Movie Reviews - 1970s posts
Thursday May 13, 2021
Movie Review: The Sugarland Express (1974)
I caught this for the first time on HBO the other night and liked parts but didn’t believe the brunt of it. Turns out the thing I didn’t believe the most was true.
“The Sugarland Express” was, of course, Steven Spielberg’s feature-film debut and he already seems like a pro. Certain shots—through windows, or with the principles off center—look great. I do miss this period of American filmmaking when they would use obvious locals for bit parts. The adoptive mother, Mrs. Looby, was played by a professional actress, Louise Latham, but the part of her husband went to Merrill Connally, a county judge and the brother of Gov. John Connally. Apparently the baby that was the focus of everything, baby Langston (son of producer Richard Zanuck and Linda Harrison), took to Connally but not to Latham, which is why Mr. Looby winds up holding him more often. Spielberg also took to Connally and offered him a role in his next movie: playing the mayor of Amity Island in something called “Jaws.” Connally turned him down, saying the part “sounded pretty poor.” Of course, Murray Hamilton got it and did everything with it.
Anyway, I miss obvious locals in bit parts. Bring that back, filmmakers.
Based on a true incident, “Sugarland” is definitely of its time. I was 11 when it was released and I remember the cool, older kids going to see it and talking about all the car crashes. It has a “Stick it to the Man” vibe that was prevalent then—one of the many bastard children of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Despite that, the Man comes off not poorly, while the kids ain’t exactly alright. They’re not the brightest bulbs in the world. Almost everyone’s sweet-natured but we still get this disaster.
The movie opens with Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visiting her husband, Clovis (William Atheron, 14 years before he became the jerky TV journalist in “Die Hard”), in prison. Sorry, in pre-release. He has just four months of easy time left, but she’s there to break him out. Their baby has been taken away by the county and adopted by the Loobys, and she wants him back now. So she bullies Clovis into sneaking out during a family prison/pre-release gathering.
Goldie is adorable here—she wasn’t yet 30—but Lou Jean is a piece of work. First she bullies Clovis into breaking out. Then she panics when a state trooper, Slide (Michael Sacks, Billy Pilgrim of “Slaughterhouse Five”), pulls over the elderly couple with whom they’ve hitched a ride—for going 25 on the highway—and she hops into the front seat and drives away, putting the cops on their tail. Slide gives chase and Lou Jean crashes the car. But when he carries her seemingly unconscious body from the wreck, she takes his gun, and they take him and his patrol car hostage, then drive to Sugarland to get their baby. A day later, when they arrive at the Looby home after everything else, she bullies Clovis into going in by himself even though none of it feels right and Slider himself warns against it. Sure enough, snipers are inside, and Clovis is killed. If not for his wife, Clovis would still be in pre-release, with four months minus a day left of easy time. Instead, he’s dead.
But Goldie is adorable.
The Poplins take Slider hostage about 20 minutes in, and within five or 10 minutes have dozens of patrol cars following behind them, moving slowly and respectfully down the highway. It’s like a precursor to the O.J. Simpson freeway chase. My thought was, “There’s 80 minutes left. What’s the rest?” Just that, it turns out. This slo-mo car chase, with ultimately hundreds of cars behind them, and a benevolent Capt. Tanner (Ben Johnson) ensuring that no wrong moves are made and no lives hopefully lost. It’s the titular Sugarland express, and it’s the part I didn’t quite buy. At the least, they exaggerated the number of cop cars following them.
Nope. According to accounts at the time, and more recently, it was more than 100 patrol cars, a blue caravan crawling across southern Texas. It’s a lot of the other stuff that’s fictional:
- Clovis (real name: Bobby Dent) wasn’t in prison at the time, so Lou Jean (real name: Ila Fae) didn’t bust him out.
- It was Bobby’s idea to kidnap a highway patrolman (real name: J. Kenneth Krone), and it was simply to get a ride, not to get their baby.
- There were two children involved, not one, and they were Ila Mae’s from a previous marriage, not both of theirs, and they were living with Ila Mae’s parents in Wheelock, Texas, not with foster parents in Sugarland, and the goal was just to see them, not take them.
- They didn’t becomes celebrities whose car was mobbed en route.
- All three principles, Bobby, Ila Fae and Trooper Krone entered the home in Wheelock, where Bobby was killed by Sheriff Sonny Elliott of Robertson County and FBI agent Bob Wiatt.
I get some of the changes. You’ve got to give them a goal at the outset. But the county taking the woman’s baby is a movie trope going back to silent films: Surely there were better ideas? And why give all of the man’s bad decisions to the woman? I guess because Goldie was the star. That's what you get when you're the star. Welcome to the party, pals.
Crashes and character
Goldie is great—completely naturalistic, not a false note—and I like the slight odd vibe from Sacks as Slider. And of course Ben Johnson does his Ben Johnson thing.
According to Wiki, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (pre-“Sneak Previews”) were both lukewarm on Spielberg’s debut, each giving it two and a half stars. Siskel wrote, “‘The Sugarland Express’ asks us to care for Clovis and Lou Jean because they are thick-skulled and because, presumably, every mother has an inherent right to raise her own baby. It doesn't work.” Yep. Ebert wrote, “If the movie finally doesn’t succeed, that’s because Spielberg has paid too much attention to all those police cars (and all the crashes they get into), and not enough to the personalities of his characters.” Yep again. But poor Roger. Ignoring the characters for the crashes is about to enter a new, dominant period—one that has yet to end.
Wednesday March 17, 2021
Movie Review: Midway (1976)
There’s a great story about the screening of a rough cut of “Star Wars” for close friends of George Lucas in late 1976 or early 1977. It was early enough in the process that footage from World War II movies still substituted for the special effects-laden battle sequences. It didn't go well. Afterwards, there was some polite applause but a great deal of awkwardness. Most assumed the movie would bomb. Some compared it to “At Long Last Love,” which had sunk Peter Bogdanovich’s career the previous year. But one friend spoke up for it. “That movie is going to make a hundred million dollars,” Steven Spielberg said, “and I’ll tell you why: It has a marvelous innocence and naïveté in it, which is George, and people will love it.”
I thought about that story during this film because of the WWII footage. What Lucas used as temporary filler, “Midway” used for its theatrical release. According to IMDb:
- Most the Japanese air raid sequences are from “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970)
- Scenes of Doolittle’s Tokyo raid are from “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944)
- Most dogfight sequences come from 1942 newsreels
- Several action scenes were taken from “Away All Boats” (1956)
You can tell, too. “Midway” went with an All-Star cast and grainy stock footage.
The movie begins both well and poorly. Hal Holbrook plays Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, a goofily cheery cryptographer who, at first glance, has a bit too much of the ’70s in him—thickish hair, moustache, bathrobe, like he’s the intelligence version of Hawkeye Pierce—but some of this is accurate. According to Wiki: “ He often wore slippers and a bathrobe with his khaki uniform and sometimes went days without bathing.” There are internal arguments among the U.S. military brass about where Japan will strike next, and Rochefort tells Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) that the chatter his team hears keeps using the code “AF,” which he thinks is Midway. Other military leaders assume the next big attack will be the Aleutian Islands or even the west coast of the U.S., so a test is proposed: they send out a fake message about a water supply failure on Midway. Sure enough, the Japanese radio about water supplies on “AF.” The surprise the Japanese enjoyed at Pearl Harbor will now belong to the Americans.
I like all that. Unfortunately, the movie also includes is a fictional subplot that is the stuff of soap opera. Charlton Heston plays Capt. Matt Garth, the estranged father of fighter pilot Tom Garth (Edward Albert), who is looking to reconnect with his son. The fact that Matt is divorced feels out of time—that was a ’70s conversation, less a ’30s one. And then there’s Tom’s dilemma. He has to tell his old man: 1) his girlfriend, Hakuro (Christina Kokubo), is Japanese; 2) she and her parents are being held as subversives; and 3) can he help free them? When Matt objects, Tom accuses him of racism. Matt, in that Heston way, says he’s not racist, it’s just that his son’s timing is lousy; then he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to free them. I can’t even remember if he does, to be honest, and none of this is helped by the acting from Heston and Kokubo. Oh, and it turns out that her parents object to the union anyway since they don’t want Hakuro marrying outside her race. So who’s the racist now, huh? That’s the vibe.
