16 September 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1977: In which subcultures are exploited for all they're worth

We are now in the 64th year of this Hollywood Century project, stretching all the way back to movies which were made in a time before narrative cinema had stumbled into such essential innovations as close-ups, shot-reverse shot, or camera movement. The earliest years of the Hollywood feature film found an aesthetic that frequently does not resemble modern filmmaking much at all. And still, 64 entries on, there hasn't been a film in this series that feels so much like it was made by a totally alien culture as 1977's Smokey and the Bandit, a movie that's barely older than I am, but feels as divorced from any lived experience that I have personally witnessed as a novel from feudal Japan. Hell, more than that - at least the feudal Japanese movie would announce itself as being stylistically and sociologically removed from the present in a fairly clear, immediate way, while Smokey and the Bandit insistently resembles a completely routine late-'70s action comedy, made as the aesthetic lessons from the New Hollywood Cinema broke free of the limitations (if that's the word) of realistic human experience, and started to show up in junky genre fare. But it acts like nothing routine at all.

The film was made during the golden age of CB radio usage on the U.S. highway system, a golden age that it helped in no small way to define: for the truly exceptional fact of Smokey and the Bandit is not that it's a weird time capsule of a niche culture whose moment in the sun has passed. Films like that are a dime a dozen: surfer and biker movies in the '60s, proto-rock and juvenile delinquent movies in the '50s, movies about horrible coked-up yuppies that are somehow implied to be remotely admirable in the '80s. Fad movies come and go. But Smokey and the Bandit wasn't just a fad movie, it was an enormous hit, one of the literal handful of movies to have surpassed the $100 million mark at the U.S. domestic box office by the end of '77; it was, in fact, the third-highest grossing movie in U.S. history at that point, if my math does not fail me. Little subcultural niche movies don't do that kind of business without, in the process, turning that subculture into the macroculture.

And yet, the culture that Smokey and the Bandit depicts with such joyful comic enthusiasm and ethnographic precision doesn't seem to have done much of anything to influence later generations. For a brief time, thousands upon thousands of normal workaday drivers installed cumbersome radio rigs into their cars, and used artificial names to speak made-up, punning argot as they swapped tales with other drivers in the region about where to eat and where to watch out for cops. There is nothing in modern America that resembles this in any fashion, though at least things like cell phones and Foursquare make the basic idea of it seem moderately like behavior that contemporary people indulge in. For the great span of time between the early '80s and the middle '00s, CB culture had no obvious descendants whatsoever, a rare life-changing, nation-defining fad that winked out of existence like a ghost.

This is, in truth, most of what gives Smokey and the Bandit its contemporary fascination, far beyond its extremely modest charms as an action comedy. It's a window into a fully fleshed-out world with rules and social mores that we pick up as we go along, without explanation (one character is presented as the untutored innocent and audience surrogate, but there aren't actually any moments where she serves as the vessel for an exposition dump), as suffused with meaningful inner logic as the most satisfyingly complex science fiction story; except that the world here existed in mostly the form its presented within the movie at the time the film was made. Nothing short of a documentary could do as good a job of bringing to life a society like Smokey and the Bandit does, and it's virtually impossible to imagine a documentary from the late '70s that was still this watchable. For while it is corny and old-fashioned and suffers from a lead performance mired in attitudes that haven't survived the passage of decades even a little bit, the film moves with unstinting speed and brio, the result of scenarist, legendary stuntman, and first-time director Hal Needham cutting away every molecule of the film that couldn't answer the question, "does this contribute in a material way to the free-for-all anarchic spirit that this movie so badly wants to represent?" The one thing you cannot possibly say about the 95 breathless minutes of Smokey and the Bandit is that any of them lag even a little bit.

The film is your basic cross-country chase: famed trucker-outlaw "The Bandit" (Burt Reynolds) has been hired for an extravagant sum of money by 2014 standards, to say nothing of 1977 standards, by Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick), to furnish the liquid refreshments for a huge to-do he's throwing in Atlanta. Big Enos and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams), we find, have made a game out of trying to trip up the Bandit, but he's just too goddamn good at long-haul trucking to get caught by man, policeman, or the laws of physics. Which makes him the perfect choice to cart back Big Enos's treasure: 400 cases of contraband beer. Not just contraband beer. Motherfucking Coors. Which is as big a reason why Smokey and the Bandit feels so wildly alien as all the wall-to-wall CB slang: $80,000 for 400 cases of one of the worst goddamn beers available in North America? In 1977, of course, it was a different story: Coors couldn't be sold east of Texas and Colorado, making it a special treat for Easterners. But I do not suppose it was any less shitty. Hinging such an enormous romp on the quest to acquire beer that most of us wouldn't spend $5 to have someone pick it up from across the street is hardly the film's fault, but it does absolutely contribute to its ineffable weirdness.

Anyway, the run from Atlanta to Texarkana and back in 24 hours is a daunting prospect, but the Bandit is a brave soul, and he strikes up a deal with his good buddy Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed, the original choice to play the Bandit, and the offscreen singer of the film's numerous trucking-themed country songs) to help him in this great odyssey. The trip west is quick and easy; the Bandit and Snowman have barely any problem loading up the truck Snowman is driving and remaining a full hour ahead of schedule. But just after they turn around, the Bandit - running interference in a black Pontiac Trans Am a few minutes ahead of Snowman - picks up a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field), without stopping to ask what she's running from. And this is a deadly mistake, since she's running away from her fiancé Junior (Mike Henry), the dimwitted cop son of the burly, loudmouthed Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), who takes insults to his family very gravely, and dedicates himself with Ahab-like intensity to finding the sumbitch CB jockey who spirited Carrie away. Cue a multi-state race between the Bandit, the many legitimate highway cops he pisses off on the way - "Smokeys", owing to their Smokey the Bear-like hats (slang not explained in the film, though it's one of the best-known elements of CB argot) - and the raging, well out of his jurisdiction Justice, with Bandit besting his opponents with the ease of a Warner Bros. cartoon character for whom performing comic anarchy is a source of relaxation as much as anything else.

As an evocation of a particular moment in time, and a depiction of the sprawling "everybody is family, and everybody HATES the police" attitude of the CB-using community, Smokey and the Bandit never ceases to be captivating and fascinating. As a movie, it's kind of not great at all, actually. Needham keeps things moving briskly, as he and his many co-writers fill up the screenplay with bright, fizzy dialogue and nonsensical happenings, but the whole film quickly adopts a one-size-fits-all zaniness that ceases to be at all fun to watch long before the halfway point, let alone the ending. There are individual shots that are impressive either because they are lovely in and of themselves (the opening image of a truck's exhaust vents and CB antennae, suitably mythic in silhouette against the dawn sky), or because they portray impressive car tricks - there's a jump across a bridge that's one of the more impressive car stunts I have seen, especially given that Needham and crew were rather desperately making this all on what amounted to a shoestring budget, once Reynold's salary had been taken out. But mostly, the filmmaking is of an entirely functional sort, the kind where the filmmakers are plainly relieved to have usable footage at all, and asking for sophisticated, creative visuals is plainly beyond the pale.

The bigger thing, anyway, is the film's comedy, which is unquestionably one of those "you get it or you don't" things. I don't. But lots of people in the '70s did, back when Burt Reynolds was one of the world's biggest movie stars. I am certain that readers of a certain age can explain what that moment in time felt like, but contrasted with most of the big stars of the past, even the ones like Norma Shearer or Charles Boyer who didn't remain famous once their moment in the sun was over, but are still basically charismatic and appealing when you watch their movies today, Reynolds's particular brand of rugged American masculinity simply has not aged well. Not even a tiny bit like Clint Eastwood, who was the other most popular male movie stars at the same time as Reynolds, and whose vintage and newer films alike both exude magnetism. Reynolds, I find, is simply smug and off-putting: wearing a perpetually cocked attitude, delivering every single one of his damn lines with the same self-amused lilt like he's interested solely in tossing off quips and posing for the camera, and creating even the vaguest semblance of a dramatic character not as much. Some of the lines, admittedly, are strong enough to survive his delivery: but wit isn't the order of the day as much as broad regional jokes, the kind that haven't aged that well themselves, unless you find that painting all Southerners as bellicose, redneck fuckwits is t'riffic comedy.

In defense of the redneck humor, I have to say that Gleason's commitment to it is a really incredible thing of beauty: his puffy, sweating performance of Justice, a character he took a very active role in re-shaping and fleshing out, is miraculously physical and fearless, even if its in service to some very dumb jokes that feel like a cascade of parodies of the "failure to communicate" moment from Cool Hand Luke. But he's a character that, once seen, isn't easily forgotten, and that has to count for something.

The other huge positive is Sally Field; or, at least, Field's chemistry with Reynolds, which was real enough that they started dating in real life. There's nothing inherently special about her fevered performance of a talkative, neurotic ex-dancer with a surprisingly impenetrable lack of awareness of what's going around her (she name-drops Stephen Sondheim at one point, at a time when he was, I think, still an impressively obscure cultural touchstone); but her bubble madness in contrast to Reynolds's effortlessly laid-back simplicity turns into something rather special and fun to watch, almost in despite itself. They're a genuinely captivating odd couple, two massively different energies colliding and moving past each other in some surprising and off-kilter ways, and when the film's comedy sags (which is often) and its action slows (which is less often, but it happens), there's always the two actors pinging off of each other to keep the film going.

