Norma Rae (1979)

Norma_rae_ver2.jpgIf you had any trouble possibly liking Sally Field before — consequently, one of the sweetest actresses ever to cross the screen — then there’s little gripe to be had with her any longer. Norma Rae really does feel like a gift for her. Both as a story to be a part of and a character to portray since both speak to us intuitively as an audience. 

Marty Ritt offers a story that is as close a representation of his work as you might find — a narrative that’s not flashy but more importantly and yet still meaningful and chock full of human characters and conflicts. However, it’s not just sharing those elements for the sake of it. There is a rational impetus behind it all, setting out to shine a light on social grievances in order to enact some form of change. 

Again, he gets a script from husband and wife powerhouse Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch who fortuitously helped define his career with stories such as The Long Hot Summer (1958),  Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and this feature.

Its authentic inspiration stems from real life textile champion Crystal Lee Sutton, a worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She spearheaded the unionization of her textile mill in an industry that has long held out against any regulation partially due to bullheaded leadership and ignorant lay workers who didn’t know any other life. There’s the arc in a nutshell. 

 Because Norma Rae (Field) is one of those people and she’s lived within a community of the very same folks all her life. Her father struggles to keep up with the strict regimen, her mother is losing her hearing systematically, and Webster has a couple young kids though she’s never officially married. As they might say, when she was a young woman, she knew a couple of men in the Biblical sense. 

Part of what makes her so likable is the trait of a genuine straight-shooter with the alacrity to do what she sees fit. When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) sets up shop in town long-term, to try and get support for a union, most of the locals are wary of the outsider. Norma Rae asks him almost innocently, “Are you a Jew?” He responds in the affirmative and she responds that she’s never met one before. 

Though Reuben is a congenial fellow, he’s the definition of a fish-out-of-water, bred on New York society with a quality education, Dylan Thomas, and an attorney girlfriend waiting for him who his mother loves.

Ron Leibman does a fine job in the role because he doesn’t just play it charismatic and likable through every beat. He manages to skirt this fine line where there are genuine flashes of malice where we question Reuben as a person. Is he simply taking advantage of people or forcing others into a vision of what he thinks will be good for them? He even acts like a grade-A jerk and a bit of an instigator when he’s feeling up to it. 

Thus, Norma Rae grounds him as someone who does have a full stake in this fight, in this community, and this story. This is her job, her family, her reputation all put out in the open — all on the line and she’s willing to go for it. That takes true gumption and a fighting spirit few individuals can muster. Boy has she got it. She’s also capable of the southern cajoling that made men like LBJ such effective movers and shakers. 

However, the film constantly plays with this tension within her. Because she’s not a rich person by any means. When she’s given a promotion to a spot checker, her hourly rate goes up incrementally and she subsequently loses the respect of all her colleagues as someone who has gone to the enemy. The relationships mean more to her than the pay just as a better future has greater precedence over sacrificing her time and pouring heart and soul into Reuben’s cause.

Norma Rae also has a pulse of the ultimate good which is admirable. She goes to the local church — an all-white establishment — posing two questions to the reverend she has known all her life. First, asking if he would call her a Christian? He smiles and nods, with a lapse or two, yes.

But then, more pointedly, she asks if he would call himself a Christian? He’s still so caught up in the idiotic dogma that blacks and whites cannot mix. And yet for Norma Rae, the bottom line is there ought to be justice — and the church, if it’s really going to practice what it preaches, must be involved in this same dialogue.

It’s not always the words spoken but the images seen that leave a lasting impact. A funeral sequence in the rain. No words just a hearse being lowered into the ground inch by inch. The point is made better than any eulogy by man There’s Norma Rae transcribing an anti-union message on toilet paper to pass on to Reuben or the heart-to-heart she has with her kids to head-off any of the scurrilous slander they might pick up. There’s her furious struggle as two policemen try and drag her to a police car. 

