Archive for June, 2010

Middle Age and the Movies

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 20, 2010 by leclisse

Petulia (1968) is a movie I find myself returning to from time to time, but I wouldn’t classifiy it as a comfort movie.  It’s not even a film I necessarily think of when I find myself in a particular mood or or recalling the highlights of a specific genre.  However, it does share some major elements with several other movies I found myself watching during the past month, chief among these being the mid-life crisis.

Several weeks ago, Matt and I rented Weekend With the Babysitter (1970) from Netflix, a second choice after our gleeful dreams of a schlock-filled evening were dampened after finding that The Babysitter (1969) was not available on commercial DVD.  Even before turing on our television set, we both knew that we were not in for the wild ride that The Babysitter promised, but pragmatically settled for this, our next available option.  I won’t go into a substantial commentary, but what struck me most about this film was the inescapable creeper factor of the entire story arc.  George E. Cary plays Jim Carlton, a modestly successful screenwriter who is currently working on a swinging new picture about youth culture.  He lets his son’s nubile twenty-something babysitter read a couple of pages of dialogue, which she roundly dismisses as a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to capture the true spirit of how kids really talk to each other.  Intrigued, he joins her and some of her friends at a go-go bar, smokes up with them, and spends a carefree and uninhibited weekend away with the babysitter, who also happens to be named Candy (and is rather stiltingly played by Susan Romen).  The film was co-written by Cary, and is most obviously the titilating product of his (probably unfulfilled) fantasies.  Doughy, pasty, and decidedly unhip, both Cary and Jim Carlton are incredibly unlikely to be surrounded by a bevy of young willing girls like Candy, let alone take off for a sexy weekend getaway with one of them.

The Arrangement (1969) takes a more dignified view of the mid-life crisis, this time pitting Kirk Douglas as successful adman Eddie Anderson against the free-spirited Gwen, who is rather inconsistently portrayed by Faye DunawayThe Arrangement is an Elia Kazan film, and comes from an autobiographical novel that Kazan had penned not too long before the film’s production.  Driven mad by the soul-crushing nature of “making it” in the advertising world, Eddie Anderson almost commits suicide by driving his car under the wheels of a towering semi truck.  Kazan takes pains to mirror the lifelessness of Eddie’s home life with the emptiness he feels in the face of financial success, and even in his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr, who rather gamely plays to the shrillness demanded of her by both the part and no doubt Kazan himself).  Kazan makes it perfectly clear that Eddie and Florence have the “perfect marriage,” but the effectiveness of this cliche is marred by the heavy-handed way in which it is at all times shown. 

Eddie looks for salvation from his wife, job, and the demands of his dying father and finds something like it in Gwen (Faye Dunaway, who unfortunately turns out a largely forgettable performance) and they start an affair.  Gwen’s character is meant to provide someone who is so totally opposite of Florence, someone so without roots that she doesn’t even have a last name.  As far as Eddie is concerned, her only mistake is that she is too demanding in asking him to divorce Florence so that they may marry.  The Arrangement is obviously an ‘A’ picture compared to the likes of Weekend With the Babysitter, but its storyline indulges in many of the same pitfalls of the latter.  Eddie’s wife, like Jim’s drug-addicted shrew of a spouse, is a little too easy to villify and lacks any kind of real human complexity.  All too often, the viewer distinctly feels Kazan’s sputtering attitude of “I’m right, and they’re all wrong” in Eddie’s reflexive flight from his everyday responsibilities.  We always see this, but Kazan never makes the connection to allow his audience to understand it.

Richard Lester ‘s Petulia (1968) succeeds not only where these other films have failed, but is also one of the most underrated films of the 1960s.  The film’s effectiveness lies in the effortless sincerity that is brought out in George C. Scott’s Archie and Julie Christie’s title character, Petulia Danner.  Archie is recently divorced from wife Polo (Shirley Knight), but seemingly not for any tangible reason other than an emotional deadness which can clearly be seen in Archie’s eyes as well as through his own admission that he just wants to “feel something.”  We never hear an explanation of the separation, but perhaps this is because he has none to offer anyone, even himself.  Archie’s more passive confusion and discontent contrasts with Petulia’s active (at some points aggressive) boredom and fear of the emotional unpredictability of her physically abusive husband David (played to slithering perfection by Richard Chamberlain).  Archie and Petulia have almost nothing in common save for their shared frustrations, but they find a certain kind of sympathy in each other that assuages each other’s private grief.  They don’t know where they’re going, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they can share in each other’s limbo.