Is that enough for $126 million? It certainly must have seemed that way to 1977 audiences, when that was still a fake-sounding amount of money (according to Box Office Mojo, it adjusts to $463 million in 2014 dollars, a fucking psychotic haul for a frivolous action comedy made on about one-twentieth of its ultimate gross). I can't imagine something that laid-back and low-key making even that much today, unadjusted; perhaps we are just a less laid-back people, and less inclined to helping out strangers just because we like the sound of their voice. At any rate, saying that the film struck a chord isn't the half of it: it defined a moment in pop culture history with a thoroughness that only a couple of dozen films ever have. Some movies do that, and become legendary, deathless classics. Some movies do that, and become bizarre half-forgotten little curios for later generations to study with puzzled delight. Well, I do find Smokey in the Bandit puzzling; and in truth, I find it delightful too, even though that has almost nothing to do with the reasons its makers intended that a viewer should be delighted.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1977
-George Lucas convinces 20th Century Fox to take a bath on an overpriced space movie called Star Wars, for which he gamely retains the toy rights in lieu of begging for a paycheck for his weird little pet project. The results cause him to retire from directing for 22 years
-Disney's The Rescuers brings a glimmer of light back to American children's animation after a decade of some of the worst cartoons ever made
-George Burns plays God and folk-western singer-songwriter John Denver plays anything at all in Carl Reiner's Oh, God!

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1977
-Larisa Shepitko, whose premature death has gotten no less tragic since last we mentioned it, makes her glorious final film, the WWII fable The Ascent, in the Soviet Union
-In Great Britain, Eon Productions finally gives up pretending, and just makes James Bond a fantasy hero in The Spy Who Loved Me
-Hans-Jürgen Syberberg makes Hitler: A Film From Germany (West Germany, to be precise), an experimental biopic and coming-to-terms that runs all of 442 minutes

15 September 2014


After two and a half glorious years without so much as a lazy afternoon with no internet, Comcast has apparently decided that I've gotten complacent, and I am currently without any connection at all. As much as it's in my power to grab time at public wi-fi hotspots and write things that way, I shall do so, but I hope you won't all leave me if I don't have anything new in this space till sometime late on Wednesday.

14 September 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1976: In which we are mad as hell, and are not going to take it anymore

One of the grandest clichés in the critics toolkit is to refer to a classic work of satire or social commentary as being "ahead of its time", with the passage of years not serving to blunt the impact of a film's satiric insight but to make them seem less like satire at all, and more like docudrama. In truth, I can only think of two movies where this really seems to apply: 1998's The Truman Show, whose excoriation of what was then the new form called "reality television" seemed like fantasy at the time and now feels like something that could happen tomorrow if they figured out a way around the legality, and 1976's Network, in which the gorgeously erudite writer Paddy Chayefsky spun a tale of how the news media at its worst is a whorish sinkhole in which the most wretched and violence impulses of humanity are turned into exploitative nonsense to get you good and bloodlusty before the dish soap and car insurance commercials.

It is very probably the case that there is, at this point, nothing left to say about Network, one of the most beloved and iconic of '70s American films, with its all-star cast (William Holden! Faye Dunaway! Robert Duvall! Peter Finch! Ned Beatty! More than half of whom were Academy Award nominees, and Dunaway and Finch won, on top of it, as did Beatrice Straight in the shortest performance ever honored with Oscar gold), and it's glisteningly literate script, possibly the most pridefully written thing in Chayefsky's justly legendary career, and it's famous "mad as hell scene", the kind of moment that so perfectly grabs hold of a cultural moment that it remains famous even among people who've never seen the film, even among those who aren't aware what film it's from. If there's anything I can possibly do with Network, it's mostly to point out, somewhat against tradition, that actually director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Owen Roizman, production designer Philip Rosenberg, and to a smaller degree costumer designer Theoni V. Aldridge and editor Alan Heim, actually did quite a lot to make the film what it is, too. It's not just the Chayefsky show, though I concede that it took me three, four, God knows how many viewings before I'd figured that one out on my own. It definitely has the propulsive dialogue, frequently laid out in exorbitant long patches for which the word "monologue" is insufficient, and spoken with rich, chew élan by actors clearly adoring the experience of saying those words in that order, to feel like the kind of movie where all the film crew wants to do is to keep out of the script's way, and given the primacy of the spoken word in many of the film's most important, memorable scenes, the film crew hasn't necessarily gone out of their way to dissuade us of that notion.

But Lumet was hardly a slouch, and Network is tremendously well-directed film, though frequently in a very small way that doesn't try to pull focus from Chayefsky's fireworks. Sometimes not: the film's most conspicuously "made" scene also happens to be a barnburner, coming late in the film as Beatty's Arthur Jensen, owner of an enormous media conglomerate, confront's Finch's insane newsman Howard Beale, and lays out a new religion of the post-national world of unfettered corporatism. Beatty is framed deep in the middle of a frame so black that you just know that Roizman spent hours studying Gordon Willis before he lit it, flanked by two rows of unearthly green desk lamps, all of it in crystal-clear deep focus, a pathway to Hell that's staged with gorgeously Expressionist flair, and intercut with close-ups of Finch at his clammiest and most most terrified. And just to make sure we got it, the scene later transitions to shots of Beatty illuminated from a hard sidelight and nothing else, rendering him as little more than an insinuating silhouette. No '20s German could have done it any better.

Mostly, though, the visuals in Network are of a subtler, though hardly less crafty or impressive register. It is a film about TV production, and it takes inordinate delight in reminding you of that fact, with its obvious litany of shots that have televisions in the background, at least a few of which have the audacity to stage the main action on those TVs while the activity in the foreground is merely human busywork: the famous early scene where a recently-fired network news anchor Beale announces his intentions to kill himself on air is one example, with the gag (and oh, is it a funny one) being that all the people milling around are so focused on the myriad technical jobs that have to be done every minute to keep a news program running that it takes several aching moments before any of them register what he just said, and the staging and sound mixing mostly trick us into doing the same thing. And then there is the less obvious but even more common trick of staging scenes in offices with giant windows and behind glass partitions and any other way that Rosenberg and Lumet can come up with to suggest to us a world of glass boxes: not everyone in Network is on TV, but everyone is defined by TV, and that leaches out into the world they inhabit, which is frequently and deliberately shot with the flat staging of a '70s TV show on top of everything else.

In other words, no, let us not throw all the credit at Chayefsky, even if he undoubtedly deserves an enormous chunk of it, and Network is his movie if it's any one person's. It is, like all of his best work, driven by ideas, and by people communicating those ideas, and by people using a lot of excess verbiage to specifically not communicate those ideas. I hardly see the need to bother recapping the plot, but for the benefit of those who've never seen it, the short version is that Beale's suicide threat suddenly revives the fortunes of the ailing UBS evening news program, causing old-school newsman Max Schumacher (Holden) a great deal of pissy dismay, and new-school programming whiz kid Diane Christensen (Dunaway) something very close to literal orgasms. The soul of the network, and the sanity of Beale, who is quickly made the centerpiece of an indescribably gaudy revamp of the news, are batted back and forth between these and several other players over the course of two hours, during which Chayefsky gives voice to some of the most acrid, cynical satire that has ever been filmed: nobody in the film comes off as a remotely decent human being besides Schumacher's dumped-on wife (Straight), with even the weary truth-telling that Schumacher indulges in feeling more like resentful sniping and unimaginative defensiveness than Albert Brooks in Broadcast News-style moral wisdom. And the thing that comes off worst of all is the concept of corporations, TV as a business, and turning information into entertainment, with everyone from Communist ideologues to the ranting, fearless mad prophet Beale ultimately giving in and playing the game.

That most of what Chayefsky says is demonstrably true (and, I imagine, was almost as obvious in '76) doesn't stop Network from peering over the edge of the abyss that would make it a ghastly, curdled nightmare of unpleasantness; what does that is how stunningly funny the movie is, something I don't think it gets enough credit for. The man was a damned good writer of elaborate quips and marathon-length putdowns, and the temptation to start rolling through a list of the film's funniest lines is difficult to resist. But he was also in this case blessed with an unusually good cast, full of people who weren't simply able to read his convoluted words and make them feel like thoughts coming out of human heads, but also put a lively, comic spin on them. Dunaway is the best at this, by far: in a great cast, she's the obvious best in show, and while I haven't seen every one of her important performances, I cannot imagine that this isn't the best acting she ever did. Her take on Christensen is as a merciless predator, but far too upbeat and happy to be constantly winning to ever be anything but chipper and charming and pleasant, and the gap between her buzzy, smiling delivery (only a step or two removed from a '30s screwball performance, in places) and the rancidity of what she says and does gives the film a great jolt of absurdist, even manic comic energy. It's her work that shows us how Christensen has replaced her sex drive with a quest to get bigger and bigger ratings; it's her matter-of-factness and easy pragmatism that makes the film's nihilistic final gesture hilarious instead of cruel. Other people are great, of course: seeing Classic Hollywood stalwart Holden in a part that lets him drop so many f-bombs is funny all by itself, and Beatty and Straight's tiny performances are so potent that it never seems even slightly inappropriate that they nabbed awards attention for such limited screentime. But Dunaway shows up, and there's no looking away from her. Can't be done.

