Wednesday 26 February 2020

Woodstock (1970)

Back in the nineties I was a frequent visitor on the Roskilde festival. This is the largest music festival in Denmark and in that era we would typically be around 100.000 people on the festival. Sleeping in tents, walking around in mud or dust depending on the weather and partying to awesome music from the stages. We were young and this was about the greatest thing that would happen all year. One year I missed REM because I had an exam in groundwater hydrology, but I sat there at the exam already wearing my festival outfit and the bag ready next to my table so I could take the first train and catch up on the festival.

All this would not have existed had it not been for the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Woodstock is known as the mother of all music festivals, at least the groovy kind, and you would have been living under a rock if you had never heard of it. Growing up the Woodstock festival seemed legendary, almost mythical as the event referred to but rarely actually explained. Well, this movie, Woodstock, the film, does that and it does it very well.

The Woodstock documentary is four hours long and covers practically all aspects of the festival. We see the construction of the stages on the fields and people starting to trickle in. The trickle becomes a flood and suddenly there are four or five times more people than anticipated. The ticket system breaks down and the festival is now free. In small vignettes we see the festival guests lying stoned, dancing, looking for each other, scrambling to find food in what is developing into a disaster area with supplies being flown in. Locals are interviewed, some happy, some not so happy. But mostly there is a lot of music. Really a lot.

The most remarkable from a technical point of view is that there is not narration whatsoever. Sometimes there is an interviewer, or we hear the announcer from the stage call out messages, but nothing is ever explained. The music is only introduced in the very end, but while you watch you have to guess who is playing. This may seem like a drawback, but it is not. The pictures and the interviews speak for themselves. The impressionistic style gives you the feeling of being there and how many times have I not been standing in front of a stage wondering who is actually playing? Yeah, I guess I was not so clear-headed, but neither was the crowd at Woodstock.

The Woodstock documentary won and was nominated for several Academy awards and it was well deserved. Apparently, Woodstock the movie was a landmark in music filming, and I was finding the look and feel very modern. My only problem was that four hours IS a long time and so, during the music parts I would often zone out and just enjoy the music.

I am not an expert on music from the late sixties, but I did recognize a lot of the names and songs. Joe Cocker and Jimmi Hendrix got me forward in my chair and Sly and the Family Stone really had a party going. It is my impression that anybody who was somebody in music was there, on Woodstock.

From an organizational point of view Woodstock was a disaster. Too many people, too little organization, a collapsed ticketing system and insufficient food and sanitation. The financial loss of the backers has huge and the local community apparently passed laws to prevent another festival like this from ever happening again.

Yet culturally Woodstock was a landmark event, one of the largest gathering of young people ever and a defining event for the counterculture that can be felt today. I am happy that it was documented through such an excellent documentary and, incidentally, the documentary grossed a lot more at the box office than the losses suffered by the festival, so there is that.

I have gotten too old to go to Roskilde festival, but for me those were defining events in my youth, just as the Woodstock festival was for a lot of young people back in its day. The world would not have looked the same without it and this movie is the reason we can still experience it.



Thursday 20 February 2020

Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Off-List: Kelly's Heroes
The first off-List movie of 1970 is “Kelly’s Heroes”, a movie which would never make it to the List, but nevertheless a perfect antidote to the wave of very serious and high-brow movies hitting me lately.

“Kelly’s Heroes” is certainly neither serious, nor high-brow, but fun and enjoyable, especially if you do not think too much about what you are watching.

During World War II a unit of the American army gets wind of a fortune in gold lying almost unguarded 30 miles behind the front. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a demoted lieutenant, forms a small task force to secretly sneak in to pilfer this gold. Since the “insignificant” guard includes three of the dreaded Tiger tanks, Kelly recruits Oddball and his band of three Sherman tanks. Oddball (Donald Sutherland) is the only hippie in the American army and the source of much hilarity.

The movie follows the set-up, the move in and the attack on the town with a lot of focus on the banter and the shenanigans done to fool both the American brass and the Germans. That is all very enjoyable, such as Oddball hoping that positive vibes will ensure there will be a bridge for him. When it is blown up anyway, he makes a phone call from a French café to a bridging unit and orders a bridge to be delivered 30 miles behind the lines. This silliness is mixed with the usual fighting and shooting you would expect in a war movie resulting in this odd combination of a fun war movie.

The combination should not work and it probably would not today, but it did back then, at least until you start thinking about what you are watching. People die like flies and the unit takes some substantial losses with little more than a shrug and a “yeah, we a tough”. It takes a particular boyish gung-ho attitude to reconciliate this with the hilarity, but somehow “Kelly’s Heroes fly over that, as it does with all the historical inaccuracies. The battles around Nancy was in the autumn, not at the height of summer, there does not seem to be a Clermont near Nancy and the set in Yugoslavia carries only vague resemblance to France. Not to mention a hippie in WWII…

Yet, who cares, this is just fun and when Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland moves out, that is all that matters. A particular favorite is the scene where the three of them walk down the street to face the Tiger tank in front of the bank in Western style. This is totally high noon with a rip-off Morricone score, which seems to be a reference to Clint Eastwood’s Sergio Leone characters. It totally cracked me up.

