Monday 28 September 2020

The Last Picture Show (1971)


Sidste forestilling

There are sad, declining places and then there is the Anarene, Texas of “The Last Picture Show”. I doubt I have ever seen a place as sad and dull ever, real life or in fiction.

Peter Bogdanovich’ coming-of-age story has as the central character Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school student in the above mentioned Anarene, Texas, sometime in the early fifties. Sonny plays football, but both he and the team suck. He hangs out at Sam-the-Lion’s (Ben Johnson) pool hall with his friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), drive around in his wreck of a car and hangs out with girls. And that is really all there is to do in Anarene.

As in most coming of age movies there is a lot of interaction between the teenagers, but most seem driven by sheer boredom. The only thing you really can do is experiment with sex and alcohol so this they do with abandon. Nothing new, you might say, is that not the topic of any coming of age movie? The difference here is the quiet desperation with which this is pursued. Sonny dumps his girlfriend and starts seeing his coach’s lonely wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman) while Duane enjoys the hottest girl in town, the rich Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), until she grow bored and decides to try something else, such as a nude pool party. Particularly painful is it when the boys decide it is time for the retarded but sweet Billy (Sam Bottoms) to lose his virginity and set him up with a prostitute in a car while they are jeering outside.

Although the community seems to function on the outside, we learn the same story from everybody once we get closer. Sonny, who is a good listener, hears from Sam, Ruth, the coach and Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, how they all had dreams of a better life, but that staying in this place has drained them into a stupor. Living in this place made them ghosts of who they used to or wished to be.

Eventually Sonny and Duane has a fall out when Jacy starts hitting on Sonny and Duane leaves for the army, leaving Sonny behind in an increasingly desolate town.

I do not think I ever saw a movie as eloquently describing this kind of quiet desperation. It permeates everything: the color scheme (stark black and white), the wind howling through the empty town, the worn-down pool hall, the empty diner, the closing picture show, but more than anything the eyes of most people in this town. This is a dead-end, everybody knows it, but for many it is too late to escape. It was a depressive experience to watch this, but Bogdanovitch is a good enough storyteller to keep it interesting and despite myself I got drawn into the story.

Often I was reminded of the far more recent “Ghost World” except that is merely one person being stuck. In “The Last Picture Show” it is an entire community that has lost its steam and given up. The quintessential scene must be Sonny having a coffee with Ruth as she completely looses it and Sonny just stares at her with empty eyes and then puts his hand on hers. There is real compassion in that.

“The Last Picture Show” is also the introduction on the List of both Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. Bridges was at this time already an experienced actor while Shepherd was a model headhunted for the job. Both did an excellent job on this movie and the rest is, as they say, history.

“The Last Picture Show” is a recommendation from me.



Monday 21 September 2020

A New Leaf (1971)


Off-List: A New Leaf

I have decided to add a fourth off-List movie to 1971. Bea at Flickers in Time recommended to me the movie “A New Leaf” and having now watched it, it is too good not to get a review. Thanks, Bea!

Elaine May is one of those great stars who have remained unknown to the larger public. At least I was not aware of her before watching “A New Leaf”. This is largely because she preferred to run things from behind. Screenwriting, often uncredited or under a pseudonym or assisting on direction, especially on comedy, but she was actually an accomplished comedienne and a skillful director and with “A New Leaf” we get the full package as May directed, wrote and acted the lead female part. It worked like a charm.

Henry Graham (the magnificent Walter Matthau) is a good for nothing aging playboy, who has been living off his trust fund until it is a fund no more. Used to the niceties of wealth, never worked a day in his life and generally unpleasant to anything with two, four or lo legs, Henry is in trouble.

Assisted by his butler (George Rose) Henry borrows some money from his uncle and set out on a terrifying mission: To find a rich woman and marry her in six weeks. Oh, the ladies Henry digs up! They are a laugh. Finally, though, Henry finds the perfect mark: The distraught botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), heiress of a massive fortune and completely helpless. Henry woos her and marries her, but when he gets to the point where he is supposed to get rid of her again something happens.

Never has a bluebeard been as miserable as Matthau makes him and never has a mark been as completely naïve and hapless as May’s professor. They are simply made for each other. I am used to comedies with Matthau as a grumpy old fool, but I think he was never better as a such than here. And this includes his comedies with Jack Lemmon. The scene where the accountant is trying to get through to him that he is broke is hilarious and Matthau only have to wear his helmet in his broken Ferrari to look ridiculous.

The smart thing however is that “A New Leaf” is not chasing the gags, but is more involved with the story it has to tell and that story is fundamentally funny. It may not be as surprising and innovative as “Harold and Maude” but its more conventional approach is plenty enough. I like that it takes some time to build up the Henry Graham character so that when he finally meet Henrietta we know exactly how horrible she is in his eyes and we know enough of him that we both despise him and feel a bit sorry for him. It is sort of a Bill Murray thing, but Walter Matthau perfected this type of character several decades before “Groundhog Day”.