Network is so smart, so funny, and so surprisingly believable in its human element, thanks to the cast, that it's easy to overlook some of its really considerable flaws: for me, it lives in the weird space of being a film I absolutely love to watch, and have always thought was overrated. The biggest problem, bar none, is the romantic subplot that brews between Schumacher and Christensen: it offers some great writing and great acting, sure, but it feels so completely at odds with what the film is actually trying to do, and it's hard to square with the characterisation of Christensen seen elsewhere, and it offers up the one place that Chayefsky completely overplays his hand: Schumacher icily deriding Christensen for slotting human beings into clichéd spots in a TV drama, a metaphor he trots out twice. Nothing about Network ever fails to be obvious: as satire, it's a roaring hurricane of outrage about social developments that it obscures not whatsoever. With that being the case, there's simply new good excuse for Chayefsky ever feeling like he has to spell anything out, and when he does - here, a couple of other places - the film suddenly feels very juvenile in its outrage, and not so much thrilling and witty and smart.

Complaining about it's not hard; it holds nothing back, and that leaves some wet, raw patches that almost beg you to poke at them and observe where the film is being crazily undisciplined. But why bother? Network is a pure, primal scream that takes all of the drunken psychic fallout from the '60s, as refracted through an increasingly disgruntled world of Nixon and 'Nam and a worsening economy - the film obligingly does its own job of positioning itself culturally, so we don't have to - and to hem it in any would be to blunt that scream to an unacceptable degree. Sometimes, satire needs to be cunning and deadly to be its best self; sometimes, it just needs to be angry, so fucking angry, with just enough humor to make the medicine go down. Network rages, but there's poetry to the words and and elegance to the visuals that make it feel not so blunt and ugly, and that's enough to make it an endlessly rousing, exciting satire, if not always the most perfectly focused and sophisticated.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1976
-The decade's trend of paranoia thrillers reaches its arguable peak with All the President's Men
-Don Siegel directs John Wayne's final film, the elegaic Western The Shootist
-The Stephen King Movie Machine gets its start with Brian De Palma's direction of a luminous Sissy Spacek in Carrie

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1976
-Moustapha Akkad directs Mohammad, Messenger of God with Anthony Quinn, the first big-budget epic produced in the Muslim world
-Tinto Brass makes perhaps the most famous of all Nazi sexploitation flicks, the Italo/Franco/German Ingrid Thulin vehicle Salon Kitty
-The Brazilian Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands becomes the biggest native hit in that country's box office history, a record it holds for 35 years

12 September 2014


Yesterday begat another of the Team Experience Top 10 lists over at The Film Experience, in which we shared our favorite vocal performances in the movies. And oh, the political gamesmanship I indulged in in writing my list. Rule #1 - no celebrity voice-overs, because that is a toxic crime that's ruining American animation. Rule #2 - only one role per actor, so the top 2 weren't both Eleanor Audley. Rule #3 that was foisted upon me, no short cartoons starring characters who had been voiced multiple times by the same artist.

With all that in place, here was my ballot, which found me as off-consensus as I've ever been:

1. Eleanor Audley, "Lady Tremaine", Cinderella (1950)
2. Paul Winchell, "Tigger", The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
3. Douglas Rain, "HAL 9000", 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [on the TFE list]
4. Sterling Holloway, "Winnie the Pooh", The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
5. Pat Carroll, "Ursula", The Little Mermaid (1989) [on the TFE list]
6. Bob Peterson, "Dug / Alpha" Up (2009)
7. Brad Dourif, "Chuckie", Child’s Play (1988) and sequels
8. Robby Benson, "The Beast", Beauty and the Beast (1991)
9. Christine Cavanaugh, "Babe", Babe (1995)
10. Lucille La Verne, "The Queen / The Witch", Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

And the runners-up, alphabetically:

Hans Conried, "Captain Hook / Mr. Darling", Peter Pan (1953)
Paige O’Hara, "Belle", Beauty and the Beast (1991)
George Sanders, "Shere Khan", The Jungle Book (1967)*
Kathleen Turner, "Jessica Rabbit", Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) [on the TFE list]**
Patrick Warburton, "Kronk", The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

*A celebrity, but how in the hell can you deny that performance?
**A celebrity, but not in an as-such animated feature, so I felt I could count it

And the honorable mentions, nuked from eligibility:
Eleanor Audley, "Maleficent", Sleeping Beauty (1959) [on the TFE list]
Mel Blanc, "Bugs Bunny / Daffy Duck", Rabbit Seasoning (1952)
Pinto Colvig, "Goofy", multiple Disney cartoons & features (1932-'67)

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1975: In which the quickly-changing world is subjected to enthusiastic, if wildly clumsy satire

1975's The Stepford Wives has long since become one of those movies for which the twist ending of its central mystery has become the single thing that most people know about it. This is never a fair place for a work of narrative art to find itself, but it's especially unfortunate for this film, which is good in almost all ways until the twist ending, which makes a complete hash of the social commentary that is one of the film's two main reasons for existing. I shall return to that point; even though the twist ending is the only that most people know about the film, it's still the ending, and I'd like to hold off on spoiling a 39-year-old movie as long as possible.

The film, based on a 1972 novel by Ira Levin (whose Rosemary's Baby traffics in similar "the life of a paranoid housewife" themes, and was also turned into a rather more effortlessly successful movie seven years prior), dives right into the ramifications of Woman's Liberation, the major social progressive activity of the 1970s as the Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s, though one which perhaps resulted in fewer clear-cut victories. Still, it was successful enough to make The Stepford Wives feel like a thematic visitor from another civilisation, with far different expectations about the importance of rigidly-policed gender roles. For one thing, even the most outspoken feminists in the film don't actually go so far as to think that women should be employed outside the home; the story's battlegrounds are set entirely around what they do with the time that they spend not having paying jobs.

Our outspoken feminist for the evening is Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), who has recently moved with her husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), and their two daughters, Kim (Mary Stuart Masterson, Peter's daughter), and Amy (Ronny Sullivan), from the lively and dangerous world of New York to the soothing bedroom community of Stepford, Connecticut. We ken long before Joanna admits as much that this was Walter's choice, believing as he does that life in the suburbs is far more rewarding than the hectic, filthy life of an urbanite - "I just saw a man carrying a naked lady", says one of the daughters as they leave, speaking of a garden-variety pervert with a blow-up sex doll, to which Walter pleasantly notes, "That's why we're moving to Stepford", telling us from the first minutes that Stepford is the place without naked ladies, and that will be important.

As it turns out, Stepford is more sterile and unforgivingly blank than Joanna's worst nightmares. All of the men in town belong to a thing called the Stepford Men's Association, which seems to exist largely so there's a place that women absolutely can not go; and virtually all of the wives of those men are freakishly docile, not just by '70s standards, but by the most alarmist caricature of the Eisenhower '50s. Obsessed with cooking, housecleaning, and nothing else, the Stepford wives are like soulless, sexless objects, and only another recent transplant, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), matches Joanna's attitudes, or shares her belief that something is seriously amiss with this town and the incomprehensibly retrograde gender attitudes it fosters.Eventually, Joanna and Bobbie stop just noticing this weirdness and begin to investigate it; and eventually, Joanna figures out what's going on, for all the good it does her.

That gives us enough to go on; the best and most lasting parts of The Stepford Wives have very little to do with what is discovered about the rotten underbelly of Stepford, and everything to do with the woman discovering it. The film in its present state came about as the result of not always friendly wrangling between director Bryan Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman, the latter of whom had some very accurate complaints about what Forbes's decisions did to the story's internal logic, particularly the decision where he cast his talented but somewhat dowdy wife Nanette Newman as head Stepford wife Carol Van Sant. But we'll get to the film's rickety narrativity in due course; there's so much of it that actually works, quite splendidly, that I'm reluctant to give into Goldman and confess that yes, this actually is kind of half-baked and illogical when all is said and done.

Forbes, whose career highlights aren't remotely as well-known as they should be, was first and above all a terrific director of actresses: in The L-Shaped Room, from 1962, he pulled the first truly great performance out of Leslie Caron; and in The Whisperers, from 1967, he helped the legendary Dame Edith Evans along to what is likely the very best screen performance of her estimable career. He was also, specifically, great at positioning his wonderful leading ladies in the context of thrillers about warped domestic spaces: The Whisperers, again, with Evans going slightly, slowly insane in her run-down flat, and 1964's Seance on a Wet Afternoon, with a sterling Kim Stanley as a demented psychic who perpetrates a kidnapping to prove her skills. The Stepford Wives fills both roles wonderfully: in it, Ross gives an absolutely superb performance that's miles beyond anything she does in her best-known roles, as the milksop girl in The Graduate and the charmingly bland woman spoiling the homoeroticism between the leads of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And she does it in part because the film so obligingly presents her as the very Rosemary-ish woman who finds herself trapped in a town that seems obviously, oppressively "off" to her, even though virtually nobody around her seems to reealise it.

