative title of which you can find in the subject line of this post. Wonder if I'll stick with it...

In his outstanding video essay analyzing a scene from George Lucas's THX 1138, critic Steven Boone suggests that what primarily sets apart the Hollywood of the '70s from the Hollywood of today is the former decade's allegiance to a basic formal competence that seems lost now. He writes: "Post-1970s, post-MTV, post-AVID, post-Internet, post-DVD, this is what mainstream American cinema has lost. Studios throw money at the problem, when, as this sequence illustrates, the solution starts with filmmakers who understand the subtleties of true film craft...and the power of its simplest tools."

One filmmaker who's been wielding those tools pretty effectively for 40 years is Clint Eastwood, and what's really impressive is that he evinced an understanding of "true film craft" right out of the box: the terrific thriller Play Misty for Me was his directorial debut. Working with a low budget of under a million bucks—even adjusting for inflation, there are no studio pictures today made for that cheap—Eastwood makes every shot count. It's a simple film, with not much on its mind beyond delivering a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller, but beautifully effective in the way Eastwood and his collaborators employ the basic tools that Boone's essay elegizes.

An example: because Eastwood keeps the camera relatively static in most scenes, you know it means something when the camera does move. When the first scene of violence comes, Eastwood films it with a quick series of spazzy POV closeups and odd angles. The effect is jarring because the preceding scenes were shot straightforwardly, and the violence has real meaning and impact as a result. You don't just nod to yourself and think "violence is happening now," as so often happens in modern action sequences; you feel it. It hits you. All filmmaking is violence, but good filmmaking is a sucker-punch to the gut; bad filmmaking is a sloppy drive-by shooting that misses its target and wipes out innocent bystanders.

Today Eastwood has been anointed a "classicist" for his adherence to this approach, although he rarely gets in as many good sucker-punches as he did in Misty. But one of the interesting aspects of this picture is how loose and playful it is compared to most of Eastwood's later work, which, at its worst—like the airless mediocrity Invictus—is too rigid to leave much of a mark. By loose and playful I mean that Eastwood lets himself indulge in the occasional whim; after a startlingly non-linear cut that took two characters from one scene to another in the middle of a line of dialogue, I actually said out loud to myself, "Eastwood would never do that now!" So too with the lovely but narratively extraneous love-montage set to a Roberta Flack song, or the weird detour into fiction-meets-documentary footage of an actual jazz festival the cast and crew invaded for a scene that, Eastwood revealed in a DVD interview, he threw in for the express purpose of burying a piece of narrative info to ensure that audiences would be surprised by an impending twist. In one scene he even blurs the line between dream and reality in a nearly De Palma-esque fashion. That kind of directorial frippery is the opposite of what we expect from Eastwood, but he can get away with it because, to paraphrase John McCain, the fundamentals of his technique are so strong. And it gives the film an added dimension of intrigue that feels very '70s to me.

If I have a problem with the movie it's Eastwood's performance, which isn't nearly as sophisticated as his direction. Clint wasn't yet comfortable playing verbally active human beings rather than stoic, abstract icons of violent machismo. For me, the dude wouldn't fully ripen as an actor until he was old enough to recast those icons in a revisionist light; in other words, I think his first really interesting performance was as William Munny in Unforgiven—still his masterpiece and quite possibly the best film of the '90s. In Misty he doesn't quite seem to know what to do with himself playing a realistic, peaceful man. Blessedly his co-star is the amazing Jessica Walter, known to discerning fans of the modern sitcom as Lucille Bluth, who is terrifyingly convincing every step of the way as Clint's one-night-stand turned psycho stalker turned attempted-murderer. This woman belts out some primal screams of passionate violence that will curdle the blood and bump the goose. You'll never look at Arrested Development quite the same way.

I haven't said much about the plot because it isn't particularly interesting, except in that it more or less invents the template for sexually charged thrillers like Fatal Attraction and its many sleazy imitations. But don't hold that against it. I don't think there are any weird gender politics going on here; the Jessica Walter character is less a sexual predator than the kind of socially retarded nuisance we've all known, regardless of gender, who manages to involve us in their life against our wishes. Fair enough, I say. Oh, and while it really isn't a horror movie at all, the poster's tagline features a fun, horrorific riff on a Flannery O'Connor story title: "The scream you hear may be your own!"

In a 2008 blog post, Matt Singer wonders why Eastwood's name never seems to come up in discussions of '70s New Hollywood vanguards: "His exclusion probably has more to do with his personality than his work: unlike so many of the New Hollywood directors, Eastwood wasn't prone to wild flights of druggy inspiration and always brought his productions in on time and on budget. The fact that Eastwood was a huge movie star, and thus seen as an actor first and a director second, certainly hurt his perception as a "young artist." His doubt distanced him as well. It's worked out in the end; while so many New Hollywood directors crashed and burned along with the linings of their nasal cavities, Eastwood's matured into a director the equal or superior of those who hogged all the early acclaim." This latter assertion is debatable, I suppose, but the simple-yet-quirky excellence of his debut film really isn't.