The disjointed nature of Petulia’s narrative works not only through the skill of its featured players, but also through its impeccable editing which cuts forward, backward, up, and down with an understanding of the linearity that much remain for the audience’s sake.  This allows for an incredibly nuanced understanding of Archie’s characterization as well as the nature of his mid-life crisis.  While sharing many similarities with the predicaments of Jim Carlton and Eddie Anderson, he understands himself well enough to know that riding off into the sunset with some sweet young thing is definitely not an option.  He knows his affair with Petulia is doomed to be short-lived because it can’t possibly maintain itself.  By the end of the film, his initial emotional detachment from her grows into genuine affection, due in part to the fact that she has made him into a “kook” like herself but also because of his fear for her physical safety from David.  He wants to protect her, but by the end he understands that with a baby on the way, she feels some obligation to make the union last as long and as well as it can.  The poignancy of Petulia does not lie in Archie and Petulia’s breakup, but more so in the fact that Petulia has grown up; responsibility and impending motherhood has matured her irreparably, something that both she and the audience cannot ignore or deny.

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Cat Ballou (1965)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 17, 2010 by leclisse

In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about, actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious.  Wearing widow’s weeds over her six-guns, she romps through one of the zaniest train robberies ever filmed, a throwback to Pearl White’s perilous heyday.  Putting the final touches on a virginal white frock to wear at her own hanging, she somehow suggests that Alice in Wonderland has fallen among blackguards and rather enjoys it.  Happily, Cat Ballou makes the enjoyment epidemic. (Review from Time magazine.)

I’m not by any means a fan of Westerns.  I can appreciate a good one just as I can appreciate a film from any genre that is well-done or remarkable in any number of ways.  My neutrality as far as Westerns are concerned is probably due to the fact that they often lack any real female character development, more often than not strictly studies in masculinity.  Once Jane Fonda is thrown into the mix, however, it is almost impossible to come away without some substantial feminine influence.  My respect for Jane’s skills as an actress is irrevocably grounded in her performances in Klute (1971) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but is still manages to grow with each film of hers that I see (yes, even after the spectacle of 1968’s Barbarella).

In Cat Ballou, Jane plays Catherine Ballou, a newly minted school teacher who is on her way back home to her father, a significant landowner who has run afoul of some encroaching business interests.  The film actually opens with Catherine in jail, fidgeting with a virginal white dress as she awaits her sentence of hanging for murder.  Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye provide a musical narration, meant to be reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, and bring the audience back several months from this scene in the jail to explain just how fair Catherine has found herself to be in such a mess.  Homeward bound, Catherine is deposited into the care of a masquerading priest, who also happens to be on board in order to spring an outlaw passenger in police custody.  Catherine is something of a victim of circumstances, but reluctantly assists in the getaway of the two.  Up to this point, Fonda’s Catherine is a skillful embodiment of old-fashioned femininity and virginal naivety, but all the while managing to convey the inner steel that will sustain her after the murder of her father.

Catherine is not home long before her father dies at the hands (or gun, rather) of Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin, who also plays Kid Shelleen), a terrifying steel-nosed gunslinger hired by the businessmen who have now stopped at nothing to wrestle away her father’s water rights.  This, despite her having hired gunmen (Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, and the escaped outlaws from the train, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) to protect her father from these same businessmen.  Devastated and heartbroken, Catherine vows revenge for here father’s death, seeking refuge with Kid Shelleen, Sioux farmhand Jackson Two-Bears, and Callan and Hickman.  They flee to a protected community of outlaws, immediately setting to work at Catherine’s insistence in plotting a train robbery.  Unfortunately, the payroll they heist from the train is actually meant to provide much-needed jobs to the townspeople as well as pay for the protection of the outlaw community in which they’re currently seeking refuge.  After this, they haven’t a friend in the world.