Forbes doesn't play things subtly: he and the great cinematographer Owen Roizman soak the film in jagged shadowy interiors harshly contrasting with eye-bleachingly bright, saturated exteriors, both of them suggesting something very artificial and threatening; and the film also boasts a remarkably dated but even more remarkably successful score by Michael Small that uses some of the most banal, '70s TV-movie cues to establish the soporific ordinariness of Stepford, and then its increasingly vile secrets, as the score begins to have minor-key counter-melodies and electronic orchestrations creeping around the edges to inform us, sonically, that All Is Not Well.

It's a fine, if somewhat overworked paranoia thriller from the era that genre was at its best; Ross's increasingly frantic but reliably strong-willed performance makes her an ideal subject for the mechanics of the film, which is where it works best. And in every detail of the production design, the music, and the costuming, it uses the visual language of the kind of soppy films pandering to women in an ironic, biting way, clearly underlining its angry, satiric goals: this life, this kind of filmmaking, is the sort of box that a certain kind of men want to keep women locked away in, docile and unchallenging and in no way politically dangerous.

And back we thus come to the satire, which is clearly the main takeaway from the movie, even though it's a much, much better thriller than social commentary. As you know - as I know, long before I watched the movie - as the post basically up and tells us - the Stepford wives are robots, made by the mysterious Dale Coba (Patrick O'Neal), who used to build audio-animatronics for Disney. And this is the point Goldman made, and every hetero* male critic has made since, and we're all of us completely right: if you give the kind of conservative, woman-threatened man the movie portrays the ability to replace his wife with a completely docile robot clone who will uncomplainingly do every thing he wants, it's not going to be wearing hilariously demure dresses that go right up to the neck. It will be wearing skin-tight miniskirts that barely contain it's enormous, imbalancing breasts. And it won't have time to take care of the house, the kids, and the cooking, because of the sheer quantity of blowjobs it performs in the course of a normal day. For Goldman, this meant that all of the Stepford wives should also be caricatured, gorgeous trophy wives; casting Newman scotched that, and the movie had to become suddenly very contrived and inapt in its central satiric message as a result (though the fake Joanna does have curvier hips and larger breasts than Ross naturally possesses). Even if we conceive that the chauvinist's dream in the '70s was for a parodic version of the '50s to come back, it certainly wouldn't have come at the expense of the Sexual Revolution, which benefited men every inch as much as it benefited women.

Regardless of the specifics, it doesn't make sense except strictly in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, a flaw that didn't affect Rosemary's Baby, which was metaphorical and internally coherent within the universe the film was creating. Forbes's atmosphere and theatricality do an excellent job of putting the reveal over with enough intensity that the logical holes are hard to spot: the confrontation between Joanna and her new replacement is tremendously captivating horror filmmaking.

And besides, whatever intellectual cheats it has to take to get there, the important part is less "what's going on?" than "what does it it mean for our characters?" Joanna and Bobbie are extraordinary movie heroes, sharply-written and brilliantly performed. As long as the film remains in a horror/thriller mood, presenting their discovery of the sheer scale of the entrenched anti-woman worldview they're facing as a sort of Kafka-esque nightmare, it works beautifully. Intellectually, it could be a lot sounder, but its rhetorical skills are of secondary concern to the way it all feels, and it feels bone-chilling. Not the tightest paranoia thriller, not the most persuasively horrifying in its implication, but far better than the generally soft reputation it has suffered from ever since the '70s, and a fine work of craftsmanship from a director whose thrillers are some of the best that you've almost certainly never seen.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1975
-Hotshot kid director Steven Spielberg almost fails to make the first movie to ever break $100 million at the box office, Jaws
-After years in the making, Robert Altman brings to the big screen the long-awaited Nashville, with 24, count 'em, 24 of your favorite stars
-Edgy animator Ralph Bakshi makes Coonskin and immediately embroils himself in racial controversy

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1975
-Belgium's Chantal Akerman creates a new feminist visual vocabulary with which to showcase three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
-The simmering Australian New Wave bursts out in its full form with Picnic at Hanging Rock, a cryptic anti-mystery by Peter Weir
-Sholay becomes among the highest-grossing films in the history of Indian cinema, past, present, or future

11 September 2014


It eventually had to happen, of course. Across four films from 1965-1968, Daiei's series of films about the giant monster turtle Gamera had ranged from not too bad, to not bad enough to stop being delightful, to bad enough that their badness made them delightful. But the tank had been empty for a while, and finally the franchise just plain stalled out with its fifth entry, 1969's Gamera vs. Guiron, where we hit the point of complete unwatchability. It's not that much of anything has changed: for enormous swaths of its running time, Gamera vs. Guiron functions almost as a straight remake of the previous year's Gamera vs. Viras, made by most of the same creative team, including director Yuasa Noriaki and screenwriter Takahashi Nisan. Though one man who didn't come back from that film was composer Hirose Kenjiro, replaced in scoring duties by Kikuchi Shunsuke (his first Gamera picture, but not his last - he scored all the remaining first-wave films in the franchise). And this confirms my suspicion that Gamera vs. Viras only turned out to be as fun as it was thanks to Hirose's unexpected, jazzy surf-rock score, adding just the right touch of "...wait, what?" to an otherwise junky kiddie monster movie. Oh, sure, the most salient contribution he made to the series is back, the rousing march "Tsuyoi-zo Gamera" with an all-boy choir spouting their nonsensical praise of the turtle savior of humanity and humanity's children. It shows up twice, no less! But there's a lot of movie beyond that, and it is slow-burning death. Not even one of the most shockingly daft monster designs in the entire history of the daikaiju eiga can turn Gamera vs. Guiron into anything pleasant to watch. I consider myself a purist about watching subtitled foreign-language films versus dubbed ones, but in this case, I think the morbidly curious would be better off watching American producer Sandy Frank's VHS dub from the '80s; at least that's so outlandishly incompetent that it's funny.

But fool that I am, I watched the Japanese original for this review, an in that version we open with a gambit taken right out of the '50s American sci-fi cliché grab bag, Over blurry still photos of nebulae and galactic objects, a stentorian narrator (is there any other kind, in cheap monster movies?) spouts some kind of portentous nonsense about the unknowability of the universe, and the discovery of a new wave from space. "WAVES FROM SPACE" bellows the newspaper headline, in a shot taken right out of the '30s American cliché grab bag. And this wave is quite exciting to everyone, leading Dr. Shiga (Funakoshi Eiji) to hold a press conference to find out what it is.

Dr. Shiga, however, matters not one whit to the rest of the movie, since we have a cluster of young people who already know what's up. Japanese boy Akio (Kajima Nobuhiro), his American friend Tom (Christopher Murphy) - there's bound to be some fascinating sociology explaining why these movies made for an audience of Japanese children suddenly found it very important to have American co-leads for their juvenile heroes, but I am afraid I can't even guess what it might be - and Akio's little sister Tomoko (Akiyama Miyuki), are a trio of space nuts, and they're well aware that it has to be aliens. Akio and Tomoko's mother (Hamada Yuko) is rather down on this, but not enough to prevent the children from going off and doing whatever silly nonsense they like, which involves biking to what proves to be the landing site of a small spaceship. Over Tomoko's objections, the boys scramble in, and are immediately whisked away, almost dying in a collision with a meteor, saved only because Gamera suddenly flies in to bounce the debris from their path. Because Gamera is not merely friend to all children, apparently he stalks them as well.

The craft lands on the planet Terra, which is on Earth's exact orbit but precisely on the opposite side of the sun, so we've never been able to see it. We don't learn that yet; all we know now is that the boys have landed in wildly unconvincing rear-projection of a ruined city, where a silver Gyaos shows up to attack them (you remember Gyaos, right? The daikaiju vampire from Gamera vs. Gyaos? Because this one is just that, spray-painted silver). The monster triggers the arrival of another creature from beneath a pool outside the biggest building, and though we don't know yet that this is Guiron, we've seen the title, and can guess.

And Guiron? Oh, he's a pip. Basically a quadrupedal hammerhead shark with an enormous blade extending straight out from his body instead of the hammer. And with enormous, disconcertingly expressive cow eyes. His fight with the Gyaos is easily the film's highlight, the only action sequence in the whole thing that's remotely well-edited, and astonishingly violent, to boot: Guiron uses his giant knife-nose to reflect the Gyaos's sonic beams and slice limbs off the space bat, one at a time, ending with its head. This gives us a good chance to see that Gyaoses apparently have uniform purple interiors with neither a skeletal structure nor organs.

Guiron returns to his pen after beating this enemy, and the boys are warped into the control room of, apparently, the last two Terrans: a pair of evil Space Babes called Florbella (Kasahara Reiko) and Barbella (Kai Hiroko). Not that they seem evil at first; they're actually quite plaintive in explaining to the boys the history and doomed fate of Terra, overrun by space monsters and running out of energy, with only Guiron to protect it. This may or may not be true, but it's a blind, anyway: what they women really want is to eat the boys' brains, and to do this they lull them into a stupor and scan their memories. Yes, this means stock footage of the previous Gamera films. And having learned that all the children of Earth are protected by a giant turtle guardian, the Terrans are prepared for a fight, and when Gamera arrives to fight Guiron, he is shortly bested and dropped, bleeding and near death, to the bottom of the sea.