Most of the U.S.-side of the cast consists of stars from the 1930s (Fonda), ’40s (Robert Mitchum in a cameo as Admiral Halsey),’50s (Heston and Glenn Ford) and the ’60s (James Coburn, Cliff Robertson). Plus a few young bucks who gained fame later: Dabney Coleman, Tom Selleck, Erik Estrada. We also get an uncredited cameo from Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka.
For the Japanese side, it’s almost every Japanese-American TV actor of the time: James Shigeta, Pat Morita, John Fujioka, Dale Ishimoto and Robert Ito. Plus the big gun, Toshiro Mifune, as Fleet Admiral Yamamoto. Unlike in “The Gallant Hours,” filmed 16 years earlier, the Japanese are forced to speak English here, but apparently Mifune’s English was so difficult to understand they dubbed him with Paul Frees, who also voiced the Burgermeister Meisterburger in Rankin/Bass’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” They did this to Mifune. Can’t make that stuff up.
The American race
The Battle of Midway is considered a turning point in the war in the Pacific. The Japanese lost four fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, 248 airplanes and more than 3,000 men. The U.S. lost the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 men. American morale went way up. Plus our industrial capacity far outstripped theirs. We could replace things; they couldn’t.
As for the soap opera: In battle, Tom Garth gets horribly injured but survives. Heston then steps in for the run at the final fleet carrier, succeeds, but crashes on the flight deck and dies. Glenn Ford closes his eyes in pain for his fictional friend, while Ensign George Gay (Kevin Dobson), the real-life sole survivor of Squadron 8, is pulled from the ocean. Tom, cleaned up and bandaged, is wheeled on a gurney past Hakuro, whose face reveals … who knows? Then Nimitz and Rochefort give us our coda as a large group of people, obviously pulled from some mid-1970s Hawaiian tourist attraction, mingle behind them. Nimitz wonders aloud how they were so successful when the Japanese had so many advantages. “Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier?” he asks. That, too, feels like a ’70s question—something to be pondered after the war is over—rather than spoken aloud in June 1942. Either way it goes unanswered.
Kind of. The movie’s final afterword is a quote from Churchill:
“The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than this battle, in which the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour.”
The American race. Don’t hear that much anymore.
I first saw “Midway” at the Boulevard Theater in Minneapolis when it was released in 1976, and I remember being confused. Wait, there was a time when we were losing World War II? That was news to my 13-year-old self. The huge cast, many of them unfamiliar (I didn’t know from Glenn Ford or Robert Mitchum), as well as the grainy battle scenes didn’t help me find any kind of clarity, either. I guess I was hoping that this second viewing, 45 years later, might reveal some forgotten or hidden charms. Nope.
All-Star cast; extras pulled from the gift shop.
Tuesday October 08, 2019
Movie Review: Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
Is “Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” the worst movie ever made?
It’s a comedy that has zero laughs. Zero. And it has Madeline Kahn in it. I didn’t think it was possible for Kahn to be this not-funny but everything she does falls flat. Kudos to Michael Winner, who took time off between directing rape scenes in “Death Wish” movies, for directing her in this.
It’s a heartless film. Every human being in it is worthless. Women want stardom, and will do whatever to get it; men want power and women, and will do whatever to get both. Near-rape scenes are treated lightly, as are two instances of near-child porn. We get jokes at the expense of the Chinese, Eskimos and “faggots.” Stepin Fetchit makes a cameo as a tap-dancing butler. Yes, it's racist and homophobic, but the greater insult is to the whole of humanity. It insults and condemns us all.
It’s 1923 and Estie del Ruth (Kahn) is a starving actress in silent-era Hollywood who doesn’t even have enough money for the bus to go to a studio for an interview with a director. Instead, she hitchhikes in the manner of Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”—by lifting her skirt. Except, since it’s Winner, and filmed in the 1970s, she’s much less discreet. One car screeches to a halt but he’s rear-ended by the guy behind him, who is rear-ended by ... etc. Four-car pileup. And as the soundtrack gives us a Keystone-Comedyesque rag filtered through ’60s sex comedies, Kahn mugs, hides behind some garbage cans, and mugs some more, while the drivers, all dressed in white for some reason, fight each other. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of slapstick comedies, but it’s so poorly choreographed it’s just confusing. Kahn’s reactions are just as confusing. Is she amused? Self-satisfied? What’s going on here?
That’s when, from the garbage can she’s hiding behind, a German Shepherd—whom we’ve seen engineering an escape from a dog pound—rises and licks her nose. That’s their meet-cute.
Except almost nothing about their relationship is cute. He loves her but she wants stardom. Does she even like the dog who does everything for her? It’s kind of sad.
When she gets to the studio, for example, the director she meets is actually a stagehand who gets her in a back room, where his intentions are obvious. She’s willing to go along if she gets a starring role—but she wants the quo before she surrenders her quid—and he can offer nothing; so he attacks her. It’s the dog to the rescue. In doing so, he becomes a star—this universe’s Rin Tin Tin. And since he only follows Estie’s instructions, she has to be his onset trainer. She resents this. She’s kind of awful about it.
So is her vagueish boyfriend, grifter-director Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern), who takes credit for the Won Ton Ton phenomenon while promising Estie he’ll get her a big role in his next production. He never does. Or just as he’s doing so, just as he’s convincing the studio boss, J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney), to include Estie in a movie with Won Ton Ton and Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman)—this universe’s Rudolph Valentino—Estie, in an amazingly stupid coincidence, runs into Montague at a theater where one of his pictures is playing. He’s in drag. To avoid fans? No, he’s a drag queen. And he’s so taken with Estie he demands she co-star in his next picture.*
(*The pitch is that Montague will play Gen. Custer and he and Won Ton will save the regiment. Which leads to a conversation that is only interesting post-Quentin Tarantino:
JJ: Wait a minute. Custer got killed at the end.
Potchuck: So what?
JJ [pause]: You’re right. History’s not the Bible.)
So is Montague an OK dude? Nope. At the press conference introducing the Custer movie, Estie and Won Ton get more attention so he puts out a hit on his co-stars. Yes, a hit. That phone call is a master class in gratuitous vileness. When the hit man, Nick (Victor Mature), hears who it is, he turns to his moll and says, “It’s the fag.” Then when the call is over, we see, in the room with them, tied to a chair with thick ropes, a half-naked 2-year-old girl. He tells her he’ll let her go when the ransom is paid; then he puts her gag back in. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything—it’s just tossed in there. It’s like Winner thought: “This scene isn’t awful enough: What can I add?”
The hit doesn't go off, of course. Or Estie gets the upper hand and it turns cartoonish—with speeded-up motion and big “BOING” sound effects. Meanwhile Won Ton, in an attempt to rescue her, tries to jump through the wall like he’s able to do in his movies. Instead he just bangs off and whimpers. It’s painful to watch.
When the Custer movie bombs and fortunes turn 180 degrees. Potchuck (and Estie and Won Ton) lose their mansion and are forced to live in a cramped studio apartment with her friend Fluffy (Teri Garr). They try a Mexican porno film, but that bombs, too. So Fluffy and Estie become prostitutes.
Reminder: This is a comedy.
Since Won Ton Ton will attack any man kissing or pawing at Estie, she leaves him with a kindly older man (Edgar Bergen), who, it turns out, is a vicious dog trainer with a shitty two-bit show. She doesn’t tell the man that her dog is Won Ton Ton, the most famous dog in the world, and he doesn’t figure it out. He just whips Won Ton and locks him in a closet and has him sprayed with seltzer on stage. Won Ton, or the dog actor, looks genuinely hurt and confused here, probably because he was. Before long, he becomes a stray.
Reminder: This is a comedy.
Then Estie’s fortunes turn again. On the set of a Keystone-y cop comedy, Mark Bennett (read: Mack Sennett) extols the virtues of Estie in the Custer flick and makes her a star. But now she wants Won Ton back. She holds press conferences and offers a $5,000 reward.