Back in the day movie critics tore it to pieces, but its boyish appeal has made it survive the decades and it still occasionally pops up on television. That is a lot more than can be said about most other movies from 1970.

Enjoyable movies do not have to make a lot of sense or be particularly clever. Sometimes some gung-ho tongue-in-cheek is enough to carry a film. And of course Clint Eastwood. And some positive vibes.

Sunday 16 February 2020

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces
Finally, after weeks of lackluster cinematic nourishment, I get to watch something exciting. “Five Easy Pieces” was exactly that interesting and different an experience I was craving.

Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is living a random existence. He is living with a girl, Rayette (Karen Black), whom he clearly dates for the sex and little else, certainly not what is inside her head, and works on an oilrig as a grunt. Here he has befriended Elton (Billy Bush) with whom he plays poker and bowling and occasionally screws his wife. It is pretty clear that Robert lives a life with as few hard attachments as possible and that everything is temporary. When Elton gets arrested for an old offense it is time to quit the job and Robert heads to Los Angeles to meet his sister, Partita.

Partita Dupea (Lois Smith) is a classical pianist, currently making a recoding in a studio, and we learn that so is Robert and in fact his entire family. Partita begs him to come home as their father is very ill and it is time to be reconciled. Robert first wants to go alone, but when Rayette throws a fit he agrees to bring her along, but installs her on a motel.

At the family home Robert meets Catherine (Susan Anspach) whom he makes a successful pass on whereupon Rayette shows up and everything turns sour for Robert.

What now, Robert Dupea?

This does not sound super interesting in summary, but it is. Jack Nicholson, who was a joy to watch, was perfectly casted as the drifter Robert. Behind his hard surface there is a desperate child who is afraid to commit and keeps running away instead of facing the music. As a portrait of a man who does not want to take the consequences of his actions it is brilliant. I would normally not enjoy a depressing topic like that but here it was made interesting. It helps that there is a certain wry humor throughout. Rayette really has the depth of puddle after a light rain, in the studio the technicians are exasperated when Partita starts humming horribly to her playing and so forth, but it gets very black and delicious when Rayette shows up at the family home. Robert’s escapade with Catherine is in shambles and Rayette perfectly sabotages a highbrow get-together by her sheer presence.

The best part however is the ending. Without revealing anything I can certainly say that this was not the ending I expected, but in hindsight probably the right and natural ending. What sort of resolution do you expect in a movie about a man who abhors resolutions?

“Five Easy Pieces” is a movie that looks ahead, into the seventies, with very little glamour, but excellent human portraits. As such I can certainly say I have left the sixties behind and arrived at a new modernity, a continuation from “Midnight Cowboy”.

Then, of course, Jack Nicholson is a big reason for watching this movie. He is young here (with hair) and it is before “The Shining” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” but you can already see those devilish traits that would become his trademarks later on and in fact, Jack Nicholson had already been doing movies for twelve years at this point. Not a novice at all.

“Five Easy Pieces” is a definite recommendation from me and not just because the bar on the List have been significantly lowered lately.


Saturday 8 February 2020

El Topo (1970)

El Topo
It has been a poor period for my movies on the List and with “El Topo” that trend has reached a low point. In my opinion it just does not get much worse than this. I brought the movie to watch in the evenings while I am in Melbourne, but I wonder if that was such a great idea.

Going into this movie it looks like a western, but soon it became apparent that something was off. The music is weird and does not really seem to fit the pictures and what we are looking at gets strange, then ridiculous and then outright bizarre. The lead character whom I suppose is called El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky), is dressed in all black and looks like a super tough western character. Together with him on the horse is a small, naked boy. I am immediately worried that the child will get a bad sunburn, but soon I get a lot more to worry about. El Topo rides into a town where everybody has been brutally massacred, seriously “Wild Bunch” slaughtered, with pools of blood everywhere. When El Topo catches up with the culprits, it is the boy who shoots them. Seriously?

And that is just the beginning. It gets weirder and weirder and I realized that this is (again) one of those movies where the apparent narrative is secondary, even irrelevant, compared to the symbolic values. At that point I also knew that I should shift from enjoying a good movie to a highbrow analysis of all the clever symbols and messages. Since none of what I saw made any sense I went to Wikipedia, but I had to double check because the story described there seemed very different from the one I was watching and even that story made very little sense to me. Something about shooting people representing different religions…

Not understanding the symbolism (I am a bit stupid) I had to return to what I was watching, but I found no pleasure in that. Not at all. Random people got brutally killed. A western town ruled by a drag sheriff and a weird cult would kill off anything they considered degenerate although they were themselves freakish. An ultimate low was when a religious service developed into a game of Russian Roulette where every missed shot was praised as a miracle until a small boy grabbed the gun and shot himself in the head. El Topo himself becomes a monk who makes clown shows with a dwarf woman to raise money to dig a tunnel to set a group of handicapped people free. Only to see them all be killed when they arrive in town.

All this was terrible to watch. I felt disgusted and confused and angry and frankly could not wait for this horror show to end.

Among film scholars “El Topo” is considered a landmark movie, a masterpiece even. Obviously, I am not a film scholar.

My list of worst movies on the List has just gotten a new member.