To this point, Gamera vs. Guiron has merely been bad; from the start of Gamera vs. Guiron, Rd. 1, it becomes actively unpleasant and never ceases. The fight is a colossal misfire, edited with an eye towards making things as complicated as possible (the physical relationship between the two kaiju is at times literally indecipherable, and staged clumsily between two rather unwieldy fighters - Gamera is played, often as not, by a rigid model that's just kind of swung into Guiron. And once it's over, the film's plot just fucking stops, with scenes that meander around, and cutaways back to Earth, where the boys' mothers are hugely unconcerned with their sons' disappearance, and no clear sense of what, exactly the Terrans are planning to do besides eat two random Earth children. The second monster fight is at least moderately better than the first, owing mostly to how much sillier it is (like the raptor scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, it involves using the power of gymnastics to save the day), but it's still not "good", and the movie needs a lot more to redeem it by that point.

It's just so, so dreadful: the effects work is embarrassingly shoddy, with process shots that look so bad, it's almost easier to assume the characters are watching a low-resolution TV monitor than looking through a window at the monsters, and a Gamera who spends most of the movie looking like a big toy. The score - again, the primary reason that Gamera vs. Viras turned out halfway decent, despite sharing all of this film's flaws and compounding two of them (it had a much worse American boy actor, and far more stock footage) - is particularly terrible, bogged down in frothy, frivolous "happy kids! yay!" noodling around for much of the film. The adult actors are all irritating, though how much of that is the performance and how much is the writing, I cannot say. Certainly, Omura Kon, playing the local goofy cop Officer Kondo, target of the kids' mockery, could never redeem his role, and playing it as the Japanese Don Knotts is probably the best he could manage to do.

The movie is boring and ugly, but neither of these are as devastating as how insipid it is: the worst kind of children's entertainment, in which everything is pitched at a goofy, jolly level that prohibits any real sense of drama, and the kid protagonists are idealised to ridiculous lengths. Such as an endless scene in which they discuss the ins and outs of supersonic travel, showing off their incredible knowledge and strangling the movie to death with unwonted fury. It's all very silly, but not the fun kind of silly, not the energetic kind; it's the silly that happens when you've made five Gamera films in five years, and you begin to hold them in a kind of tangible, toxic contempt.

10 September 2014


The Congress, Ari Folman's first film since his international breakthrough with the animated pseudo-documentary Waltz with Bashir, is surely a broken-down disaster of a movie, barely able to function as an entire self-contained object. But I am absolutely confident that I wouldn't be half as thrilled by it if that wasn't the case: like far, far too few movies out there, it offers the sight of a filmmaker clearly working without a net, pursuing enormously challenging ideas, and experimenting with strictly visual means of expressing them. If the resulting film is a sometimes inscrutable mass of surreal, psychedelic moments strung along a narrative that feels like it's made out of at least three completely irreconcilable parts, oh well. I'd rather watch something with The Congress's absolute fearlessness to make every possible mistake than a polished, functionally flawless, but completely unimaginative stock character drama or popcorn action movie every day of the week.

The movie features Robin Wright as a heavily modulated version of herself, in a role that Folman initially intended for Cate Blanchett (the shift was critical, and correct: it requires a certain kind of "you used to be in pictures; you used to be big" backstory that Blanchett c. 2013 can't claim, but Wright absolutely can). And if Folman's bravery in his storytelling and artwork is admirable, Wright's bravery is incomparably more personal and affecting. She's anchoring a movie about the difficulties that come to women as they age, depicting herself as a prickly, unemployable, "difficult" actor, and allowing Folman and his international team of animators to render her as an exaggerated caricature for a great chunk of the second half. The movie's very first shot says it all: the camera is right in Wright's face, catching her distant, sad look, making her look heartbreakingly beautiful but also every day of 45 years old. I can't recall a single image in a long time that so perfectly sums up the sheer fact of what aging does: leaving a woman who is still remarkably pleasant to look at, but who's not the dewy ingenue that she sees a little while later staring out from a poster for The Princess Bride.

This matters - both the fact that Wright has visibly aged, and the fact that she still looks better than most of us on the most beautiful day of our life - because The Congress is in large part an exploration of the ways that people try to avoid acknowledging the aging process, in some increasingly metaphorical and deranged ways. Opening in live action in something very close to the present, Robin and her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) field inquiries from the slick Jeff Green (Danny Huston), a high-level executive at Miramount Studio, to buy her digital likeness rights. That is, to scan every inch her her body and her every facial expression to make a computer-based Robin puppet to be placed into any movie they like. And Robin can no longer perform anywhere: not in movies, not on TV, not onstage, not on open mike night. The very idea appalls and infuriates Robin, but the increasing sickness of her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), suffering from a rare disorder that is slowly destroying his eyesight and corrupting his ability to process auditory information, and the unexpected, uncharacteristic support of her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) nudges her into reconsidering.

20 years later, at the very end of the exclusivity contract she signed, Robin drives into the desert to attend Miramount's grand Futurism Congress. Here, she is forced to snort a drug that alters her perception to believe that herself and everything around her are animated; and it's in this bizarre alternate world that she learns of Miramount's new plans for an interactive new storytelling medium, in which persons can ingest chemicals that will allow them to experience other person's lives from the inside out, not just mimicking their outward appearance, as many of the Congress attendees enjoy doing. And even that's not the last enormous narrative leap that The Congress makes, but the last one that I can describe without collapsing into spoilers, and also spouting out random nouns that might suggest the shape of the increasingly convoluted, metaphorical narrative, but certainly couldn't spell it out in a useful way.

Folman based his script on Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress from 1971, a book I have never read; though some elements that feel like vintage anti-Soviet symbolism creep through, in bits like the description of Miramount's new chemical experiments as allowing people to experience the free will they are actively denied, or creation of persons forced to do any job the studio wants, with absolutely no choice in the matter. Mostly, though, it's a free-for-all of themes and interests and styles. How people interact with an increasingly synthetic world of screens and people whose chosen identity elides their real one? The Congress looks at that from both pro- and anti- stances. The degree to which new film technologies count as "acting", and what happens as computer filmmaking replaces real flesh and blood people, I mean, that's obvious. The value of fantastic lies versus miserable, filthy realities - not developed very well, but it's vividly presented in film's final sequence.

The effect is less of being presented with an argument and its supporting evidence, than being blasted with ideas at a nonstop pace, and realising only after it's all done how very random and arbitrary some of the shifts between those ideas actually were. Still, ideas are better than the absence of ideas.

And what really matters about the film is the language and style through which those ideas are expressed: after Waltz with Bashir, Folman needs to prove nothing else about his control of animation style, but I was pleased by the frequently gorgeous images that he and cinematographer Michael Englert and production designer David Polonsky were able to concoct. The scene of Robin being scanned is one of the most beautiful sequences of science-fiction I've seen lately, with dramatic, flashy lighting and sets contrasting with Keitel's soft monologue in a simply terrific way.

Of course, the animation that takes up a good half of the two-hour movie is more of an obvious, overt standout. Taking his cues from the animation of the '30s, the Fleischer brothers especially, Folman and his teams create a bright world of shiny grotesques, morphing and slipping and looking inhuman and warped but also soft and round and appealing. And the wildly old-fashioned style makes the highly un-'30s intrusion of moral blackness and violence far more startling than they might otherwise be. There's plenty of overreach - some of the LSD fantasylands of the last portion of the film feel like lazy '70s album cover design - but the fludity and creativity of the animation is a top-notch example of the medium being used in an apparently standard way to achieve entirely deranged goals.

For all that, though, this is Wright's movie. She's only seen in her own flesh for a little while, but the impact she makes with that time is enormous: stiff and stern and defensive most of the time, but melting in calmness or self-doubt in moments that hit with explosive force. It's not just the bravest work of Wright's career, but surely among the best performances she has given, even when she's just providing the reflective, regretful voice to a weird caricature of herself as an old woman. There is steel-like human strength and frantic animal terror flowing into each other throughout her work in The Congress, and while it's certainly a great if wildly inconclusive work of style, Wright always pulls it back to being, ultimately, about what human beings feel, and that's what makes it, through all it's indescribable weirdness, a marvelous and compelling piece of cinema.