At her wedding to Potchuck, guess who shows up? Won Ton! Yay! The end. No, sorry. Despite her very public search for him, not to mention the fact that he’s the most famous dog in the world, Won Ton is shooed out of the chapel; and despite his normally resilient personality, he accepts it; he slumps away with head bowed. Then we see him being fed liquor by cackling bums in a dark alleyway. Then he tries to kill himself by:
- putting his head in a gas oven (Keye Luke tosses him out of his kitchen)
- lying in the middle of the road (a car runs over him without touching him)
- putting his head in a noose and knocking the chair away (he slips and falls to the floor)
Reminder: This is a comedy.
The cameos of silent-era or Golden-Age stars was one of the movie’s selling points, but sadly “Won Ton” wound up being the last screen appearance for many of them. From IMDb’s trivia section:
- Final film of Stepin Fetchit
- Final film of Rudy Vallee
- Final film of George Jessell
- Final film of Ann Rutherford
- Final film of Andy Devine
- Final film of Johnny Weismuller
- Final film of William Demarest
It’s like a hit list. It’s like Michael Winner killed them all.
Why do I keep blaming Winner? Why not screenwriters Arnold Schulman (“Goodbye, Columbus”) or Cy Howard (“Smothers Brothers”)? Or someone at Paramount Pictures? Because by his own admission Winner was a bit of a martinet. “You have to be an egomaniac about it,” he said of directing. “You have to impose your own taste. The team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.” Some actors have gone further; they say he was a virtual sadist on set.
In the end, of course, Estie and Won Ton are reunited, but it’s just so stupid. Won Ton shows up at Estie’s new place overlooking the ocean, but their butler—again, oblivious—shoos him away; then he throws rocks at him. Won Ton whimpers; then he tries to kill himself again by running into the surf. That’s when Estie finally spots him, and they’re all reunited, and cavorting in the surf. The press gets wind, talks up the next Won Ton Ton picture with Estie, but she says the dog isn’t Won Ton; it’s another dog. She lies so he won’t have t do movies anymore. Because that was always the problem.
This stupid movie can’t even get its movie history right. It keeps referencing Clara Bow as the industry’s big star when that was later—1926 or '27. It shows Keystone Cop movies being filmed when that was earlier—the 1910s. Potchuck has a recurring gag pitching movie ideas that get shot down even though they’re the plots of later box-office hits: “It’s about a giant shark terrorizing an entire New England town,” he says, or “A little girl gets possessed by the devil.” He also pitches a musical about a girl who “gets caught up in a tornado and she winds up in this strange land with a scarecrow and a guy made out of tin.” Immediate thought: Musical? In the silent era? And why doesn’t anyone say “You mean ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” Since, you know, it was known. It was a famous series of books that had already been made into a movie three times: 1910, 1914 and 1925.
I haven’t even mentioned how “Won Ton Ton” gets his name. Early on, Potchuck is pretending the dog is his even though he keeps calling him different things: Rex, Fido, etc. So J.J. asks for his name.
Potchuck: Well, his name is .... All right, I mght as well tell you the whole story. When I was working on the railroad back there in ’21, there was this Chinaman bit by a rattlesnake right here in the throat. He lay dying in my arms, and just before he died, he looked up at me so sadly and said, [in pigeon English] “You take care of my dog, no matter what happen. Because he like my velly own boy.”
JJ: Look, I’m not interested in Chinamen, they don’t go to many movies. What the hell is the dog’s name?
Potchuck [dazed]: Won Ton Ton.
JJ [dubious]: Won Ton Ton.
And that’s the joke.
At the Custer screening, one fed-up moviegoer shouts, “This picture could kill the movie business!” Truer words, brother.
Thursday April 27, 2017
Movie Review: The Great Waldo Pepper (1974)
Patricia made a face the other night when I suggested watching Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper,” but it turned out she’d never seen it. I had. Three times? Five? More? Never in the theater, just on TV or cable, but probably not in 25 years. Most of the story was still in my head but I was curious how it had aged. Or how I had.
“Waldo” is lesser Redford from his glory period. He was the biggest movie star in the world, and from’73 to ’76 he starred in the following:
- “The Way We Were”
- “The Sting”
- “The Great Gatsby”
- “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- “Three Days of the Condor”
- “All the President’s Men”
Only “Gatsby” sucked. Redford was all wrong to play a man hopelessly in love; that’s not his character. He’s the one women are hopelessly in love with. Think Barbra in “The Way We Were,” Mary Tyler Moore weekly stuttering his name, and the prison guard’s wife in William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” who tells her husband she would gladly “get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.” Again: She tells her husband this. So, yeah, not Gatsby.
Which raises a question: What was the essence of the Redford character during his heyday? Into his late ’30s, he was still playing the ingénue, still being shown the ropes by the like of Paul Newman and Jason Robards. And Barbra. His character has promise and his character often fails. That happened to be the essence of America at the time—how we viewed ourselves. “The Way We Were” actually makes the comparison explicit: “In a way he was like the country he lived in: everything came too easily to him.” And then it didn’t. That’s the point of the ’70s. When everything stopped being easy.
Pepper vs. Kessler
“Waldo Pepper” begins in the late 1920s, and while life isn’t exactly easy for the title character, it is freewheelin’. He’s a young blonde-haired hunk of man barnstorming around Nebraska, and selling simple folk on the thrills of aerial adventure. For some reason the movie posits him as a kind of charlatan, a bullshit artist. He’s supposed to come off a bit like Redford’s grifter in “The Sting,” but when you think about it he is actually selling something worthwhile: a chance to see the world from the sky. In the 1920s, that’s the stuff of gods.
The bullshit comes when he tells the local yokels about his dogfights during the Great War against German ace Ernst Kessler (cf., Ernest Udet): how he and four other guys had him in their sites but Kessler shot them all down, all except Pepper, whom he fought to a standstill until Pepper’s guns jammed. Kessler saw this, saw his opponent was helpless, but he didn’t take advantage. There was honor in the skies. He pulled up alongside him, saluted, and continued back to Germany. A great story. A true story. But not Pepper’s story. He didn’t make it into battle; he was still training recruits at the time. When he’s caught in the lie by his rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson, surprisingly good), his lament is: “It should’ve been me.”
That’s the tragedy of his life when we first meet him: He thinks he’s one of the best but never got the chance to prove it. The tragedy of the rest of the movie is that that life, the life we first see him living, disappears. He becomes increasingly saddled—first with a partner (Axel), then a flying circus (Doc Dihoefer’s), then federal regulations (former pal Newt, played by Geoffrey Lewis). But the real problem is other people’s ennui. Planes become everyday, so the crowds disappear, so the stunts have to become bigger and more dangerous to draw them back. The tension is between the crowds, who demand blood, and the feds, who demand safety, with our heroes caught in the middle.
The crowd gets what it wants. Axel’s movie-loving girlfriend, Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), is pulled into wing-walking to add sex to the stunt; but despite her visions of grandeur, of becoming the “It Girl” of the skies, she freezes on the wing. Despite Herculean efforts to save her, she falls. (Patricia was legitimately, vocally shocked by this; she forgot what ’70s movies were like.) More gruesomely, Pepper’s pal, Ezra Stiles (Edward Hermann), finally finishes the plane that might be the first to perform an outside loop, but at this point, because of the Mary Beth tragedy, Waldo is grounded by the feds, so Ezra tries it himself. He’s not pilot enough to pull it off, and on the third try crashes. Trapped by the plane, the yokels gather around, some with cigarettes, and the leaking gas is ignited. Ezra is burned alive while everyone watches. This traumatized me as a kid, not least because I didn’t get it. Why did everyone just stand there? My father tried to explaining it to me, but, to be honest, as an adult now, 54, I think it’s part of the movie’s bullshit. It was the era’s extreme anti-populist message, and it feels false to me. And I’m a cynic.
Eventually, Waldo follows Axel to Hollywood, becomes a stunt man, then finally meets the great man, Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), on the set of a “Wings”-like aviation epic about Kessler’s dogfights. They talk, lament the passing of better days, then go off-script in the skies so they can dogfight without the guns in one final moment of freedom. They essentially kill themselves in the skies. It’s a dumb ending. It makes Thelma and Louise seem like they were really thinking it through.
