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

Friday, April 2, 2010

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.

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