Thursday 24 November 2022

Days of Heaven (1978)


Himlen på Jorden

“Days of Heaven” is the second movie on the List by Terrence Malick and it seems to me that he got stuck with the same themes. A bit like Hitchcock, telling the same story in different wrappings.

This time the young, lost couple is Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), pretending to be siblings for convenience and with Bill’s sister Linda (Linda Manz) as a hanger-on and narrator. They escape Chicago around the time of World War I after Bill accidentally kills a foreman in a factory. Ending up in the Texas panhandle, they take jobs as seasonal farmhands.

The young owner of the farm, known only as “The Farmer” (Sam Shepard), is rumored to be sick and on the brink of death and since he clearly has taken a liking to Abby, Bill cooks up the plan that Abby will marry him and when he soon will die, she will inherit the farm and all its wealth.

Only, the rumor was greatly exaggerated, and The Farmer is feeling fine. He is just a bit weirded out that his new wife is a little too familiar with her “brother”. The period of bliss is broken when the farm is hit by locusts and shit hits the fan in every way possible.

This is again the story of young people of dubious morals who seeks freedom and wealth, but are finally caught by a civilization who does not accept that they can do whatever they want. Mainly because their means are highly illegal.

I know there is a certain appeal to those stories, but they rarely sit well with me, usually because the characters come off as stupid and selfish. “Days of Heaven” is no different. It also adds a another very common theme that always sat poorly with me, that of the triangle drama. I cannot explain it, but I have always found triangles to be worse than gore and violence, making it particularly hard for me to watch. Childish perhaps, but there I am.

“Days of Heaven” is, according to both the Book and Wikipedia, one of the most critically acclaimed movies in cinema history, and it seems this acclaim is mainly directed towards the photography. This is also by far the most attractive element of this movie. Especially the landscape shots are a wonder and in its meditative slowness, the camera will often dwell on a particularly spectacular view, whether it is the colors or the distant horizon that is in focus. I find it hard though to extend this acclaim to the rest of the movie. The same meditative slowness made it incredibly difficult for me to stay focused on the story and it never managed to suck me in. Frankly, it is a boring movie, with the drama coming from elements I care nothing about.

This is also the first movie on the List with Richard Gere. I have a longstanding and probably irrational antipathy against Richard Gere, so that does not exactly help.

This would likely be a very polarizing movie and I may be terribly biased, but from my particular standpoint, this is not a recommendation.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Convoy (1978)


Off-List: Convoy

One of my favorite movies in my childhood was “Convoy”, so when it was time to pick off-List movies for 1978 I was not in doubt, “Convoy” had to be one of them. Rewatching it so many years later does make me question why I liked it so much back then.

Trucker Martin Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) with the CB handle “Rubberduck” has a chance encounter with photographer Melissa (Ali MacGraw) in the desert. He then joins with fellow truckers “Love Machine” and “Spider Mike”. They are tricked into speeding by Sheriff Lyle Wallace who then extort money from them. At the next truck stop they all meet up and a fight erupt that knocks out Sheriff Wallace. That makes the truckers fugitives, and they make a dash for the state border.

Eventually many truckers sympathize with the fugitives and join them, forming a massive convoy. People are baffled, what is all this about? This includes the local politicians who want to make some political coin out of this strange movement. Meanwhile, Spider Mike has to leave the convoy to get home to his pregnant wife. He is ambushed by Lyle and local law enforcement, beaten up and held as bait. The bait works, Rubberduck rides out to save his friend and is joined be a bunch of other truckers. Together they trash the town, free Spider Mike and head off to Mexico. Will they make it?

There is no doubt the script here is a mess. There is no purpose for half the characters, including Ali MacGraw’s. What exactly is it the truckers are so upset about? Why is Rubberduck hell-bent on being a hero?

Sam Peckinpah was hired as director and beside being in general a total disaster, he also tried to turn a script that was really just a song, into a Peckinpah movie. Something about a crusade for freedom, standing up against corrupt authorities and a heroic, but doomed showdown. The trucks lining up for a cavalry charge is very much a Peckinpah move. The studio however kicked out Peckinpah and remolded the movie into something akin to “Smokey and the Bandit”. The result is this weird comedy /doomed crusade thing with agendas in all directions.

But then again, it is also just a simple story about cowboys (truckers) who do not give a damn about authority and give it to the Man. It is just more impressive when this is done in big trucks. And all that trucker jargon sets them apart and make then real cool. At least to small boys.

Watching “Convoy” today I can see why the cartoonish car (truck!) chase through the desert made a big impression on me back then, but politically this is a very problematic story. Its counterculture angle is very close to Trumpism, and independence becomes vigilantism, which in turn is legitimized by degrading the legal authority to a corrupt and illegitimate entity (again, very Peckinpah). I just do not think I can board that train.

“Convoy” was a monster hit all over the world so somewhere between Peckinpah and the comedic mainstream reworking it got something right. I certainly thought so 35 years ago. Maybe it was just the trucks.

Saturday 12 November 2022

Grease (1978)



Welcome to planet Bubblegum.

Although widely loved, “Grease” is not my jam. In fact, it is about as horrible as it gets.

Sometime back in the fifties, we follow Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny (John Travolta) through their senior year in high school. Sandy is Australian and newcomer to the school while Danny is the cool leader of the T-Birds group, complete with black leather jackets and greasy hair. During summer break they had a fling, but as school starts Danny resumes his role as too cool for school.