A regular August Wilson
You know what I kept thinking watching this? Charles M. Schulz. He grew up in the Midwest (St. Paul, Minn.) in the 1920s. He could’ve been that kid getting gasoline for Waldo’s plane. He certainly bought into the romance of it all, then updated it in the 1960s with Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel, which is where I picked it up. Everything I learned about the Great War I learned from a beagle.
Was it Redford specifically, or the popular cinema at this time, that kept looking backwards, ceaselessly, toward the past? From ’73 to ’85, his only movies with contemporary settings were the two political thrillers above and “Electric Horseman” in 1979. Otherwise he’s a regular August Wilson:
- 1910s: “Out of Africa”
- 1920s: “The Great Gatsby”; “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- 1930s: “The Sting”; “The Natural”
- 1940s: “A Bridge Too Far”
- 1940s-50s: “The Way We Were”
- 1960s: “Brubaker”
A man out of time.
“Waldo” isn’t bad. Redford’s gorgeous, Bo Swenson is remarkably good, so is Sarandon. Writer-director George Roy Hill, a real aviation buff, gets the details right. It’s fun for an evening—Patricia liked it—but it doesn’t quite resonate. Like the bi-planes it’s filming, it just kind of drifts away.
Thursday March 02, 2017
Movie Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)
People often talk about the worst best picture Oscar winners of all time—I’m often one of them—but rarely do we get a discussion of the worst No. 1 box office movies of the year. The former indicts the Academy, the latter all of us. It’s so much more fun pointing fingers.
But if we were going to have such a discussion, the list would surely include the following:
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Spider-Man 3 (2007)
- The Grinch (2000)
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
And this one.
On some level, this one feels more unforgiveable, since the No. 1 movies surrounding it chronologically are still regarded as, you know, pretty fucking good: “The Godfather” in 1972, “Exorcist” in ’73, “Jaws” in ’75. We still watch those, own those, discuss those. “The Towering Inferno”? Part of that Irwin-Allen-produced, All-Star Cast, disaster flick era, with “Airport” (No. 2 in 1970) “The Poseidon Adventure” (No. 2 in 1972), “Earthquake” (No. 4 in 1974), and “The Swarm” (died at the box office). And you say it was No. 1 in 1974?* Whaddaya know.
(* Box Office Mojo now lists “Blazing Saddles” as the No. 1 movie of 1974, but that’s only because the money it earned during a 2013 re-release. For decades, “Inferno” was No. 1.)
As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t see any of these disaster flicks. Maybe I caught bits when they showed up on “edited-for-television” TV, but I don’t think I sat through any of them. Particularly “Towering Inferno.” Planes and upside-down boats were one thing, but fire? The Fire Safety Program in 5th grade made me terrified enough. “Inferno” was the last thing I wanted to see.
Forty years later, though, I was curious. Just how bad was it?
When an “All-Star Cast” meant something
Pretty bad. It’s a soap opera. It’s like what “Love Boat” would become: different people come on board with their own little micro-dramas, then disaster strikes. Here it’s fire, there Gavin MacLeod.
As All-Star casts go, this one is pretty tight. The key is to mix old-timers and up-and-comers with current stars. Every decade after the silents is represented:
- 1930s: Fred Astaire, loose and athletic at 75.
- 1940s: Jennifer Jones, looking shellacked by plastic surgery; it’s her last film.
- 1950s: William Holden as the movie’s developer-villain, but apparently the nicest guy on the set.
- 1960s: Our headliners: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway.
- 1970s: dishy newbie Susan Blakely and everyone’s favorite football player O.J. Simpson.
We also get TV stars of the ’60s (Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain), along with one from the ’70s: Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland, acting in scenes with Newman and Dunaway. OK, “acting.”
The micro-dramas: Newman is the architect of “the world’s tallest building” in L.A., but he’s ready to go off in the desert, or some such, disappointing the developer, Holden, as well as his paramour, Dunaway, who’s just been offered a managing editor gig that she can’t turn down. Except almost immediately after some afternoon delight with Faye, Newman has to track down wires in the building that are short-circuiting because his specs weren’t followed. The culprits? Holden, cutting corners, and Holden’s ne’er-do-well son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain, who’s married to Susan Blakely.
Meanwhile, Astaire plays a con artist with a heart of gold who is trying to bilk Jennifer Jones out of her money; Robert Wagner is some exec who’s sleeping with his secretary, Susan Flanner. A deaf woman with two kids and a cat also live in the building.
The kids are saved by Newman, the woman and the cat by O.J., our football hero. Wagner and Flannery are the first to die, post-coital. There’s almost a sadism to these scenes, a lingering over their pain and deaths. The lesson is clear: Don’t sleep with your secretary, kids, even in the ’70s when that shit was totally cool.
The one who doesn’t have a micro-drama attached to him? Who isn’t part of the soap? Steve McQueen, playing the fire chief. He’s also the best thing in the movie. By far. He’s the man doing his job and looking after his men. He’s no-nonsense. It’s shocking how good he is. Even Newman comes off as a cardboard figure in comparison.
Who lives who dies who tells your story
The story goes like you expect it to. There’s a party on the top floor, the developer ignores the warnings until it’s too late. Eventually a breeches buoy is strung between buildings to rescue the women. A scenic elevator gets caught in the flames and dangles by a cable. Plenty of flaming people fall from the building.
Mostly you wonder who will live and who will die. Chamberlain will buy it, of course, as well as the other villains: the developer, the politician (Vaughn), and Jennifer Jones (too old?). The only death that made me upset was when Gregory Sierra, playing Carlos the bartender, is killed off it at the 11th hour. I actually screamed “Noooooo!” out loud. Chano, we hardly knew ye.
The dialogue is awful, the romantic dialogue worse (Newman: “I'm not a cheeseburger”/ Dunaway: “No, you're way better: all protein, no bread.”). The day is saved when the water tanks on top are blown and smother the fire for 50 floors. It works so well, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before everyone started dying.
Throughout, the lesson is a ’70s one: Watch out for greedy bastards. But at the very end, back on the ground, McQueen the fireman blames Newman the architect, who seems to accept responsibility:
McQueen: One of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.
Newman: [pause] Okay, I’m asking.
Wait, so Newman designed the building poorly? Then why did we all cheer when Richard Chamberlain bought it? The further in we get, the less he sounds like an architect. Back on the ground, he dismisses the record-breaking monument he designed like a typical '70s cynic:
I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.
He thought that was bullshit? He had no idea what was in store.
Saturday March 29, 2014
Captain America (1979): The Slideshow Review
Was there a worse time to make a Captain America movie than January 1979? Jimmy Carter's malaise speech was six months away, the Iranian hostage crisis 10 months away. Patriotism was at a low ebb and superheroes were something geeky kids like me read. So how to do make a story out of Captain America?
At least there were more muscle-bound actors like Reb Brown populating Hollywood. The question remained: Could he act?
Or draw? This is what Steve Rogers does here. He's an ex-Marine, sure, but he's through with that shit, man. Now he wants to roam the highways and biways of the land on a never-ending mission. Sorry, wrong '70s superhero. He just wants to be. Dig? He just wants to find himself.
That's what he tells Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman, the best thing in the TV movie). Mills is basically Cap's Oscar Goldman: the bland, benevolent government man who guides the protege along. He also injects him with the super serum (FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain) that Steve's father invented from his own adrenal gland. That's why only Steve can use it. Everyone else dies of cell rejection.
Here, Steve is told all about FLAG and rejects the idea.
Here, he realizes he's been injected with it anyway.
Here he's just realizing ... something. Like maybe he should've taken acting lessons.
But the suit is delivered.
Along with the clear plastic shield ... which is also the windshield to his bike ... which he keeps in his Chevy van. And that's all right with me.
But they really should've rethought the helmet.
I get it. They were trying to tap into the popularity of Evel Knievel.
But the helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo.
Yes, we get some OK shots for the period.
But they must have shot their wad on these stunts. Because the grand finale?
Reviving an asphyxiated oil baron with a neutron bomb tied to his pacemaker.
If he dies, all of Arizona, and most of LA, will die with him. Will it work?
It works! But little else in 1979's “Captain America” does. Full review here.