All this however is Elaine May’s vision. The created it and the universe Matthau swims in and she scored big in my book.

Definitely a recommendation.


Wednesday 16 September 2020

Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (1971)


Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Not long ago I watched and reviewed “Shaft” and I believe I hailed it as one of the first blacksploitation movies. It was predated however by “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song”, who as I understand it, is recognized as the initiator of the genre.

A lot of what I said about “Shaft” goes for “SSBS” (that really is an impossible title) as well. It goes 100% for coolness and macho awesomeness. The score by Earth, Wind and Fire is fully up there with Isaac Hayes “Shaft” score and, of course, this is a bunch of Brothers kicking some white ass.

That is, however, where the similarities end. “SSBS” was made on a much smaller budget, reputedly 150.000$, and goes for the rustic feel. That means grainy texture, lenses often out of focus and a cutting technique which wants to be edgy, but often come across as awkward and amateurish. The quality and polish is not there and so, probably a conscious decision, it goes the other way.

The other main difference is the plot, which really is something else.

Sweetback grows up in a brothel where he is famous for his sexual prowess from early on. Seeing him as a boy on top of one of the prostitutes was a tough one to eat so soon after “Murmur of the heart”. Anyway, the point is that Sweetback is famous for one thing and that is his mighty dick. One night during a peep show the police show up and want to bring somebody down to the station. It is unclear to me why since there were no subtitles on my copy and the slang combined with poor sound made it a bit difficult to follow. Sweetback leaves with the police and on the way to the station they pick up a Black Panther militia dude from some brawl. The policemen stop and beat up the Black Panther guy with Sweetback watching. At some point it is too much for Sweetback so he beats up the policemen, possibly killing them.

Now Sweetback is on the run and this is the main part of the movie. It is like an odyssey and I would not be surprised if somebody more clever than me would find direct parallels to the stops Homer’s hero did on his journey. Sweetback passes through Beetle’s brothel, a black church and a Hells Angels hideout. Here he is challenged to a duel with the president and when asked to choose weapon, he goes for his prime asset, his dick. And wins.

The police is getting more and more incensed, beating up every black guy in their way, totally unapologetic (police violence against black people is not a new thing) and though Sweetback keeps evading them, they are getting close as he is aiming for the Mexican border.

The point of the movie is obviously that black people are fighting an uphill battle against white authorities, that they can trust no-one but themselves, but that they are truly awesome. As such this is a very political movie and one that seems relevant to watch here in 2020. What Sweetback is up against is a whole bunch of prejudiced Dirty Harrys who prefer to shoot first and will not back down.

While I appreciate the coolness of the style and the music and even the rustic texture I could not shake that cheap production feel. There are montages going on repeat for no obvious reason and strange jumps and cross clips that make it hard to follow the plot. I suppose it was part of the charm, but it often threw me off-track and that is a minus.

Still, overall, I appreciate the experience, not only for political and cinematic significance but for simple entertainment value. It is a recommendation from me.


Sunday 13 September 2020

Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au Coeur) (1971)

Uroligt hjerte 

I sometimes get annoyed with movies, probably too often, and some movies disgust me, but it is rare that a movie shocks me. In fact, I usually associate that reaction with prudes affecting some righteous indignation at what they what they see as inproper behavior. For once though I feel shaken watching a movie. More about that later.

"Le souffle au Coeur" (Murmur of the Heart) is the first movie on the list by French director Louis Malle. The only movie of his that I know is “Au revoir les enfant”, but Louis Malle was apparently a productive director. “Le souffle au coeur” is supposed to be one of his happy movies.

Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) is a 15-year-old boy with two older brothers, a wealthy gynecologist father, Charles (Daniel Gèlin) and a youthful mother, Clara (Lea Massari). Laurent is bookish and smart in school and interested in reading and jazz music, yet frequently steals, is rude and get in trouble, highly encouraged by his, frankly, annoying brothers.

We follow Laurent around in what seems to be an aimless plot. The only recurring theme is Laurent’s struggle, or rather obsession, with sex. I know, as well as any other who has been a teenager, how much the hormones are going bananas at that age, but Laurent is really all over the place. It does not help of course that his priest-teacher is obviously a pedophile, flirting with Laurent or that his brothers take him to visit a prostitute.

Laurent clearly has the idea that hitting on girls is his male duty and the best way to do it is simply to jump into it and kiss them, so this he does with gusto. To his surprise the girls are generally not excited about his approach. In fact, this whole sex and love thing seems to confuse Laurent quite a bit. This could be funny, and I suppose to some it is. To me it seemed rather sad.