09 September 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1974: In which all the artistic revolutions in the world don't stop popular things from being popular

It is not uncommon, when people swan about cooing with praise for the New Hollywood Cinema and the exciting American cinema of the 1970s, to act as if the whole of the film industry was engaged in thrilling experiments that met with broad favor from audiences, who for once in history were interested in being challenged and enlightened by extraordinarily bold cinematic voices, till those poopypants George Lucas and Steven Spielberg ruined everything. This is untrue. This, indeed, fucking untrue: while it's the case that movies like The Godfather and even The Exorcist would surely never be such Zeitgeist-defining megahits in the 2010s (or the 2000s, or the 1990s...), and this is a sorry reflection on later generations of filmgoers, it's also the case that The Poseidon Adventure plausibly could be. And it was right up there on the top of the pile in 1972, right alongside The Godfather. The simple fact is that the movies we now heap money upon, as a culture (effects-driven action films with simple, cookie-cutter storytelling impulses and deliberately shallow one-trait characters), are also the movies that our parents and grandparents did, only the effects have changed, though the traits enjoyed by the characters, largely, have not). When brainy, adult-themed dramas do well, it's always an exception, not a trend, and pretending that every Joe and Jane Moviegoer in the '70s was three-quarters Film Comment critic does nobody any good. It's not like the $307 million worth of Star Wars viewers in its initial release were being marched into theaters at gunpoint.

So back we go to The Poseidon Adventure, a movie that saved 20th Century Fox from extinction, and made veteran spectacle producer Irwin Allen all sorts of fun new ideas for how he could extend that film's salient characteristics and extraordinary success into film after film after film. It's certainly not that Allen invented the disaster film; Universal's Airport, in 1970, is what really kicked off that decade's iconic vogue for the genre, and there's never been a truly protracted stretch of time without a single major disaster picture of some extraction (for it is a genre that can cover many kinds of stories) in America since the 1930s.

But Allen machined the disaster film into a smooth, easily-reproduced formula; Allen perfected the "all-star ensemble cast" variant of the disaster film; Allen drove the disaster film to its greatest heights for a brief but intense span when many people and studios tried to compete with Allen. Nobody could out-Allen Allen; his films were the biggest of the big until suddenly and shockingly, they weren't. And Irwin Allen was never bigger than in 1974, when he produced The Towering Inferno, the second-highest-grossing movie of the year when the disaster movie was at its pinnacle (Earthquake and Airport 1975 also landed in the domestic box office top 10). Allen and the two studios collaborating to make the film (Hollywood's very first joint production between two majors), 20th Century Fox & Warner Bros., even managed to haul the film up to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. One which probably would have otherwise gone to Best Director nominee John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence, because the Oscars were also the Oscars in the '70s, even though they sometimes pretended not to be.

The Towering Inferno is pretty broadly regarded as the best of Allen's disaster movie cycle; I absolutely do not find this to be the case. Not with The Poseidon Adventure sitting right there: for The Poseidon Adventure has a cast generally given towards campier, more excessive performances. And The Poseidon Adventure has a more outwardly fantastic premise, which makes it both harder to nitpick logical holes and factual inaccuracies, and easier to watch its life-destroying menace with a spirit of jolly escapism. The Poseidon Adventure, most importantly, is 117 minutes long, and The Towering Inferno is two hours and forty-four minutes and some. It requires maybe around half of that, and the rest is all the most vicious kind of padding. The film only needs that insufferable running time to give subplots to the huge number of more or less famous people in the cast, and while it wouldn't be an Irwin Allen joint without a mixture of hot commodities, new starlets whose career never quite turned out, and well-known Old Hollywood stars who could be gotten for cheap, it's damn hard to mount any argument that their presence serves any narrative or emotional function. Presumably, they exist for us to have a host of potential victims to root for and fear for; in practice, it's just that many more trite stock characters to keep track of amongst the state-of-the-art destruction porn cumshots.

Really, it's not entirely fair to the characters, nor to Stirling Silliphant for taking on the impossible task of writing them (he adapted not one, but two books on virtually identical themes: Richard Martin Stern's The Tower, and Thomas N. Scortia & Frank M. Robinson's The Glass Inferno, each of them optioned by one of the collaborating studios). It's just a bloated movie that goes on and on about everything for far too long. Re-watching it,* I was both amazed and discouraged to find that its very best thriller setpiece, involving a man, a woman, and two children agonisingly clambering across a chasm of twisted metal and rebar that used to be a stairwell, takes place before the halfway point; the remainder of the action often as takes place in draggy, overly pacey setpieces that don't demonstrate the filmmakers having any knack for drawing out a sequence to drive the tension up to unendurable levels (Allen directed the action himself, leaving the human material to poor hack John Guillermin, who for his sins was made to direct the epochally terrible Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake as his very next movie), but instead that they have a sorry tendency to strain those sequences till they pop like an overinflated balloon.

The film takes place in the newly-built (in fact, not quite finished) tallest building in the world, which has naturally been built in San Francisco, one of the most earthquake-prone cities in the New World. But it's not an earthquake that the 135-story Glass Tower needs to be afraid of, but the petty corruption of untrammeled capitalism: to shave a few percentages off the budget, wealthy magnate Jim Duncan (William Holden) has encouraged his contractors to keep to the city's building code, and not to the amped-up demands made by the tower's architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who wanted to double-down on everything to make absolutely certain that this most outlandish, unprecedented of buildings would be safe from every eventuality. One of those contractors is Duncan's son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who went cheap on the wiring, and wouldn't you just know that the stress of providing power to such an enormous structure needs more than the minimum. Mere hours before the gala near the top of the party at which the building is to be officially opened in front of the leading lights of Frisco, a fire starts in an 81st floor storage closet. And as a dozen or so people who I'm not going to bother recapping, because absolutely none of them matter as anything but fire fodder, go about their business, the fire spreads and spreads, until the fire department is called in, under the leadership of Battalion Chief Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen), to fight the most desperate blaze they'll ever know, under the most disastrous circumstances. For as the film passionately informs us, fires in buildings that are more that seven stories high are virtually impossible to fight effectively. It is important - so important! - to not build indulgent buildings that are deranged firetraps. This message has been brought to you by Irwin Allen, getting all bizarrely preachy in the last scene.

Okay, so I'll mention one cast member: legendary dancer and generally suave motherfucker Fred Astaire, playing a charmingly broke conman and winning the sole competitive Oscar nomination of his career for, apparently, not being dead yet.

So I am torn: as pure spectacle, The Towering Inferno is the tops. Glorious modelwork, beautifully-shot fire effects, elaborate sets, some beautiful matte that look just fake enough so that you can really appreciate the craftsmanship, the whole nine yards. It's certainly the most handsome and accomplished of the year's disaster pictures (as far as "handsome" goes, it takes overlooking the horribly dated style of the Glass Tower itself, which looks like an insanely complicated liquor cabinet), and we cannot think for a moment that Allen wasn't committed to showing every penny onscreen. It is top quality eye-candy; and so much of it! I won't go over it again, having already said it once, for I would not want to be like The Towering Inferno. But fucka-lucka-ding-dong, it just goes on and on.

Despite the best efforts of most of those involved, the film never takes off as more than just a remarkable collection of glossy violence: the cast is decent, and McQueen in particular does the best job I could imagine of portraying a man reacting to the worsening situation around him with clarity, strength, and a weary thread of humor, but I have to wonder how fair it is to call this all "acting". By the end of the film's first third, character has fallen by the wayside, and all that's left is meat puppetry, with some talented and some not-as-talented faces occupying space in front of the camera and screaming in terror as needed, but not giving much of an inner life to the proceedings. This doesn't keep some of the more grueling, inventive deaths from feeling simple meanspirited - I am particularly distressed by the way that the ultimately very minor role of a middle-aged adulteress played by Susan Flannery is dumped from the movie (like a lot of disaster films, The Towering Inferno loves its moralising: especially in the respective fates of the repentant Duncan and the craven Simmons). Do we really need to see this rendered in such loving detail? I contend that we do not, for the film doesn't have the strength of character to follow through and present itself as a meditation on arbitrary, horrible, unpredictable death. The Poseidon Adventure, a cartoon adventure, does not suffer from this. The hilariously awful killer bee movie The Swarm, Allen's next picture, is so feverishly inept and divorced from anything resembling the lived experience of genuine humans, that it doesn't suffer from it either. The Towering Inferno is just realistic enough, just plausible enough, that it opens up some dark doors that it has no interest in peering into, and it leaves a sour note over much of the film.