Friday March 28, 2014
TV Movie Review: Captain America (1979)
Was there a worse time to make a “Captain America” movie? This thing first aired January 19, 1979, six months before Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, when patriotism was for squares and scoundrels and superheroes were wish-fulfillment fantasy for skinny geeks. Or so people thought. “Superman: The Movie,” released a month earlier, already proved both ideas wrong, or at least irrelevant in the marketplace, but “Captain America” tread lightly around both subjects. We don’t see Cap as Cap much. And as for patriotism? Well ...
The original Steve Rogers was a 4F volunteer who knowingly signed up for a dangerous experiment because he wanted to serve his country. This Steve Rogers is a muscle-bound, peace-loving dude with a van. He’s a former Marine who wants to coast up and down the west coast, drawing what he sees.
This is his early philosophy, as he turns down the offer to become a superhero. He says it in the bland, lifeless monotone of a non-actor:
It’s been yes-sir no-sir for as long as I can remember. Three military schools and the Marine Corps. That’s been about it. I think I’ve paid my dues ... Now I just want to get out on the road, look at the faces of Americans. Maybe get some down on canvas. I don’t want to report in or check out. I don’t want to look forward to weekends. I want every day to be the same. I just want to kick back, find out who I am.
Is there a greater late ’70s ethos than that? A van, bad art, and “finding yourself.”
The American ideal
It’s easy to see what they were going for. The great superhero of 1970s television was the Six Million Dollar Man, the great daredevil of 1970s television was Evel Knievel, and Marvel had already launched both “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” TV franchises. Mix them all together and you get this. Get the good Captain to do motorcycle jumps like Evel, have him jump high and crush things like Steve Austin, and make the superpower all about tapping into human potential.
Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” did that. In moments of stress, people could lift cars and things? That’s what fascinated David Banner. Here it’s similar. “Science has known for a long time that man, in all of his endeavors—mental, physical—uses, very rarely, more than one-third of his capacity,” says Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), this show’s combination Oscar Goldman/Dr. Rudy Wells, as he tries to get Steve to become Cap.
It seems Steve’s father, back in the ’40s, had developed “the ultimate steroid,” synthesized from his own adrenal gland, that unleashed the human potential. He called it FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. (I know.) The serum still works ... but it kills its host. Cell rejection. But Steve is his father’s son. Same cells and shit. Maybe it’ll work with him?
Except that’s when he gives the above thanks-but-no-thanks speech and splits. Superstrength is great but ... he needs to paint, bro. Even though he looks like he’s spent his entire life in a gym.
Fate intervenes. He finds one of his father’s friends, Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton), dead. Then Steve himself is run off the road. He’s about to die. So Dr. Mills arranges for him to be injected with FLAG. To save him ... and create the show.
Guess what? Steve isn’t grateful. He’s angry—if you can sense anger behind Reb Brown’s acting. So he splits again. But he’s followed again—this time into a meat locker, where, between the slabs of beef, he takes the bad guys out. And he kinda digs it. And he spends a day at the beach with Mills’ assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), then walks along the beach just rapping with Dr. Mills about Steve’s father. How he went after the corrupt ones, “the bosses, the organizers, the ones in really high places,” and how they, snidely, gave him a nickname: Captain America. We get this:
Steve: The American ideal. A little tough to find these days, isn’t it?
Mills: Not if you know where to look.
Steve: Right on.
The bad guy in all of this is another job creator, an oilman named Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), who is building his own neutron bomb so he can rob the Phoenix gold repository of billions. Captain America, with a motorcycle helmet for a helmet, stops him by swinging onto the truck that contains Brackett and the neutron bomb and twisting an exhaust pipe so Brackett is asphyxiated. When two henchman investigate, he knocks them out by ... wait for it .... pushing the door open really, really fast.
And thus a superhero is born. The art world’s loss is the world’s gain.
The hills are alive with something
It’s not completely, horribly awful. I like the human potential idea. And the cell-rejection answers why there are no other Captain Americas. Plus a few of the stunts aren’t bad.
But it’s shot on a thin dime with a thinner imagination and one of the worst leads I’ve seen. Reb Brown displays a range of emotion from A to A-. He’s supposed to be a nice doofus in the beginning and a superhero by the end, but in the middle he shows his cards by being a bit of an asshole. “C’mon, little man,” he says to one helpless guy after he sneaks into the Andreas Oil Co. His mighty shield is clear plastic and doubles as his motorcycle windshield. His helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo. I get it: They’re trying to get away from the superhero costume—as most superhero movies have since (“X-Men, “Heroes,”)—but they don’t do it in a smart way. Worse, the whole thing is filmed in that awful, washed-out, late ’70s style.
Did they hire Menzies, another “Sound of Music” alum, because it worked so well with Nicholas Hammond in “Spider-Man”? Because it didn’t. And doesn’t. To be fair, Menzies is given a thankless role. She’s supposed to be the head of some top-secret government research lab but seems mere assistant to Mills. Is she also Steve’s girlfriend? They share a kiss on the beach; then she’s forgotten. So ’70s.
But at least Steve Rogers finds himself. Right on.
Monday April 29, 2013
Movie Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)
I was 15 years old when I first saw “Superman: The Movie” and in some sense I still see it through the eyes of a 15-year-old. Most movies don’t do this to me. Most movies age poorly. I look at them 20 or 30 years later and blanch. But the pace of “Superman” is my pace. Its sense-of-wonder is my sense-of-wonder. Its balance of Biblical myth (Krypton), American myth (Smallville), comic relief (Lex Luthor) and heroic myth (Superman) seems exactly right to me. Give me the helicopter rescue backed by John Williams’ score and I turn to putty. I turn 15 again.
Yes, parts of the movie are dated. The Artctic icebergs look like styrofoam, the threatened California homes look like models, Jeff East’s wig looks like a wig. And so much is left unanswered. Why do Kryptonians, such an advanced civilization, cling to family crests and trial without counsel? Is Jor-El a prosecutor, a scientist, or both? Is there any furniture on Krypton? And when exactly does Clark fall for Lois? Immediately? By and by? The love is just assumed. Suddenly he’s sitting at his desk, staring.
There are chronological issues. We’re told Krypton exploded in 1948 when Kal-El was a baby, and at 18 Clark went north, where Jor-El taught him for 12 years. Which brings us to the present date: 1978. But that means Clark was in high school between 1964 and 1966. (In “Superman III,” we find out he was the Class of ’65.) So why are the kids listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, who last charted in 1956? Is Smallville really that backward?
Don’t even get me started on “Can you read my mind?”
Doesn’t matter. There’s something like pure joy in this movie. It’s the joy of doing what everyone thought couldn’t be done: make a superhero movie as an epic; make us believe, as the tagline said, that a man could fly.
It’s ballsy the way it begins. I’m not talking about the curtains opening, and the homage to June 1938 and Action Comics No. 1. That’s charming but a blip in screentime.
No, I’m talking Gen. Zod. For a movie that’s nearly two and a half hours long, and doesn’t show us a glimpse of its title character until nearly 50 minutes in, and doesn’t reveal this character to the world until nearly 70 minutes in, the filmmakers, including director Richard Donner, have the balls to begin with a sequence that has no real relevance until the sequel: the trial (such as it is), and judgment (“Guilty! Guil-tee! Guil-tay!”), and incarceration into the Phantom Zone, of the criminals Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran). It’s a scene that affects nothing for the rest of our film. They could just as easily have begun with the Kryptonian Council not heeding Jor-El’s warnings about Krypton’s imminent destruction, then threatening him if he tells anyone his theories. To which Jor-El says, “Neither I, nor my wife, will leave the planet Krypton.” I always imagine Kryptonian Elder #2 countering with, “What about your son?” Jor-El: “Uhhh....”
The Christ metaphor is obvious and intended. The baby is delivered via a star-like spacecraft to a childless couple, Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). His middle years are lost in the wilderness. “They only lack the light to show the way,” Jor-El says. “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.” Was the metaphor supposed to continue in “Superman II”? Is that what giving up his powers was supposed to be? Death and resurrection? If so, someone forgot to tell Richard Lester.
Back in the day, Brando got shit for playing Jor-El: too much money ($3 million for 11 days work), ridiculous hair, a role beneath his majesty. But he’s good. It’s a ludicrous role, wrapped in tin-foil suits and surrounded by special effects, and filmed in a rush to accommodate his schedule, but it still works. Besides, with both his signing and his performance he set the correct tone: Superman is serious business.