The icky part is that Laurent is madly in love with his mother who in return is doting on him. For the second half of the movie Laurent is installed on a sanatorium to recover from what sounds like a cold together with his mother. The sanatorium is very exclusive and look more like a 1950’es holiday resort where you get well from drinking their mysterious water and otherwise eat fancy food, play tennis and party. Alone with his mother, Laurent’s infatuation becomes more of a sexual fascination, which turns to jealousy when the mother has an affair with some random stranger, even elopes with him for a few days. The culmination is Laurent having sex with his mother after the Bastille day festivities.

Okay, this is where I jumped off and I am not certain what happened after that and I do not really care. When the Book wrote that the incestuous relationship caused trouble but that it was presented as a beautiful thing, I had not thought that this was what I would be watching. Call me a prude, but parents having sex with their children is where I draw the line. Basta.

Disregarding this horrific conclusion, I cannot say that I enjoyed the movie much. It took me some time to work out that there was not much else to the movie than a teenage boy’s sexual confusion. I failed to sympathize with Laurent, I simply could not recognize much in him, and his family, especially his brothers, was not nice. The only thing I actually did enjoy was the large amount of jazz music in the score. Charlie Parker I believe it was.

I cannot honestly recommend this movie. For once I believe the critics were right. This one crosses the line.     

Friday 4 September 2020

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry

Back in high school, in the early nineties, our literature teacher had to leave for a course of some sort and while she was away she wanted us to go to the school video room to watch “Babette’s Feast”. Us, being typical teenagers, made a quick vote whether to watch “Dirty Harry” or “Rain Man” instead. “Dirty Harry” won by a large margin. Twenty years after its release “Dirty Harry” was still a favorite, even against recent releases.

We are now closing in on its fifty year anniversary and the interesting question is if it is still holding up? The answer to that is an unwavering affirmative. “Dirty Harry” is just as effective and intense as it was those many years ago and still holds a lot of the satisfaction of watching a guy standing up to evil and win. The problem is that I as a viewer has gotten older and what back then seemed simple and straightforward is now a lot more complicated and tinge a movie like “Dirty Harry” with a bitter taste.

In case you just came back after fifty years on the moon let me briefly explain what “Dirty Harry” is about. In San Francisco, in the early seventies, a cold-blooded murderer is on the rampage. Scorpio (Andy Robinson) shoots people at will and demands 200.000$ to stop. The city authorities hope to stall Scorpio and has assigned police inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) to find and stop Scorpio. Harry is a bitter man with a no-nonsense approach to problem solving. He is also a bit of a super cop who can take care of a bank robbery in his lunch break, shooting the bandits in stride. 

As the case progresses it becomes clear that this is a high stakes game and the city authorities get nervous and cave in to Scorpio’s demands. Harry, who at this point has watched evil in the eye, steps out of the civil servant role and enters the grey zone of the vigilante to take care of this problem himself.

On the face of it this is a police procedure movie and one of the better ones if for no other reason than Clint Eastwood being awesome. But this also very quickly becomes a discussion on how far you are allowed to go to fight evil. There can be no doubt here, at least for us, the viewers, that Scopio is a deranged maniac who needs to be stopped and that any delay just means more people will die. The question is on the other side of the equation. The position “Dirty Harry” seems to have is that the regular justice system is unable to deal with someone like Scorpio who knows how to play the system. That the red tape and the rights of the accused renders law enforcement impotent, and that it takes a ruthless and potent player who is willing to cut through the red tape to level the playing field and take care of the problem. 

This is where “Dirty Harry” becomes uncomfortable. We cannot help agreeing with Harry Callahan, we want Scorpio to suffer and we understand how important it is to find the kidnapped girl and to prevent more murders, but how many rules do you need to break? And are those very rules not what protects us from a tyrannical police? What if Harry had gotten the wrong guy? And what right does Harry Callahan have to issue the death sentence on those he accuses? “Dirty Harry” wants us to give up that protection because the accused is very guilty, but fifty years later it is pretty clear there are a lot of Dirty Harrys out there whose victims are not as guilty.

All this philosophizing may give the impression that I did not like the movie and with a hint of disgust I have to admit that that is not the case at all. “Dirty Harry” is riveting and awesome and so full of iconic scenes and lines that I can only compare it to a movie like “Casablanca”.  "'ve got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?” is the kind of line that everybody knows and most of us wish that it was us who had come up with it in that special situation. 

“Dirty Harry” is politically problematic but so convincingly played out that I can almost ignore it. It has to be a recommendation.

Thirty years ago, our literature teacher never realized that we had watched “Dirty Harry” and not “Babette’s Feast”. We had agreed that the few of us who knew the movie should discuss it in class while the rest should simply stick to that “it was alright, but a bit long”. Lis was a bit disappointed that so many found “Babette’s Feast” long.