Likewise, Field standing up with a cardboard cutout simply scribbled with the block letters “UNION.” She slowly circles around, resolutely, again and again. People notice her, stop for a moment of consideration and then all turn off their machines in a simultaneous act of solidarity and defiance. 

This particular sequence goes on for several minutes and the sequence is allowed to unwind wordlessly as we slowly hear the din grow progressively dimmer. It could have easily been cut down to its bare essentials and yet in this way the full brunt of the impact has been made apparent as we are forced to contemplate the full gravity. It’s an everyday action that takes on monumental dramatic importance. 

The same could be said when the ballots are read in consideration of the new union. It’s back and forth. The tension again is palpable but it’s the jubilation on the faces that captures me. In every one of these instances, Ritt gives the immaculate illusion he lets it happen. No tricks. No extra flourishes. Just all right there for us to be a part of. He’s at his best with human stories of fully realized people working through things of seemingly genuine importance. That is Norma Rae to a tee. 

4/5 Stars

Sounder (1972): A Family and Their Dog

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In adolescence, you are inundated with stories about dogs. The Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, Homeward Bound, Ginger Pie, Marmaduke, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Air Bud, Snoopy, and Old Yeller. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, off the top of my head. Sounder belongs to the same storied tradition based on humanity’s infatuation with canines which is certainly well-founded.

Except some will be surprised to find that this Depression-era tale brought to us by Martin Ritt is hardly about a dog at all. True, we are met with the eponymous hound dog right off the bat. What greets our ears is the bouncy staccato harmonica-twanging behind the visuals of a frantic tear through the underbrush that goes with the territory of a coon hunt. It’s an instantly recognizable image to introduce our characters.

Not just Sounder but a boy named Henry Lee and his father, the jovial but hardpressed Nathan. The year is 1933 and we’re in Lousiana in the midst of the Depression. With society sectioned off as it is, as a black family, the Lee’s have been forced to scuttle through by sharecropping for a white farmer. It’s the fate faced many African-American families of the day.

They’re perpetually in debt, have trouble keeping food on the table, and live with the most meager means possible. All in all, with two parents, Nathan and his wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson in a fiercely unvarnished performance), there are also three kids, and of course, Sounder.  Writer Lonne Elder III takes this atmosphere, the environment, and the family living within it and builds the framework of a story with great care and concern for their everyday reality. The plights and the joy that they still manage to have.

Taj Mahal, while also providing the film’s music, does a fair number in front of the camera as well as the energetic neighbor named Ike who drifts in and out of the story as he pleases. There are baseball games where Nathan Lee comes out the hero striking out his last opponent with runners in scoring position. From the local church, you can hear Gospel spirituals like “Old Time Religion” ringing out with fervor.

But in the same community, there’s a segregated schoolhouse and Nathan gets jailed and sent away for a year of hard labor for what seems like a trivial infraction. White men, including the local sheriff and the shopkeeper, will hardly budge an inch for a black man. That’s what seems so pernicious. Sometimes it’s not even outright violence but it’s this inability to change or have any amount of grace or understanding. There is no clemency to be had based on this rigid narrowmindedness.

When you begin watching more movies sometimes you fail to acknowledge those that are unpretentious and good-natured — the kind of stories that are meant for the whole family and wholly uplifting to the soul. Sounder is one of those movies. Surely there was a social hierarchy in place of oppression and de facto segregation. And yet around the nucleus of the family, there is a decency that pervades the picture and ultimately lifts it up. While it doesn’t completely eradicate ill-will, it does push it to the fringes of the frame.

Family reunions have never been so poignant — considering the moment where Nathan finally comes home after innumerable trials and his family has toiled and sweated day after day to hold onto their land. What they have in that instant is a small slice of heaven. It’s written over every face as the space between them rapidly fades away and they meet in an embrace that brings their world back together as it was meant to be.