Sandy as a “good girl” finds it difficult to blend in with the cool people although she does get associated with “The Pink Ladies”. Danny has to make a choice to remain aloof and cool or getting along with Sandy, but in the end, Sandy solves his problem by turning badass so they can fly off together on a pink cloud (literally).

“Grease” is very much a 1950’ies musical in the MGM tradition. It is even set in that era. Both plot and setting are a pastiche with all the clichés, making it an exaggerated and unreal world, but likely one many people would wish they lived in. We have the classic breaking out in song scenes, the dancing-out-of-nowhere tropes and a reduction of plot to a bare minimum, exactly as if this had been “Oklahoma” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. This means of course that it is a movie that has to be judged on those terms, but it also means that for me it is behind on points right from the outset.

It does not help that I am obviously outside the target group. The boys in the movie may not be dancing cowboys, but you only really have to replace the Stetsons with black leather jackets. With the risk of sounding misogynic they come across as young girls dream of what cool guys would look and sound like and then amped up a notch or three. From my point of view, they look like morons and losers and Danny as the worst of them as he really should know better. In “Saturday Night Fever” he was also a smart ass but somehow more likeable, probably he was equipped with more dimensions and represented a type and an attitude of the time. In “Grease” he is just a jerk. But hey, I am not a 14-year-old girl.

I believe the audience is supposed to identify with good girl Sandy who dreams of love and must pass a rite into adulthood to fulfill her dreams. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and dress and act like a woman (?). Her story is in any case more interesting than that of Danny’s, but sadly underplayed (It is a musical after all).

The comparison with “Saturday Night Fever” is apt, not just because of John Travolta, but because both movies aimed at and succeeded in getting through to youth culture at the time with the major difference that “Saturday Night Fever” is a music movie, while “Grease” is a musical, which makes the movie watching experience massively different. “Grease” replaces coolness with cliché and relevance with pastiche. The music of “Grease” went on to be massively popular on a global scale, even long into the nineties you would frequently hear the songs at parties, but today I would say that the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” has a lot better lasting power. That is cool today, “Grease” is not. Or maybe it is still me being outside the target group.

Of course, I watched “Grease” in my youth, who did not? But the only fond memory I had of it was watching Olivia Newton-John in her badass outfit. That worked on early-teen me (hey, I am a guy). Taking on “Grease” so many years later only confirmed my impressions from back then. I struggle with the nauseating sweetness, looking for something to like and finding that even badass Sandy has lost much of her lure.



Friday 4 November 2022

The Deer Hunter (1978)


Deer Hunter

Before I started this project, the quintessential seventies movie would have been “The Deer Hunter”. It encapsulated everything I thought I knew about movies in the seventies and those were mostly negatives. At this point, having reviewed some 80% of seventies movies on the List, my view on movies from the seventies is a lot more nuanced and yet “The Deer Hunter”, so many years later, still confirms all my preconceptions about it and feels incredibly seventies.

We find ourselves in a steel mill community in western Pennsylvania (though with a hunting ground in the Cascades…) in the later part of the sixties. A wedding is in preparation and over the course of this wedding we are introduced to a group of men, most of which work at the mill and all of them belong to a Slavic community. This latter detail has no particular impact on the story as such, but adds color and demonstrates that this is a very tight community.

Some of the men, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage), the groom, are about to be shipped out to Vietnam, while the others, including Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) stay home. As does Linda (Meryl Streep), girlfriend of both Mike and Nick.

In Vietnam all three are captured by the Vietcong and as prisoners forced to play Russian Roulette. Mike manages to set them free but then they get separated. All three men are broken in their way and that is explored in the last third of the movie.

This is dark, grim and depressive all-round and told at a glacial speed. The portrait of the town makes it dirty, grey and not outright poor, but not prospering either. These are salt of the Earth people and don’t you forget it. It is filmed in that somewhat chaotic and naturalistic seventies fashion where people speak on top of each other without really saying anything and the filmed characters seem to have forgotten about the camera.

The wedding itself is a folkloristic highlight but lasts the better part of an hour in which only three things are really accomplished: Characters are introduced, Nick makes Mike promise him that he will get him home from Vietnam and Nick proposes to Linda.

Vietnam is portrayed as hell on Earth, whether it is the captivity scenes or the fall of Saigon scenes. Terrible stuff. But most heartbreaking is the aftermath, how the veterans return home and are no longer able to fit into their community.

The message of “The Deer Hunter” is very clear: War is terrible, and it ruins people, one way or another. Mike, John and Steven are simply three examples of this. None of them can function afterwards, they are changed physically, mentally or both and not for the better.

There is no happy end to “The Deer Hunter”, no little corner where things are alright, no excuse available and the end scene say that this is the price for serving their country.

I cannot disagree with this movie in any way. I have no doubt that this is what war does to people and that a lot of high-level leaders at any time in history has a lot to answer for. But it does not make me love “The Deer Hunter”. It is three hours of depression in slow motion. It is a story that could easily be told in two hours and it hammers home its points with no mercy. That may make it an important movie, but not anything to enjoy watching.

I suppose this is a movie you have to watch eventually, but not one I can honestly recommend and my guess is that it will be another 20 or 30 years till I try again.