At the same time, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty are impeccable comic relief. (“Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?”) Valerie Perrine is funny, too, and so lucious she should be rated “R” just for standing there. She’s also Superman’s first kiss, isn’t she? Who before her? Lana Lang? Too busy being dragged to parties by that doofus Brad. Lois? Too busy, period. Superman doesn’t even kiss Lois in this movie. Well, when she’s alive anyway. Spoiler alert.
Lois is funny. They searched everywhere for their Lois, went through some great possibilities—Deborah Raffin, Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren—but Kidder has it all. Her Lois is silly, driven, in love. She’s a great career women. She’s also accident-prone. Superman saves her from death three times here: 1) he stops the mugger’s bullet; 2) he catches her in mid-air after she falls from the helicopter; 3) and he turns back time after she is buried alive in a California earthquake.One wonders how she managed before he came along.
Lois Lane: driven, silly, in love.
Superman from day one
But the movie flies or doesn’t on the title character’s back. Director Richard Donner’s catchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. Signing Mario Puzo to write the first draft of the screenplay, then signing Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, were important points in getting the project off the ground; but it’s Reeve who matters. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Imagine the disaster if one of the stars the project pushed for (Robert Redford, James Caan, Al Pacino), or one of the stars that pushed for the project (Sylvester Stallone), had gotten the role. Now, of course, everyone says they wanted an unknown. Producer Ilya Salkind blames DC Comics for pushing for a famous face, but casting director Lynn Stalmaster says Ilya and father Alexander kept putting Reeve’s portfolio on the bottom of the pile.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
Donner: “He was Superman from day one.”
Reeve plays him straight. He plays him as the straight man in his own movie. He’s a boy scout in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he says, to which Lois Lane laughs in his face. “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!” she says. He has a response to that, too. “I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois.” Then he adds, “Lois, I never lie.” He is, as Miss Teschmacher says later in the film, too good to be true.
Superman: too good to be true.
Leaping over the ’60s in a single bound
His persona was actually viewed as one of the film’s biggest stumbling blocks. Here’s Christopher Reeve in the 1980 TV special, “The Making of Superman: The Movie”:
Making people believe that a man could fly wasn’t really the hardest part of making the film. I mean, we all know Superman can leap over tall buildings, but the question is: Could he leap over the generation gap into those early Siegel and Schuster days? We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ’30s could survive in the post-Watergate ’70s.
How do they do this? Follow the chronology. Clark was compelled north at 18 to create the Fortress of Solitude, where he spent 12 years listening to Jor-El drone on about the mysteries of the universe. What does this mean? It means he leapt over the ‘60s in a single bound. He missed LBJ and the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate. He missed the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the tragedies of My Lai and and Kent State, the mass murders of Richard Speck and Charles Manson. He missed the White Album. I’m sure Jor-El had a current-events class going (“My son … I believe ‘The walrus was Paul’ is misdirection on the part of Mr. Lennon”); but it’s one thing to study it and another thing to live through it. In the end, Superman is a product of both the planet Krypton and 1950s Smallville and he takes both with him to 1970s Metropolis, where crime is rampant, everyone moves fast, and no one says “Swell.” But rather than the city turning him cynical—he’s impervious in more ways than one—he helps the city turn innocent. He flies by and pulls the cynical masses in his wake. The tagline of the movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but for both Metropolis citizens and moviegoers around the world you could remove the last four words. Superman made us believe.
Yet the question keeps nagging: how does he remain so innocent? Surely he knows what’s going on in the world. Surely he can detect pulse-rates lying and hear crimes—public and private—being committed. Yet he remains who he is. He maintains his belief in the goodness of humanity who only lack the light to show them the way. Of course he’s got Pa Kent and his wisdom, and Jor-El and his wisdom, and maybe he doesn’t push beyond that. Or maybe he knows how dangerous it is to push beyond that. “Lois, I never lie.” Because if he did, where would he stop? If he gave in to one temptation, how many might he succumb to?
By the way: I never lie? Isn’t that what Clark Kent is—a lie? There’s nothing true about the persona. Quentin Tarantino has famously suggested that Clark Kent is Superman’s comment upon humanity—that he sees us as weak, cowardly and equivocating—but Christopher Reeve beat him to that analysis by 30 years. Back in 1978, Reeve told The New York Times: “I see Clark as a deliberate put-on by Superman. Clark’s a tongue-in-cheek impression of who we are.” But shouldn’t a secret identity be about fitting in? About blending into the background? Clark does not. He’s all aw-shucks and gee-whiz. He’s a young man wearing a fedora without irony in the 1970s. (Alert George W.S. Trow.) In his own way, Clark is as isolated as Superman.
“I never lie, Lois.” Right.
Kryptonian in its advancement
Five names share screenplay credit: Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”), Leslie Newman (this) and Tom Mankiewicz (“Live and Let Die”). They give us so many good lines:
- “Why? You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”
- “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”
- “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Apparently William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters of the day, turned down the gig. He told the Salkinds he didn’t see how it could be done. I don’t blame him. What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s?
“Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
Friday August 06, 2010
Movie Review: Breaking Away (1979)
In June 1979, when I was 16, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, picked me up from the DMV in south Minneapolis where I’d been filling out paperwork to get my first driver’s license, and asked if I wanted to go with him to a critics’ screening that night. I forget if he handed me a movie pass or a presskit but I remember the image on it: a diploma in a garbage can. I also remember the name of the movie: Breaking Away.
We saw it in one of the small critics’ screening rooms above the now-defunct Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis with about a half-dozen other critics in attendance. When you go to movies you generally go knowing first-act plot points (it’s about a down-on-his-luck boxer...), and, increasingly, second- and third-act plot points (...who fights for the heavyweight championship and goes the distance), but I went into this thing knowing nothing but the diploma in the garbage can. As a result, the movie unfolded for me in a way few movies have before or since.
Afterwards my father asked me what I thought and I responded warily. My father was not only a professional movie critic but my father—the man I’d been losing arguments to all of my life—but I told him I thought it was a pretty good movie. He tilted his head and sucked in a discontented breath. “Yeah,” he said. “But it begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies.” During the car ride home I turned this sentence over in my head. Why was this bad? Because it meant the film wasn’t consistent? Because Rocky itself was bad? Couldn’t you say that Rocky begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of boxing movies?
A month later, Breaking Away became the “sleeper” hit of the summer. Six months later, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and it won best original screenplay for Steve Tesich, but today the movie is mostly seen the way my father saw it. It’s a liked movie. It’s sweet. It’s always in the mix whenever anyone talks about great sports movies. When the American Film Institute counted down its 100 greatest movies in both 1998 and 2008, it didn’t make the cut, but when the organization counted down its most inspiring movies, there it was at no. 8—four behind Rocky.
I think it’s more than that; I think it’s one of the greatest American movies ever made.
The film unfolds almost lazily. We see a quarry, then the woods around a quarry, then we hear someone singing with a country twang about the local A&P. Finally the singer and his three buddies, aimless 19 year-olds, wander into camera frame.
We don’t know it yet but the film’s major themes have just been introduced. The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these four guys are aimless.
A year out of high school and they’ve already lost their identities. The tallest of the four, Cyril (Daniel J. Stern), all adenoidal voice, big, clumsy feet and pop-cultural references, once played basketball, hoped for a scholarship, and had a girlfriend named Delores. He didn’t get the scholarship, gave up the basketball, lost the girlfriend. Cyril tends to deal with pain through humor, so, by the quarry, he takes up a mock detective stance. “It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life,” he says. “Ah ha! It was right here.” That’s where he saw Delores making out with a guy named Fat Marvin. Then he shouts into the void, mocking his own heartbreak: “Why, Delores, WHY!?!” His words echo but it’s the shortest of the four, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), who answers. “They’re married now,” he says quietly. Their peers are moving on. Life, for which Cyril has no professed interest, is already passing these guys by.