But Sounder also manages to be a tale of empowerment for one lad in particular, young Henry Lee. The movie places people in his life who are willing to give him a leg up. There’s old Mrs. Boatright who is one of the few whites who will take any kind of stand — even a slight one — and she blesses him with things like The Three Musketeers.

It’s these people and books and knowledge that give a glimpse to a world of greater freedom and opportunity. An avenue to a life where people cannot keep you down no matter how hard they try because with ideas comes a power to think and to be your own person, set on improving yourself and the world as you go forward.

Yet another woman, a schoolteacher, takes an interest in Henry Lees improvement since she perceives the quiet wisdom that can be cultivated into something fully-realized. Her gift to him comes through education and elucidating him about figures like Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and W.E.B. Dubois — people who were shapers of history big and small — just as he has the opportunity to be.

Granted, it does feel as if the family’s pet is pushed to the periphery for much of the film, but in a way, it feels like a realistic depiction. He doesn’t need to be front and center. By their nature, if dogs are really man’s best friend, what makes them so meaningful has to do with their loyalty — they are always there — consistently reliable.

Because the life of an impoverished family like the Lees is the epitome of hardship. They need all the stability they can get. You will come to realize it is not really about a dog at all and certainly not one of those family-friendly films marketed as such because they feature some extraordinary, nearly superhuman animal.

No, Sounder is for the family because it takes care in documenting the realities of this particular family in a way that is thoroughly candid. It might still stand as faulty advertising but for the plethora of folks who are moved by the movie, they probably won’t be complaining when the credits roll. What we get is far better than a run-of-the-mill boy and his dog narrative. What I am reminded of is one subtle parallel. Sounder is winged by a shotgun when Nathan is taken away. He doesn’t come back for a long time. But when his wounds are healed, he returns good as new. There’s a startling resilience present in both the canine and the family.

4/5 Stars

Big Jake (1971)

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The film has an opening gambit that nearly feels unbecoming of a John Wayne picture and yet there’s something simultaneously quite riveting about it. You can’t quite take your eyes off of it, waiting to see what will come to pass.

Our narrator sets the scene in 1909 where, while the East is rising in a constant deluge of modernization, the West is still as ornery as ever. What follows is a full display of that reality as a band of thugs led by John Fain (Richard Boone) rides into a sprawling ranch with one thing on their minds.

There’s a sense that this late-period work from veteran director George Sherman, his last film, in fact, is well aware of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) generation and it readily ups the violent content. Although it is a modern western in this sense, there are still blatant signs of not only antiquity but the deep-rooted hierarchy of the West along ethnic lines.

With his good buddy from the early days behind the camera, John Wayne has another personal vehicle on his hands. There’s no doubting the centrality of his presence on the plot even if his entrance is delayed. The stock company is rich and deep as per usual but there is a myriad of young guns too and Duke had a habit of making his work a family affair.

Bobby Vinton gets a near token cameo while little Ethan Wayne becomes crucial to keeping the plot chugging forward as the thugs run off with the boy expecting a ransom in return for his life. Duke’s other two grown sons are played by Patrick Wayne and Bob Mitchum’s boy Christopher. Though not quite family, Maureen O’Hara makes a lovely appearance as the strong-willed ranch matriarch who has long been estranged from her husband Jake McCandles. The scenes with her longtime costar end in a blink of an eye but with such a meaningful cinematic history together they leave the necessary impression.

Like most of these later works, similar to a McClintock! (1963), Big Jake is unequivocally a must-see for the John Wayne faithful — people who could watch him in just about anything will find time to be heartily entertained.

It’s somewhat of a menacing western drama but there’s still ample room for a cheeky and rip-roaring good time. Big Jake, though more violent than some of Duke’s predecessors nevertheless has his mark of approval all over it. There are falls in the mud. He gets plenty of time to smack his sons around and also receives his share of wallops as retribution. Pulling buckshot out of backsides and dousing them with whiskey is all in a day’s work. And Duke is as vociferous as ever.