But I concede that it's exhilarating. There's no elegance in the jerry-rigged screenplay, hybridising two books and forced deal with petty dick-measuring by McQueen and Newman that leaves the back half of the film wildly imbalanced (it also forced The Towering Inferno to introduce the technique of "diagonal billing": on the poster and in the credits, McQueen's name comes first read from the left, but Newaman's comes first read from the top). And there's even less interest in the characters it presents, and there's none at all in the visual compositions, so generic that I can't even come up with anything to say about them. But the fire feels horrifyingly real and present; the sight of it destroying actual sets is every bit as impressive, if less poetically shot, as the "burning of Atlanta" sequence from Gone with the Wind; the sound design, though occasionally a touch metallic and hollow, roars and explodes in a way that movies just did not roar and explode in '74 (I frankly prefer it to the more technologically accomplished Earthquake, though of course I have never heard it in the original, rare Sensurround mix); the score by a young John Williams has early feints towards the lush Romanticism of his most iconic scores from the late '70s and early '80s, and gives the film a soaring, passionate feel that it would otherwise totally lack. It has the goods, even if it doesn't really know what to do with them. But that's beside the point. In 1974, this was eye-popping, revolutionary stuff, and the sheer massiveness of the project and its devotion to showing never-before-seen wonders was obviously more than enough for audiences to get a kick out of it, wonky pacing and flat story and all. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1974
-Paramount releases Roman Polanski's acidic thriller of corruption and wickedness, Chinatown
-Martin Scorsese makes his sole "woman's picture", the ode to old Hollywood and new feminism Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
-The fabled BBS Productions releases its final movie, the outraged Vietnam documentary Hearts & Minds

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1974
-The New German Cinema welcomes an important new voice with Wim Wenders's Alice in the Cities
-Lina Wertmüller directs the Marxist parable Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August in Italy
-With an almost limitless freedom to do whatever he wants, John Boorman chooses to put Sean Connery in a red speedo and has a giant flying stone head disparage the penis in the British sci-fi misfire Zardoz

08 September 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1973: In which fresh cinematic modernism is used for rampant nostalgia, and all the New Hollywood kids are pals with each other

The posters and trailers for the 1973 release American Graffiti, one of the first (if not the first) American movie marketed almost solely on the basis of pandering to its target audience's nostalgia, challenged that audience to remember, "Where were you in '62?" For the film's director and co-writer, George Lucas, the answer to that question is that in 1962 he was involved in a terrible racing accident at the age of 18, which short-circuited his professional interest in cars and sent him on an alternate path that eventually went through film school. This was important for the obvious reason that Lucas's subsequent career in cinema redefined the commercial realities of the film industry more than any other individual filmmaker before or sense, and while I suppose that somebody in the late '70s would have made a movie with the impact of Star Wars, that person probably wouldn't also have seen the wisdom in retaining the merchandising rights to that theoretically blockbuster. So calling Lucas irreplaceable in film history is perhaps rather more literally true than for most other people who might get tagged with that irresistible bit of hyperbole.

This is not, though, the moment to talk about the much-rehashed story of how Star Wars and its waterlogged buddy Jaws ruined everything glorious and artistic about the '70s (which, like most much-rehashed stories is a skyscraper-sized pile of bullshit, but it's not the moment to talk about that, either). We are here now for American Graffiti, which was the other important outgrowth of Lucas's '62 accident. It is a film about the car culture of California teenagers, and it does one of those things that all movies about young people want to do and only a couple have ever really done very successfully, which is to be about one extremely specific time and place that only existed for a fraction of a moment, and through the sheer force of that specificity, manages to be about something much more universal (using that definition of "universal" common in cultural criticism, viz. middle-class, white, and male. But like any other subject, there's nothing wrong with making movies about middle-class white males if you make them very well, and Lucas did that here). It is one of cinema's greatest high school coming-of-age movies, in which the idiot fun of driving around listening to music and doing a piss-poor job of trying to hook up with members of the opposite sex at some point has to give way to becoming a Grown Up. It is a conservative film in this respect, particularly compared to its most obvious descendant, Richard Linklater's shaggy and rebellious Dazed and Confused from 20 years later; in fact, with its unambiguously conformist, "real men go to college or start families" message, it might be the single most conservative great American film of the 1970s.* This has earned it some backlash here and there, and it's really quite an odd standout in the context of the essentially counter-cultural New Hollywood Cinema, but there's so much obvious, unmistakable honesty to it that I frankly don't think its ideology matters. And that honesty comes from Lucas's own life experience, I think, where the culture that his film praises, eulogises, and abandons, in that order, was very nearly responsible for killing him. If any experience is going to make it okay for an artist to say, "you know what, kids, you actually should turn into your parents", that's the one that will do it.

It's a very nice, non-confrontational film, both of which tend to sound like insults rather than terms of praise; but Lucas, compared to virtually every one of his significant peers, was a nice, non-confrontational man. And American Graffiti is a film practically born out of niceness: it was conceived when Lucas, off the cool performance of the acerbic sci-fi parable THX-1138, decided to make his sophomore feature a movie that would give normal people pleasure to watch. It exists because of a kindness: Francis Ford Coppola, the icon of all the film school brats of the late '60s and early '70s but a particular mentor to Lucas, used his enormous post-Godfather clout to do a favor to the young director. Lucas, and his married co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, treat the characters - whom they obviously like very much - nicely as well, gently nodding at their mistakes without a molecule of judgment. The only thing that's not nice is the final moment, a cold bucket of water that reminds the audience that the film's lovingly depicted Kennedy-era sweetness (sometimes called "innocence", but the film is too salty and sexed-up for that word to make any sense at all) led directly into Vietnam. And I think the casual coldness of that last gesture - unquestionably the most aggressively New Hollywood detail in the whole thing - does a lot to counterbalance the film's apparently rosy, uncomplicated view of a more optimistic time (Katz and Huyck, incidentally, found it tasteless that Lucas only told us the fates of his male characters, not his women; but it's really hard to imagine how the pacing could possibly be maintained if they were added, and it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that this movie ever cares about its girls as much as its boys).

American Graffiti depicts the end of summer: it's the last night in town for teenagers Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who are set to go out east for college in the morning. Meeting up with their friends Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) and the older guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), they start dinner at dusk at a drive-in restaurant before parting ways to spend the evening soaking up the sounds and atmosphere of an unnamed Modesto, California, engaging in the local custom of "cruising", tooling around aimlessly through the commercial district in cars bantering with other similar auto enthusiasts. John ends up saddled with the much younger Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), who humiliates him and cramps his style, but also ends up proving a pleasant conversation partner; Terry lies his way into impressing a gearhead blonde, Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark), and continues having to prove his masculinity despite being a fearful nerd; Steve keeps picking fights with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), behaving rather bullying and chauvinistic and superior; and Curt experiences a full-on Long Night of the Soul, trying to decide whether or not he's ready to move on to whatever the hell happens when you go to college. Throughout, the trappings of 1962 are depicted with intense sociological focus mixed with real enthusiasm for the place, the songs, the attitudes, and oh, so much the cars (which Lucas's camera caresses with the same rapt awe that he'd later use for Star Destroyers); and the characters themselves, especially the morbidly backward-looking John and the deeply unsettled Curt, engage in mini-nostalgia of their own, trying to remember back to when things were simpler and more beautiful. The film's way, perhaps of admitting that it knows it's presenting an admiringly whitewashed depiction of the past, for reasons of emotional truth rather than historical mercilessness.

That all being said, I will confess that my love for American Graffiti - which I think to be Lucas's clear pinnacle as a director and maybe the best film about teenagers ever made - isn't entirely about it's mixture of romantic nostalgia and pensive awareness of what that nostalgia might be clouding up about the presence, nor its tragicomic insight about what happens when adolescent boys start to realise that adolescence is speeding towards its close. It's actually about its fucking gorgeous impressionistic soundtrack: this is one of the most audio-driven films ever made. The sounds and music don't merely create a very precise, living, lived-in, organic world for the movie's story to take place in (say whatever we will about any of Lucas's films as director: every one of his movies takes place in a magnificently well-build world), but also providing the emotional spine for a film whose script purposefully keeps away from clean, flowing structure as it shifts from plot to plot and frequently abandons all of them for a shot or two of life in Modesto just spilling out. At which point I might well mention the names of Walter Murch, the sound editor, and Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas, the film editors, all of them critical collaborators in shaping the movie's texture and rhythms.

Famously, American Graffiti includes no fewer than 41 pop singles on its soundtrack, virtually all of them appearing diegetically: performed by a band at a school dance, blasted out of car radios. The way the are placed into the film, warping and fading up and down as cars move around the camera's physical location, is perfect, basically: it suggests with strident realism the exact way that the music would sound if we were actually in the place the movie positions us: echoing off buildings, sliding towards us from a distance, bellowing right in our ear. Nothing in the movie creates its tangible sense of place more effectively or immediately: within seconds of first stepping outside to hear the music coruscating around us, American Graffiti has defined its reality and never for the rest of the movie lets it go. It then falls to the sound effects to create atmosphere and mood, rather than create a sense of realism: an exact reversal of how these things usually work that gives the film a startling originality even four decades later.

The music also does function in the more conventional sense of commenting on the action, sometimes directly and ironically. In the latter category, we have things like the wonderful moment of Laurie and Steve, temporarily reconciled, dancing slowly while around them kids are hectically bobbing to a live cover of "Louie Louie". In the former, we have songs like "The Great Pretender" coming on just in time to drive home Curt's feelings of dislocation. And some songs are just songs, just the thing that happens to be on the radio. As part of its general sense of things getting more ragged and vague as the night moves on - it is a film where the draggy fatigue of being out all night having fun hits hard and ends up giving its half-mythic dawn climax a downright hallucinatory feel - the moments where the songs openly describe the action start to come more and more, neatly suggesting the way that a trivial pop song can seem really perfect and emotionally correct for the moment you're hearing it, the more suggestible and defenseless you become. For that is very much the arc the film describes: growing more frazzled and confused as the long night of the soul keeps marching on.