The unacknowledged leader of the group, Mike (Dennis Quaid), a star quarterback in high school, knows this and talks about getting out. He suggests road trips to Terre Haute and permanent trips to Wyoming. He knows life is bigger than their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, but he’s too scared to go it alone. He’s like a Springsteen character without the guts. That’s why he told Cyril about his girlfriend Delores. And that’s why he gives Moocher shit about his girlfriend Nancy. Girls represent domesticity and Mike needs these guys free to help him get out. He knows the dead-end that awaits him if he stays. He articulates this as they watch the university football team practice:
You know what really gets me, though? I mean here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it’s gonna be a new one. And every year it’s never gonna be me. I’m just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Ol’ mean ol’ man Mike! These college kids out here are never gonna get old, or out of shape, cause new ones come along every year. They’re gonna keep calling us “cutters.” To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be.
At this point we’ve heard the term “cutter” once, from one of the college kids, but it’s only later that we find out its meaning: townie. Specifically: the post-World War II generation that cut the stones that built, among other things, the university. Those jobs have dried up, but the term has become ubiquitous for anyone in town; anyone who’s not getting out.
What do you do if you’re a working-class kid in a university town that has no need for the working class? You wind up in the service sector. You work at the A&P, or—and this is the great fear—you directly service the university. You sell cars to the college kids, or you wash the cars of the college kids, or you police the squabbles between the townies and the college kids. Cutters are basically the niggers of Bloomington. These are the people who do our dirty work, and as a result we fear them, and reduce them to this epithet. Our guys know this. But it’s the fourth guy, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who discovers an ingenious way out.
We watch movies, in part, to get away from ourselves, to hear about someone else for a change. And if the story is good enough, or wish-fulfillment enough, we want to be that person. That’s the exchange implicit in most movies. You give us your money and we’ll let you sit in the dark and pretend to be someone else for two hours.
Dave is both our own and his own wish fulfillment. He’s ours because he’s really good at something we’d like to be good at: bike racing. He’s his own, and humorously so rather than tragically so (cf. Billy Liar), because he’s pretending to be something he’s not: Italian. One imagines, as he got good at bike racing, as he became a fan of Team Cinzano, he adopted the rudiments of the Italian language and culture. Bravo! Bellissima! One also imagines a weight being lifted off him as a result: the weight of being himself. He’s the happiest person for most of the movie because he’s not Dave Stoller; he’s not a cutter. For centuries, Europeans escaped to America and forged new identities, but Dave is part of that generation for whom the American dream contracted and dried up. So he escapes to Europe—in his mind anyway—an idealized Europe. The situation is played for laughs but serious issues lie beneath it.
Breaking Away doesn’t have much of a plot (“I'm not a plot writer,” Tesich told The New York Times in 1982); instead it has tensions between individuals and groups. The most obvious of these are the tensions between the cutters, represented by our four guys, particularly Mike, and the college kids.
But the cutters have their own internal tensions. They may quit the A&P in solidarity with Mike, and they may follow him onto campus and into fights, but they’re already breaking away from him. Moocher gets closer to Nancy: at first denying she’s his girlfriend, then standing up for her, then quietly marrying her at the Monroe County Court House. Dave, in his head, is already gone, while Cyril is never quite there. Mike constantly tries to rally the troops but he resents having troops that need rallying, while they resent being rallied.
Then there are generational tensions. Cyril’s dad “understands” his son’s failures, while Moocher’s parents flee Bloomington for the promise of jobs in Chicago, leaving their son to sell the house by himself. But we only hear about these parents. The only parents we actually see are Dave’s.
Dave’s dad, Raymond (Paul Dooley), is a former stone-cutter who owns a used-car lot that services the college kids—he gives the cars cheesy, collegiate names like “Magna Cum Laude”—and after work he brags about how he schnookered this one or that one; how these college kids ain’t that smart after all. Of course he can’t abide his son’s Italian’s fixation but that’s not the real source of tension between the two of them. Hell, the real source of tension isn’t even between the two of them; it’s within the one. Raymond has internalized Bloomington’s class issues—us vs. them—but he knows that for his son to succeed he needs to become them. The situation is, again, played for laughs, but serious issues lie beneath it. Here he argues with his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie):
Raymond: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to go to college.
Evelyn: I thought you didn’t want him to go to college.
Raymond: Well why should he go to college? When I was 19, I was working at the quarry 10 hours a day.
Evelyn: Most of the quarries are closed.
Raymond: Yeah, well, let him find another job.
Evelyn: Jobs are not that easy to find.
Almost everyone in the film has a monologue. Dialogues, like the above, may be comedic but monologues are serious. Mike’s “Mean ol’ man Mike” speech best represents the younger-generation dilemma—the epithet we’re called is the job we can’t even get—but it’s Raymond’s monologue, representing the original cutters, that is the speech of the movie. No one looks at countries and cultures with fresher eyes than foreigners: de Tocqueville on America, Hemingway and Baldwin on France, and, yes, I would argue, Steve Tesich, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 14, on the America of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, father and son go for a stroll through the university campus:
I cut the stone for this building. I was one fine stone cutter. Mike’s dad, Moocher’s, Cyril’s. All of us. Well, Cyril’s dad, never mind.
Thing of it was, I loved it. I was young and slim and strong. I was damn proud of my work. And the buildings went up! When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. Just felt uncomfortable that’s all. Even now I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone... I just feel out of place.
Yes, Breaking Away is sweet. Dave romances a pretty co-ed named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he calls “Katerina,” and serenades her beneath her sorority window with “M’appari Tutt Amor,” from the Italian opera “Martha.” Yes, Breaking Away is inspirational. Dave’s heroes, Team Cinzano, come to Indiana, and he trains for the race on the freeway, memorably drafting behind a truck at 60 miles an hour. Yes, his dreams come crashing down when a member of Team Cinzano, unable to abide this American upstart with the bad Italian accent, sticks a bike pump between his spokes and he loses the race (“I guess you’re a cutter again,” Mike tells him afterwards); but the movie ends with the Little 500 bike race, where the underdogs, the cutters, take on the college boys, and, against all odds, win.
Inspiring. At the same time, I can’t recall a more profound admission about the American class system in a Hollywood movie than the one Dave’s dad makes above. This country was built by people who aren’t welcome here.
Each time I watch Breaking Away I fear I’ll see the movie through my father’s eyes, but each time it only gets better. Each time, too, I fall in love with a new scene. This summer it was the scene after Dave meets Katherine. He’s biking through the woods, and light is shining through the trees, and we hear the instrumental strains of the song, “M’appari Tutt Amor,” with which he’ll serenade her later in the movie. It’s an aimless scene but you get the sense of things beginning. Dave is young and slim and strong, and he’s good at what he does, and he’s in love. And he spreads his arms wide to take in the world.
In the most basic sense my father was right. Breaking Away begins like a character study, and it ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies, because Steve Tesich’s script was originally two scripts: one about cutters, the other about the Little 500 race. He couldn’t sell either script. So he combined them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” began as two songs and that turned out pretty well.
The movie never really answers its fundamental question. What does the working class in a post-industrial society do? In the aftermath of their Little 500 victory, the cutters simply do what the downtrodden have always done. They lay claim to their epithet. Dave’s dad changes the name of his used-car lot from “Campus Cars” to “Cutter Cars,” while Dave, who embraced one false identity (Italian) to overcome another (cutter), winds up where he was meant to be: at college. But we never see Mike or Moocher or Cyril again. We can only guess what happens to them.
When Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon they’re biking, talking the Tour de France, and he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, happily, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. Cue rimshot. At that point, though, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. It also uses obvious locals for bit parts—the postman, the stone cutters hanging at the plant, the old woman on her porch—but nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
Breaking Away was released more than 30 years ago but it’s never felt more relevant. Moocher can’t sell his parent’s house, jobs aren’t easy to find, there’s trouble in the Middle East. One can argue that jobs are never easy to find and there’s always trouble in the Middle East. But it’s more. I spent the summer of 2010 looking for a car, and many of the car salesmen I met hadn’t been salesmen long. This one had been an event planner but jobs dried up. That one had been a professional photographer but in the digital age he was rendered irrelevant. Then there’s me.
I first saw Breaking Away with my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, in the summer of 1979, a time when journalism and movie criticism seemed like stable occupations. No longer. Newspapers everywhere are folding. Movie critics are being let go. We thought Breaking Away was about them but it’s really about us. We’re all cutters now.