That’s what will get people to stay. Because it’s one thing about John Wayne that is rather refreshing. Like him or not, you know full-well where he stands and how he’s going to play it. Larger-than-life and tough-as-nails but with unquestioned integrity. I’m drawn to that like many others because I come from a wishy-washy generation. But far more than that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he does, the Duke never seems to do something purely out of spite. Instead, he has some deep-seated convictions.

He plays Big Jake McCandles with his typical presence that knows few equals in terms of longevity or sheer durability. Wayne certainly understands how to command a room and while everyone else tries to upstage him no one has the gumption. Richard Boone is probably the only old-timer who has the wiles and the pedigree to try to steal his spotlight and he’s, of course, the ringleader of our villains.

Despite being a man who left his family long ago, McCandles returns on a moment’s notice to rescue his kidnapped grandson. He’s a no-good old coot but there is that aforementioned sense of moral integrity. He’s has a funny way of showing it but he cares about family.

The truth is, he sees out his objective with his typical dogged resilience laced with worldly wisdom and tenacity. The conflict spawns from one son who is rightfully bitter and another son who seems like he’s traded out the past for new-fangled gadgetry. In the end, it seems the tried-and-true methods prove most effective. Wayne is joined in the task at hand by his feisty canine named “Dog” and a veteran Apache tracker named Sam.

Elmer Bernstein’s scoring automatically evokes layers upon layers of added richness from any western scenery and he’s somehow able to perfect everything that is resplendent and majestic about this way of life. There’s a deep abiding understanding of what The West meant and what men stood for.

Their final destination comes in a bustling boom town with thugs milling about and everyone looking to get a hand in on the cash payload that the McCandles have hauled around in order to save their young kin.

We know it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head. Of course, Duke gives it a bit of a kick in the rear by instigating barroom brawls to rile up the masses as a quality distraction. The resulting payoffs are as expected and gut-bustingly uproarious. And of course, John Wayne gets the last laugh of all from inside the shower stall of a barbershop followed by a final showdown where every member of the McCandle clan gets their own chance at redemption.

There’s nothing cutting edge here but this is a story of the dwindling West and so when that’s what your story is about, I think it can be said that Big Jake succeeds in these modest regards. After all, it’s a self-selecting film because anyone who wants to see it will be satiated and anyone else probably won’t search it out anyway. John Wayne has that influence on people even today.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.

It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.

Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.

“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.

One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.

The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.

But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.

Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.

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She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.

Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.

Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.

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It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.

Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.

The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.

This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!

The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.

His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly,  it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.

4/5 Stars

Mirror (1975)

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Andrei Tarkovsky has already left such an indelible impression on me even after only seeing a couple of his films. This already makes it very easy to place him atop that ever fluctuating, never quite established, constantly quarreled over, list of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He’s subsequently one of the members of the fraternity with the least recognition; the key is visibility or lack thereof. Because once you see his work, even if it doesn’t completely speak to you, something is released that’s all its own with a singular vision and the unmistakable brush strokes of an auteur.

There has never been a film more fluid and uninhibited in the distillation of memory than Mirror as it slowly slaloms between the past and the present, enigmatic dreamlike movements with unexplained conversations and encounters, spliced together with bits of wartime newsreels and spoken poetry.

In order to even attempt to ingest any of this rumination at all, there’s a near vital necessity to shed all the traditional forms and languages that you have been taught by years of Hollywood moviegoing.

Not that they are completely excised from Mirror but it’s never driven by logical narrative cause and effect. Rather it’s driven by emotion, rhythm, and feeling — what feels intuitive and looks most pleasing to the eye.

It’s precisely the film that some years ago might have been maddening to me. Because I couldn’t make sense of every delineation culminating in a perfectly cohesive, fully articulated thesis, at least in my mind’s eye. It’s far too esoteric for this to happen. But this unencumbered nature is also rather freeing. There’s no set agenda so as the audience you are given liberty to just let the director take you where he will.

