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.

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