Wednesday March 03, 2010
Review: “Robin and Marian” (1976)
WARNING: REVISIONIST SPOILERS
As “Robin and Marian” opens we see two medieval knights digging in the French sand. “For treasure?” we wonder. “Oh, to get a large stone. Oh, for a catapult. Oh, to shoot at yon castle.” Which they do—to little effect. The stone crashes impotently halfway up the wall and Robin (Sean Connery), on horseback beside Little John (Nicol Williamson), sighs deeply. A minute in, and everything already feels purposeless and dissipated.
If “Robin and Marian” is the least traditional of the Robin Hood feature films, it has less to do with being set 20 years after the famed Sherwood-Forest events than with being written and directed in the 1970s. That was a dispiriting time for all of us: post-1968, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. Heroes weren’t believe in and authority was openly mocked. In both the 1938 “Adventures of Robin Hood” and the 1991 “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance at the end and is venerated. He stands tall, acts noble, everyone bows. (In the ’91 version, he’s even played by Connery.) Here he shows up at the beginning—played with glorious panache by Richard Harris—and he’s as mad as a hatter. The absent lord of the semi-besieged castle has a three-foot gold statue hidden somewhere, but the one-eyed man minding the store, and protecting the women and children within, yells out that there is no gold statue. It’s stone. That’s enough for Robin. He’s about to leave when Richard comes charging up on his horse and demands the castle be taken. They argue:
Robin: Your statue is a rock.
Richard: I want it done.
Robin: There is no treasure.
Richard: Do it.
Robin: There are no soldiers in there, just children and a mad old man.
Richard: And what is that to me?
So the castle is taken and burned. Afterwards Richard's foot pokes a three-foot statue. “So it was stone,” he says with mild interest, as one hears, in the background, the cries of dying women and children. But the one-eyed man lives. “I liked his eye,” Richard says, as if recalling a striking painting he saw at a gallery. A scene later, after some drunkenness, Richard’s dead, and Robin and John, with no one to follow, not even a crazy king to follow, head back to England.
The things he carries.
What becomes a legend most? At this point, Robin doesn’t even know he is a legend. He and John return to Sherwood the way one might return to a high school haunt. Isn’t that the place where...? Hey, remember this? They run into Tuck (Ronnie Barker) and Will (Denholm Elliott) and it’s the latter who tells him he’s revered, that there are ballads sung about him:
Follow him, follow him, bloody and brave
I’ll follow Sir Robin into the grave
“They’ve turned us into heroes, Johnny,” Robin says to Little John, amused. Then this key bit of dialogue:
Will: Everywhere we go, they want to hear the things that you did.
Robin: We didn’t do them!
Will: (laughs) I know that.
The heroes aren’t heroes. At the same time, we’re never really told what they never did. Rob from the rich and give to the poor? Split an arrow at an archery contest? Rescue Maid Marian from Sir Guy of Gisbourne?
It’s apparent, though, that they did live in Sherwood Forest and fight, in guerilla fashion, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), who’s still in power. Marian (Audrey Hepburn), meanwhile, has become a nun (“Not my Marian,” Robin says, shocked), and the day they visit her at Kirkley Abbey is, nice coincidence, the day the Sheriff and his men come riding by to arrest her for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than King John.
The Sheriff of Nottingham has been portrayed a thousand different ways. In the Fairbanks silent version, he’s an afterthought; in the Flynn Technicolor version a buffoon. Alan Rickman played him with over-the-top malevolence in the ’91 Costner version, where he’s the chief villain with an eye on the throne. He’s none of the above here. He’s not even a villain, really. He’s had 20 years to figure out what he did wrong and it’s made him patient and crafty. One could even call him wise. He’s not only the smartest man onscreen but possibly its most interesting. When Robin and John try to sneak into Nottingham he sees through their disguise from the castle above. “Ah Robin,” he says. “Three horses but two to push? I almost feel sorry.” When his headstrong lieutenant demands the right to pursue Robin, and then insults the Sheriff—claiming he’ll succeed where the Sheriff failed—there’s no anger in his response. “Raise the gates,” he says wearily. He knows the lieutenant will fail. He also knows enough not to pursue Robin into Sherwood. Even after King John gives the headstrong lieutenant 100 soldiers to take Robin, the Sheriff merely camps them outside Sherwood. And waits. And waits. He knows he’s the bird hopping around before the cat. Sooner or later the cat will pounce.
But it’s called “Robin and Marian,” that’s the key relationship, and it’s in their conversations that screenwriter James Goldman, brother of William and author of “The Lion in Winter,” has fun. “What are you doing in that costume?” he says when he first sees her in nun’s habit. “Living in it,” she responds. Seeing the austerity of her quarters, he says, “I thought I knew you. What’s happened to you?” “Good things,” she responds. She’s haughty. She’d given up on Robin, and was ready to give herself up to the Sheriff, too. In fact Robin has to knock her out to take her away, and the shock is less seeing Robin slug Marian than seeing Sean Connery slug Audrey Hepburn. That’s like coldcocking a fawn. Other crimes seem minor in comparison.
Marian’s haughtiness, of course, is poor cover for 20 years of lost love and pain, which she eventually confesses. There are scars on her wrists from when she tried to kill herself. “You never wrote,” she says accusingly. “I don’t know how,” he answers honestly.
The things she carries.
He has scars, too, from his countless battles, which she sees when she takes off his shirt. “You had the sweetest body when you left,” she says sadly. “And you were mine.” But these scars are nothing compared to his spiritual scars. The Crusades were celebrated in the Fairbanks version, and glossed over—in an isolationist fashion—in the Flynn version. Here they’re horrific. When she asks if he’s sick of fighting and death, he tells her a story:
On the 12th of July, 1191, the mighty fortress of Acre fell to Richard. His one great victory in the whole campaign. He was sick in bed and never struck a blow. On the 20th of August, John and I were standing on a plain outside the city, watching, while every Muslim left alive was marched out in chains. King Richard spared the richest for ransoming, took the strong for slaves, and he took the children, all the children, and had them chopped apart. When that was done he had the mothers killed. When they were all dead, 3,000 bodies on the plain, he had them all opened up, so their guts could be explored for gold and precious stones. Our churchmen on the scene—and there were many—took it for a triumph. One bishop put on his mitre and led us all in prayer. (Pause) And you ask me if I’m sick of it.
But he’s not sick of it. That’s what Marian suspects and that’s what the Sheriff knows. There’s a great scene where Robin and John rescue several nuns from Nottingham Castle. It’s great because it’s not. Robin Hood is now an old man, and, rather than bouncing and leaping, he grimaces and pants. He moves in slow-motion. Part of the point of “Robin and Marian” is to explore the story after the story. What happens after the happily-ever-after? History doesn’t have to be a tragedy to be repeated as farce.
At times, the film, directed by Richard Lester of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” fame, is almost too farcical, as if it were dipping its toe into absurdist “Monty Python” territory. This absurd tone clashes with the bittersweetness of the overall tale. Robin keeps doing what he’s doing because he can’t do anything else. When the Sheriff succeeds in drawing him out, and they duel clumsily with broadswords, they’re like two old dinosaurs. Several of the men even have to turn away—as sportswriters had to turn away from watching the great Willie Mays, in his twilight, fall down in center field trying to catch a fly ball.
The Sheriff doesn’t get Robin here. Despite the Sheriff’s craftiness, Robin still wins. But he’s wounded and Marian takes him back to the Abbey, mixes a concoction and has him drink it. It’s poison. She wants a life with him, she deserves a life with him, but she knows she won’t get it because he won’t change. “I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat,” she confesses. “I love you more than God.” This is what her feistiness was hiding. Initially incensed, he comes to accept it. “I’d never have a day like this again, would I?” he says. with that Connery half-smile.
“Robin and Marian” comes close to being very, very good—the acting and dialogue in particular—but its tone is slightly off. Plus it has the worst riding music I’ve ever heard (imagine instrumental Christopher Cross, but somehow schmaltzier), and it’s a little precious with its withering-fruit symbolism. I’m also not sure if I don’t buy or merely don’t want this end, which ignores why this particular tale is bittersweet. Think of the withering fruit. We all age and wither and die, even legends. In his day Robin Hood was a great thief—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor—and he deserved to be taken by the greatest thief of all: Time.
The final shot.