To its core, Mirror gives hints of a very personal picture for Tarkovsky as it memorializes and canonizes pasts memories and shards of Soviet history. Because they are tied together more than they are separate entities. And yet, as much as it recalls reality, Mirror is just what it claims to be. It is a reflection. Where the world is shown in the way that we often perceive it.

The jumbled and perplexing threads of dreams, recollections, conversations, both past and present. Childhood and adulthood, our naivete and our current jaded cynicism, intermingled in the cauldron of the human psyche. Back and forth. Back and forth. Again and again.

Because what we watch is not simply about one individual. As with any life, it’s interconnected with others around it. A woman (Margarita Terekhova) sitting on a fence post during the war years in an interchange with a doctor. In the present, Alexei, our generally unseen protagonist, converses with his mother over the phone. We peer into the printing press where she worked as a proofreader. Rushing about searching for a mistake she purportedly made. Regardless, it hardly matters.

In the present, Alexei quarrels with his estranged wife on how to handle their son Ignat. The fact that his wife is also played by Terekhova is more of a blessing than a curse. In a passing remark, he notes how much she looks like his mother did and it’s true that she is one of the connecting points. Even as she embodies two different people, the performance ties together the two periods of the film. Visually she is the same and that undoubtedly has resonance to Tarkovsky.

As the film cycles through its various time frames so do the spectrums of the palette. The color sequences have a remarkably lovely hue where the greens seem especially soft and pleasant as if every shot is bathed in sunlight. It’s mingled with the black and white imagery as the story echoes back and forth, past and present, between different shades and coloring. But whereas these alterations often provide some kind of cinematic shorthand to denote a change in time, from everything I can gather, Tarkovsky seems to be working beyond that.

Because there are scenes set in the past that are color, ones in the so-called present that are monochrome, and vice versa. It’s yet another level of weaving serving a higher purpose than merely a narrative one. If I knew more about musical composition I might easily make the claim Mirror is arranged thus — the cadence relying more on form than typical cinematic structure.

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That and we have Tarkovsky’s long takes (though not as long as some) married with his roving camera that nevertheless remains still when it chooses to. The falling cascades of rain are almost otherworldly in their spiraling elegance. The wind ripping through the trees a force unlike any other though we’ve no doubt seen the very same thing innumerable times. Fires blaze like eternal flames. Figures lie suspended in the air, isolated in time and space. Each new unfolding is ripe for some kind of revelation.

We also might think our subjects to be an irreligious people but maybe they still yearn for a spirituality of some kind. I’m reminded of one moment in particular when, head in her hands, the wife asks who it was who saw a burning bush and then she notes that she wishes that kind of sign would come to her. If there is a God or any type of spiritual world, the silence is unappreciated.

I recall hearing a quote from the luminary director Ingmar Bergman. He asserted the following, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

The words are striking to me because you could easily argue Bergman’s films also had such an ethereal even refractive quality. Look no further than Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or Persona (1966) and this is overwhelmingly evident. And yet he considers Tarkovsky the greatest.

This isn’t the time or place to quibble over the validity of the statement. But it seems safe to acknowledge the effusive praise the Soviet auteur has earned for how he dares play with celluloid threads and orchestrate his shots in ingenious ways. He exhibits how malleable the medium can be as an art form while never quite losing its human core.

4.5/5 Stars

Badlands (1973)

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I’ve always maintained a great admiration for Terence Malick, even after only seeing two of his most renowned pictures, Days of Heaven (1978) and Tree of Life (2011). This a testament to his intuitive understanding of the image and how gloriously sublime it can be. It’s true his pictures seem to exist in their own strata, part reality and then this heightened stratosphere verging on the ethereal.

Now I’ve seen a third, his arresting directorial debut Badlands, and it remains obvious that though his career has progressed, his films at their very essence have remained the same. Malick is a Texas native who attended the AFI Conservatory and became a pupil of Arthur Penn.