It's never subtle, not really, but it's so effectively executed that "subtle" wouldn't be a merit and "unsubtle" plainly isn't a flaw (there's nothing remotely subtle about being a teenager, after all). The film is an unabashed crowd-pleaser from the mind of a man who would spend literally the entire rest of his career chasing audience dollars rather than feeding his artistic muse, and it rewards the idealised viewer's love of being a teenager in 1962 with outright shameless pandering. But married to the sloppy authenticity of the high-grain cinematography, the docu-realist setting, and the flickering awareness that, for all the fun they're having, these kids are still going to have to change and become different people, either because they're ready to, or because the shattering cultural upheavals of the next decade will do it for them. Friendly and ebullient and romantic, but never, as a result of all those things, blindly stupid, American Graffiti is pretty much terrific all around: one of the most formally adventurous movies of a bold age, one of the most accurate depictions of teen psychology put to film, and a remarkable snapshot of a culture that existed, as such things go, for hardly the blink of an eye. It's by no means one of the most "important" New Hollywood films, but it's unstintingly great cinema, or I don't know what.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1973
-The Exorcist explodes at the box office, setting of a new trend in religious-themed horror
-The failure of Columbia's Lost Horizon finally kills off the mega-musical as a genre
-Terrence Malick makes his debut film, the poetic nature tribute/crime thriller Badlands

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1973
-A collection of Czech refugees working in France create the animated political parable Fantastic Planet
-European-style realism and native African cinematic traditions are combined in the Senegalese Touki Bouki, by Djibril Diop Mambéty
-The anti-prolific Spanish director Victor Erice makes his debut with the fantasy-tinged drama of childhood Spirit of the Beehive

06 September 2014


As far as nine-years-later sequels go, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For... well, actually it's pretty fucking awful, since the only other nine-years-later sequels I can think of right off star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy instead of Mickey Rourke and Jessica Alba, and take as their explicit theme the evolution of culture and individual personality against the background of nostalgia. Whereas A Dame to Kill For is powerfully eager to act like not a minute has gone by since Sin City opened, exactly copying the original film's distinctive aesthetic and using extensive make-up to erase the passage of nearly a decade from every returning star's face.

What I started off to say is that, as far as nine-years-later sequels go, A Dame to Kill For could have been infinitely worse. Because, when all is said and done, exactly copying the original film's distinctive aesthetic - that is to say, the aesthetic the original film exactly copied from the Sin City comics of writer/artist Frank Miller, whose visual concepts were translated so precisely that director Robert Rodriguez extended him a directing credit, exactly the situation that attains in the sequel - isn't such a terrible thing as all that, when even after most of a decade, you can still count on one hand all the films that have recalled into Sin City's extremely unique style of harsh monochrome and all-CGI sets designed with the thinness of angry line drawings. And you can count on no hands the number of good films to have done so. Unhappily, A Dame to Kill For doesn't buck that trend; we'll get there in a moment. First I want to finish saying nice things about the way the movie looks, because it's just about the last nice thing I'll have to say. The one big change the new film makes is that, coming in 2014 instead of 2005, it gets to take advantage of 3-D: and for all that I'd have predicted that a 3-D rendering of such a vigorously 2-D art style would look be hideous on a pre-verbal level, actually, A Dame to Kill For turns that to its advantage, pitching itself somewhere between a shadowbox of paper cut-outs and an exploration of the possibilities of pure visual geometry, shapes and dots suddenly gaining some kind of unexpected texture from their planar relationships. It is surely the first and so-far only essential work of 3-D I've seen in 2014; or maybe it would be better to say that it's the only film for which it is distinctly better in three dimensions than in two. I mean, we're lifetimes away from Gravity here.

That nicety aside, the film is not very good, occasionally drifting into outright putrescence. And this was predictable as far back as 2006, when a Sin City sequel first started to form in Rodriguez's hopelessly optimistic eyes. Of the six books and one short story collection that make up the published entirety of Sin City, there's really only one great story and two pretty solid ones, by my reckoning, and the two best were already used in the first movie. Now, A Dame to Kill For is the other pretty solid one. So that's a leg up. And the filmmakers have the basic good sense to avoid the other full-length stories, Family Values (which is impenetrably awful) and Hell and Back (which is better on the merits, but only just, and it's dismally fucking long). Instead, the film rounds out its content with two new stories: "The Long Bad Night" (which, if I understand it correctly, is fleshed out from an unfinished story Miller has had around for a while), and "Nancy's Last Dance" (entirely new), and one of the better pre-existing short stories, "Just Another Saturday Night".

The last of these opens the movie as a prologue, and it's easily the peak of the film: a nice way to warm back up to the style, the moral corrosion, the dementedly hard-boiled dialogue, and the warped physicality of the characters in the form of Rourke's probably schizophrenic thug Marv. The other two are, I want to reiterate, new Frank Miller. "The Long Bad Night" much less so, but "Nancy's Last Dance" is a kind of no-holds-barred tour of all the incomprehensibly dark things that have happened inside Miller's head in the 21st Century, with its rageholic violence and disregard for any kind of logic or linearity (it is, I think, completely impossible to square with the existing Sin City chronology) and even the most modest coverlet ripped off of Miller's deeply unpleasant thoughts about women. Which seems even worse here since it seems evident from the focus on tragic stripper Nancy (Alba) and the voiceover she speaks - I believe, the first ever written for a Sin City woman - that this is trying to redress the baked-in sexism.

And A Dame to Kill For has the intense misfortune to end with "Nancy's Last Dance", which means that for the last 20-odd minutes of the 102-minute feature (more than 20 minutes shorter than Sin City), we are pummeled over and over with a nonsensical, needless story that can't put a single foot right (career-worst acting from Alba! Bruce Willis as a sad ghost!) and is almost too ugly for words, so whatever kindly feelings one can generate towards the film are bashed into pieces by the structure that insists on leaving us wanting so much less.

Not that kindly feelings are in strong supply. It's not a long movie, really, but the pacing is all whacked to hell, making it feel positively endless for stretches, and the insertion of "A Dame to Kill For" right in the middle of "The Long Bad Night" does neither any favors - particularly since "A Dame to Kill For" lacks the tendons connecting the two new stories, so instead of feeling like a collection of vignettes, like the first movie, A Dame to Kill For feels almost like one story that has a completely irreconcilable other story twisting around in its middle. "The Long Bad Night" is, itself, a pretty drowsy affair: Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shockingly lucky gambler who picks up the sweet-natured bar waitress Marcie (Julia Garner) to watch him humiliate the most powerful man in the hopelessly corrupt Basin City - Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) - at poker. He has his own reasons, embarrassingly easy to predict, for wanting to needle Roark, and this perhaps overshadows his judgement about not fucking with psychopaths who have the police and the gangs at their disposal. Meanwhile, in "A Dame to Kill For", gloomy private eye Dwight (Josh Brolin) is approached by his former flame Ava (Eva Green) to help free him from her abusive husband (Marton Csokas) and his thuggish chauffeur Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan, whom he resembles only in that he is an African-American man). But this is noir, and Ava is much too fatale a femme to possibly mean good news. Which Dwight knows and goes in after her anyway, because when somebody is played by Eva Green in full-on "I will play my flawless naked body like a Stradivarius" mode, it's easy to buy her as the kind of sexual enchantress that no male with even the ghost of heterosexuality inside of him could possibly resist. And there are, of course, only heterosexual males in Sin City. And pedophiles, but not in this movie.

The entirely subjective problem with this isn't that any of it is "bad" bad, but that virtually all of it is dull: as written, "A Dame to Kill For" is light-years better than the almost plotless "The Long Bad Night", but both coalesce into a sort of indistinguishable mushiness in Rodriguez and Miller's flabby directorial hands. The titular story is simply not paced well at all, lurching to life in fits and starts, but never maintaining itself - scenes drag on and dither and collapse.Worse yet, especially compared to the original movie, the acting is at an almost uniformly low ebb: Rourke is basically as good as he was last time, but with less interesting material to play, which is enough to make him the stand-out. Brolin and Gordon-Levitt give almost the exact same bad performance of a cold-blooded hard-ass, with Brolin courting goofy excess a bit more freely (especially in the final act of his sequence, when he really should have been replaced by the unavailable Clive Owen). Horrifyingly, even Green can't do all that much: she plays an almost mythically cruel woman well enough, I suppose, and it's easy to take for granted any performer who can be that at ease with her nude body and draw it up into her performance. But she already did both of these things earlier in 2014 in 300: Rise of an Empire, where she managed to, if certainly not "redeem" the character's grossly sexist clichés, at least play them up with a lifesaving amount of broad wit and tactically deployed campiness that recalls Vincent Price, if Vincent Price was an unbelievably hot woman prone to nude scenes. In that film, Green ripped herself out of the movie, off the screen, and into some totally other universe where she could just be jaw-droppingly magnetic. Here, she successfully embodies a straightforward, long-established stock character that, if she hadn't already existed on the page since 1993, could have easily been introduced in a pitch meeting as "we need to put an Eva Green type in this movie". Which is nowhere near as impressive, nor as film-rescuing.

Green's limitation is the film's as well: it's just not interesting in any way. It looks nice: shiny and stylised and glittering with its hard whites and jet blacks moving along the Z-axis. But it doesn't look any nicer than the 21-year-old comic book that it's re-staging, and sucking all of the life from in the process.