Cat Ballou was a major financial success at the time of its release, and significantly elevated Jane’s star power.  Personally, she was engaged to be married to director Roger Vadim (who would go on to direct her in Barbarella) and the overflow of this joy can clearly be seen in the vivacity and fire of her performance.  The film’s satirical treatment of the Western genre makes use of a variety of common cliches, yet is able to turn these elements on their heads in order to move the film beyond a simple self-conscious look at the Old West.  Jane’s Catherine is the vulnerable schoolteacher, yet uses this position as a springboard to secure the help of the men around her who also want to protect her.  Ever practical, she wears slacks for much of her screen time but never falls from this initial virginal femininity.  Catherine is self-assured and self-reliant, open to the charms of lovemaking yet is able to unalterably remain unobsessed with love and courtship.  It’s a pleasant and exciting release, but she knows she need not depend on it in order to secure her well-being.  Even up to the very end, Catherine’s rescue from the noose is a team effort, not merely another instance of a man having to intervene to save a helpless female.  Fonda’s Catherine has already proven that she can take care of herself, but is not averse to the idea of a gallant rescue at the capable hands of Callan, Hickman, and Marvin.

Serpico (1973)

Posted in Dailies with tags , on June 1, 2010 by leclisse

There once was a time when I lumped any film made after 1971 into something of an untouchable category.  Looking back on this self-imposed exile, I realize that the only real reason I tended to do this was because I didn’t think these films were stylistically up to snuff.  They were too dirty, too gritty; their storylines did not offer the sort of escapism or romantic idealization that I liked in the movies I chose to watch.  I suppose I only made any significant progress away from this when I started college and worked in the library with some interesting characters who fed my penchant for idealistic social activism with some of the landmark films to come out of the late 1960s and into the 1970s, such as Easy Rider (1969), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Patton (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), All the President’s Men (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Network (1976), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The French Connection (1971) and on and on.  The same elements that I originally loathed about this time period actually form the basis of my respect for it now.

My experience with Al Pacino’s filmography seems to only cover his earlier films; with the exception of Dick Tracy (1990), I haven’t seen any of his work made after 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon.  I suppose this is probably the best possible introduction to his films, since it seems that no other part of his filmography has been quite as acclaimed as his work in the 1970s, and with good reason.  Sidney Lumet‘s  Serpico has been on my radar, albeit peripherally, since my dad mentioned how impressed he was when he saw it.  Based on true events, Al Pacino plays Officer Frank Serpico, a young graduate of the police academy who proudly enters the force in New York City.  The first sign of Serpico’s drifting from the staid tenets of the police force can be seen in the increasing length and carelessness of his hair and dress, which is adopted in an effort to blend in with the streets, concealing him from the ever-watchful gaze of dealers, pushers, gangs, and anyone else threatened by police presence.  For a time, Serpico straddles the line between being a cop and being part of youth culture.  Girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) doesn’t even believe him when he tells her his line of work; his discomfort in being seen as just a cop within her circle of friends is linearly drawn out, culminating in a party scene where he tries to blend in pricipally by not revealing his occupation.

The primary focus of Serpico‘s storyline is his disillusionment with the police establishment as the routine of internal corruption is revealed first through bribes and eventually through workplace harrassment when it becomes clear that Serpico will not take his money and shut up.  Lumet’s direction and Pacino’s performance synthesize perfectly as Serpico’s frustration, isolation, anger, and eventual sense of betrayal by the New York police come out in every scene, eventually reaching a head as he lashes out at those closest to him, principally girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe).  Despite the hellish environment at work after repeated transfers and new work assignments, Serpico still seems to retain some loyalty by his insistent refusal to turn to outside sources like the New York Times to reveal the corruption that has insinuated itself into the daily workings of the NYPD.  After all this, Serpico still believes in the honesty of his superiors; there is no other explanation for his dogged determination to work with the established authority to weed out corruption and once again (in his mind, at least) institute honesty and fairness into police dealings with each other and local citizens.  It would be difficult to watch this film and not wonder why he does not up and quit, washing his hands of the whole ordeal.  It is that sense of loyalty to the department, or his idea of it at any rate, that keeps him from going.

It takes gun shot in the face to finally drive the point home that Serpico cannot hope to remain alive within the New York police.  A transfer to the narcotics division can certainly be interpreted as a death sentence, as he is warned about the ease of set-ups and the danger he faces not only from the streets but even from other officers.  His partners on a routine drug bust essentially leave him to die after they fail to offer the backup he desperately needs, even though they are less than ten feet away.  Perhaps the only thing that could have broken Serpico’s intangibe loyalty is a near-death experience, which here he finally receives.  In that sense, he is dead to the NYPD and free from any compunction he may have felt at testifying against the force.  Not only if he free from this, but also from the United States itself, as a postscript tells audiences that the real Frank Serpico left the States, subsequently residing “somewhere in Switzerland.”