It’s true you can see a cursory similarity in content between the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and this picture because we have the archetypal love-on-the-run narrative. But there’s hardly any confusing them in terms of execution.

Penn’s picture is upbeat, sensual, and almost flippant with these youths in revolt. It does feel like a kind of a statement for the 1960s. But Malick’s film is entirely matter-of-fact, a bit detached, and mystical. Even the music plays into this almost timeless quality that sets it outside of a specific timeline even as it functions as a kind of period piece.

We have a vacant serenity playing a backdrop to all the action with canvasses bathed with soft hues of light. As best as I can describe it there’s a dreamy, gossamer-like tint to the imagery. It feels warm and welcoming at first with a calm cadence until it no longer can exist as such.

Aided by Sissy Spacek’s innocent gaze of mundane wonderment in the world, it’s a southern story of the grimiest sort, which somehow winds up being a fairy tale romance in her eyes. Her voiceover is what holds the film together and never allows it to lose this illusory quality.

Loosely based on The Starkweather case, Kit Caruthers (Martin Sheen) is a high school drop out who collected garbage for a time and fashioned himself after James Dean’s rebellious reputation. He introduces himself to the hesitant, naive Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) who nevertheless finds him intriguing. Though many years her senior, they start accompanying one another, much to her father’s chagrin (Warren Oates). He knows the boy is no good.

Kit was never someone to let others dictate his life for him and with cool calculation, he moves forward with a plan, taking Holly with them as he goes out on the road. They commence a life together out in the open and it feels a bit like Robinson Crusoe. It’s no small coincidence they read Kon Tiki while lounging in a tree house they have constructed by themselves. It’s a far cry from its predecessors at this point.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is a film depicting killings dotted across the land and yet they are, again, matter-of-fact, even forgettable, which seems terribly callous to admit. But there simply is not the same blatantly violent, in your face, bloodshed of the earlier picture. Continually any amount of drama is replaced with a trance-like dreamscape, aided by the fact writer, producer, director Terrence Malick was never one for intricate, pulse-pounding plotting.

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He is a filmmaker and he gifts us indelible panoramas of America. A billboard set up against rolling prairies and the most glorious of cumulonimbus clouds. Naturescapes cultivated with luscious greens that might be found in Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and frolicking easily at home in the works of Renoir. Conversely, we have a house burning that feels like an otherworldly funeral pyre. The old must burn to give way to the newfound promised land Kit and Holly are embarking for.

While the image is always paramount in a Malick film, one could argue the music also has a hallowed place with Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” adding this oddly tinny, adventurous note to the score. Then, Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” provides an immaculate encapsulation of romantic ideals whether our fugitive lovers are driving, dancing, or just taking in the scenery. It’s perturbing to have something so melodious play in the wake of such brutality.

To say the film reaches a conclusion is slightly deceptive. More so, it simply fades away. Finally, some local police catch up with them. First, they send a helicopter and then a police car is dispatched. Holly is left behind and caught. She recounts how she moved on with her life after Kit, getting off on her charges and marrying the man who defended her. And Kit was caught too but it came on his own terms. He accepts it with his usual unemotional equanimity.

Watching Martin Sheen in these moments is riveting because he seems content with how things have run their course. As friendly and personable as you might expect and yet capable of such dehumanizing evil. It’s the dissonance of these scarring acts of aggression followed by him pragmatically fielding questions with the media and then being shipped off to his execution with his guard wishing him well. How can such a man exist?

There is no reason to Kit. He simply commits to actions, which are completely detached from any feeling. And yet he is simultaneously capable of some amount of human connection and camaraderie. It leads me to surmise he is a character who could never exist outside the context of celluloid. There you have part of what makes him such a compelling study. Because other films have already filled out the contours of disillusioned antiheroes and killers to our heart’s content.

Like any admirable filmmaker, Malick provides us with a novel distillation of age-old themes. He makes the accepted paradigms feel fresh and perplexing again. Thankfully for us, he’s never ceased going down a road paved with his own vision and personal preoccupations. Because at its best, his individuality is capable of speaking to willing audiences in fundamentally unique ways.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing_saddles_movie_posterThough it’s easy to be a proponent of Support your Local Sheriff for its sheer scatterbrained zaniness, Blazing Saddles has that and something more to offer, making it arguably the greatest western satire of all time. Brooks took part in all facets of the film as was his normal prerogative and he sets up the introduction with Frankie Laine belting out the main theme with a tremendous gusto that evokes the grandeur of the West. It makes it ten times funnier when the film actually begins to hit its stride. Because it sounds like a western in the beginning, it even looks like a western, and it goes through many of the plot cycles that we’ve grown used to, but in other ways, it’s so fundamentally different.

The most obvious demarcation Blazing Saddles takes in telling its tale of the Old West involves the very fact that Bart (Cleavon Little) is made acting sheriff of the quaint frontier town of  Rock Ridge. In actuality, it’s all part of a nefarious scheme by the local man in black Hedley Lamarr and his right-hand thug Taggart (the iconic Slim Pickens). Hedley Lamarr uses the incompetent, womanizing governor as his pawn to get the new sheriff installed so the town will be sent in an uproar and he can swoop in and buy off all their land. After all, none of the white folk could possibly hope to live in a town with a black sheriff.

So that is the main conflict at the center of Blazing Saddles and it’s absolutely ludicrous and at the same time still somewhat unnerving and telling about American society. Mainstream white society did not really know how to cope with African-Americans and other racial minorities in some ways and even more so they didn’t know what to do with their own amount of messy history. Because it’s true that even in film, the mythic Old West was not very good to Native Americans or Asians and African-Americans were all but nonexistent. And in his film, Brooks takes all of that on thumbing his nose at every archetype as well as political correctness (although that term undoubtedly did not exist as prevalently as it now does throughout our culture).

Supposedly the writer’s room was utter mayhem for this film with Brooks certainly at the center of the mix with the likes of Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman also heavily involved. No matter the amount of chaos, however, the film does come off fairly well. It’s laden with purposely absurd anachronisms like Count Basie’s orchestra, for instance, a medieval hangman’s noose complete with a medieval hangman, and of course, droves and droves of Nazis and other baddies who answer Hedley Lamarr’s call for criminal types of all descriptions.

There’s a local dance hall singer (Madeline Kahn) who does her best Marlena Dietrich knockoff from Destry Rides Again, while Mel Brooks even manages to portray a Yiddish-speaking Native American who allows the segregated black wagon train to pass as the whites get attacked.

Gene Wilder takes on a typically understated role as the town drunk and deputy who shares some traces of Dean Martin’s role in Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, the locals (all named Johnson) gather at their place of worship to have a plaintive dialogue about what they are to do to protect their good names a la High Noon. So there you have it. That’s the film in a very small nutshell as Bart must try to calm the townsfolks fears and quell his enemy all the while trying to not go crazy with all the racist white folk.

Be warned that this film does have funny segments but it also happens to be fairly crude which is not necessarily a surprise. Still, it’s obviously something to consider before watching. But it does seem that sometimes comedy such as this is able to enter territory that we’re squeamish to go in our everyday conversations and more serious moments. Because in some sense maybe comedy can poke fun at all the things we take so seriously — the things we need to lighten up about and connect over by the very fact that we’re all human beings.

However, it can also be pointed, ribbing its audience as it highlights the very things problematic not only in our past but in our present too. And that’s one of the most redeeming things that can be taken out of Blazing Saddles. Sure, you can take it simply as a raucous, inane, often vulgar western comedy from the estimable nut Mel Brooks, but it also speaks a little bit to film’s ability to enter into areas that we as a society still need to address.

The use of the “N” word throughout the film personally makes me tense as that word has so much history and a racial charge going through it. But when Brooks used it, apparently with the vehement backing of Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, you could even argue that its very use takes some of the power away from those who wish to use it perniciously. But that’s necessary dialogue to have.

The best scene in the film has to be near the end, at the studio, as the camera pulls back and we realize we’re only on a film set. An absolute doozie of a pie fight ensues at the commissary to punctuate the utter tumult that is going down thus far and Hedley is pursued by Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid to the film’s premiere. In the end, they get their man and ride, err, are driven off into the sunset. The fitting ending to arguably Mel Brooks greatest cinematic achievement.  If John Wayne’s any litmus test, Duke famously told Brooks being in the film didn’t fit his image, but he would be the first in line to see it. That gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

4/5 Stars

Slap Shot (1977)

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The question is, what to do with Slap Shot? It’s grungy, dirty, and foul-mouthed. Bloody and violent. Did I mention profane and boisterous? Loud and obnoxious? Yet somehow there’s still something idiosyncratically lovable about this board busting hockey film. Is it wrong to call it an adult version of The Bad News Bears? After all, the men that the film follows are actually real professional hockey players. Not some kid looking to play at their local gymnasium. Except hockey’s still not the biggest sport (not even today) and the Charleston Chiefs are a minor league club if I’ve ever seen one.

But it’s precisely that quality that keeps us around. Because we all gravitate towards the rejects and the bottom dwellers. The people we can easily feel sorry for and who simultaneously make us feel a little bit better about ourselves.

In bringing George Roy Hill back with Paul Newman and surrounding him with quite the cast of lug heads, epitomized by the gloriously violent Hanson Brothers, Slap Shot somehow became a cult classic.

Player-manager Reggie Dunlop is in the twilight of his career. It’s hardly a secret that the Chiefs aren’t doing so hot and it looks like this might be their last season. It’s a fairly abysmal existence for all involved then Dunlop has the bright idea to let go of any inhibitions. Soon he has his boys brawling with everyone imaginable. Opposing players, fans, referees, anyone who is living and breathing. The funny thing is that this new style of play actually elicits winning results and the public loves them for their brutality.

One perfect illustration of this chaotic pandemonium occurs when the opposing goalkeeper goes diving over the boards to continue his showdown with Paul Newman. They shared a few choice words beforehand. That’s putting it lightly.

But these are also the same group of guys who leave every battle bloodied and bruised. The same group of guys who wind up playing cards on the bus or get mesmerized by the latest corny soap opera on television at the local watering hole. They’re a sorry lot who also happen to be ridiculously funny at times.

It’s the rowdiest of films with at least a couple screws loose. If we were to be pretentious I guess who would chock it up to Slap Shot having “Character.” But I’m not sure if it would be too far from the truth to blame this film for leading the charge in legions of awful R-Rated comedies with no merit whatsoever.

Even with Slap Shot, there are some rather interesting tonal shifts. It’s as if Nancy Dowd’s script looks to get sincere once or twice. Or there were thoughts of getting dramatic. But then the gloves came off and the sticks were thrown aside and there was a collective “Nawww!” from all involved. Not surprisingly this was one of Paul Newman’s favorite roles because he’s not just a ne’er do well or an old crotchety wise guy, he’s a legitimate scuzzball.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Slap Shot’s soundtrack is now synonymous with the bouncy infectious notes of Maxine Nightingale’s 1975 classic “Right Back Where We Started From.”  The added addition of Fleetwood Mac doesn’t hurt it either. So, yes, I would hardly call this one a revered classic, and I’m still digging around for some redeeming qualities. I’ll let you know. But Slap Shot never claimed to be anything of those things.

It’s unashamedly crude. Gratuitously violent but so over the top as to be comic and there’s not even the slightest attempt to cover any of this up. It could be that Slap Shot is one of the more honest portrayals of human nature. Humanity loves sports. We’re often losers and outcasts with few redeeming qualities when you really get to know us. That’s by no means a promotion of Slap Shot but more of a qualification.

3/5 Stars