Monday, October 29, 2007

No. 15 - Straight Time

Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) has just been released from prison and is on parole. His parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) has a sadistic streak and takes an instant dislike to Dembo. Dembo manages to rent a room in a flophouse and find a job on an assembly line. He wants to go straight, but his old prison buddy Gary Busey gets him into trouble. Dembo is arrested on trumped-up drug charges, and ends up returning to a life of violent crime. In other words, the system failed him.

Or did it? When Dembo was first released from prison, he failed to check into a half-way house. He visits his ex-felon friend (Busey). He violates many conditions of his parole. Then, he brutally assaults his parole officer. Dembo hits the streets, looks up his old crony Harry Dean Stanton, and embarks on a violent crime spree, starting with a liquor store hold-up, then ending up with a violent jewelry store heist that goes awry.

Dembo turns out to be a lifelong criminal, and it takes very little to lure him back to his old ways. His fate is determined by character, not by circumstance. Hoffman is superb as Dembo, a chronic criminal with the sporadic ability to appear civilized. Hoffman shows us the rage within Dembo, and we see how Dembo can never fit into polite society. The supporting cast is superb, with Theresa Russell as his straight-laced girlfriend, Walsh as the parole officer, Busey and Stanton as hapless criminals, and Kathy Bates plays Busey's wife. The scene in which she asks Dembo to stay away from her husband is heartbreaking. Even Gary Busey's son (a very young Jake Busey) gives a good performance. Credit this to Ulu Grosbard, a director who works very well with actors.

No. 14 - All The President's Men

Watching All The President's Men recently, I was struck by a number of things. For one, Woodward and Bernstein must gather information the old-fashioned way in the pre-digital era. The two intrepid reporters memorably flip through all the records of books borrowed from the Library of Congress. We also see Woodward thumbing through stacks of telephone directories from every city in the U.S. And then there are phone calls to make (on rotary dial phones) and doors to knock on.

I was also struck by the secretive nature of the Nixon White House. I was also reminded that some of Bush's top people, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, got their start with Nixon. And these men learned a valuable lesson from Watergate -- be careful about talking to reporters, especially Bob Woodward. The thought occurred to me -- could something like Watergate happen again?

All The President's Men captures the exhausting daily routine of investigative journalism -- wearing out shoe leather, pursuing many dead-end leads, burning the midnight lamp in an apartment with stacks of newspaper spilling all over the floor. It's a seemingly thankless task, an exercise in futility in many cases -- except that in this case, a U.S. President was brought down.

The film expertly dramatizes how a seemingly unimportant burglary case led to a wider scandal. The plot is advanced in the build-up of quotidian details. There are no speeches about politics, there is no melodrama, no love interests for Woodward or Bernstein. The focus here is on the work.

A less confident filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula might have added a celebratory scene with Woodward and Bernstein having a drink and saying, "We did, man!" These guys are so busy they don't have time to celebrate. At the very end of the film, when the story starts to break open, Woodward and Bernstein are busy, typing away.

No. 13 - The Gambler

Karel Reisz's 1974 film is probably the most insightful portrait of compulsive gambling ever made. James Caan stars as Axel Freed, a schoolteacher in New York who quotes Dostoyevsky and racks up huge gambling debts. Whenever he manages to pay off his debts, either through family loans or a lucky bet, he puts his winnings on the line again.

What drives a man to live on the edge, to risk losing it all? Screenwriter James Toback creates a highly complex character with an unconscious desire to destroy himself. This becomes apparent at the end, after Axel talks one of his student's into shaving points in a basketball game. Fixing the game has erased Axel's biggest debt, and yet he does not feel relief or gratitude. He decides to walk through the streets of Harlem late at night, picks up a prostitute and then gets into a fight with a pimp. Axel exposes himself to the greatest risk of all, putting his life on the line.

Many viewers have expressed confusion over the final scene, because it has nothing to do with gambling. But it reveals what has been driving Axel all along -- a desire to destroy himself. It is the addict's unconscious desire to hit bottom. Axel comes from a wealthy background, and he has always been able to rely on his family to get him out of trouble. But Axel wants to test himself, to see if he can survive on his own. He does, but the price is steep.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No. 12 - Blue Collar

Paul Schrader's 1978 directorial debut presents a much different view of unions than 1979's highly acclaimed Oscar-winner Norma Rae. In Norma Rae, the union represents (literally) the best hope for workers. The union in Blue Collar, on the other hand, is totally corrupt.

Schrader focuses on three workers in a Detroit auto plant. They are played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. Desperate for money, they decide to rob union headquarters. The robbers don't find money when they break in at night, but they do stumble upon documents that could possibly be used for blackmail. Since this is a Paul Schrader film, their bold act turns out to be an exercise in futility.

Watching Blue Collar today, it is remarkable to see so many manufacturing jobs in the United States. This was the era before so many of these jobs were sent offshore to countries with a cheaper labor rates.

As he did with Taxi Driver, Schrader proved to be a prescient observer of cultural and political trends in Blue Collar. It went against Hollywood's conventional wisdom to portray labor unions in such an unfavorable light. It wasn't just management who was screwing over the workers.

Schrader presents a hopeless, almost nihilistic view of the plight of the American worker. The film perfectly reflects the bleakness of the Carter years, when inflation and unemployment rates skyrocketed. Audiences in 1978 preferred the escapism of Close Encounters and Saturday Night Fever, and had no desire to see Richard Pryor in a dour drama.

Two years later, Ronald Reagan attacked unions when he ran for the presidency. As the economy changed, unions became less powerful. To understand why, watch Blue Collar.

No. 11 - Stay Hungry

Stay Hungry defies easy categorization. It features Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first speaking role, but it's not an action film. Despite its humor, it's not a comedy. Despite the fact that co-stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field meet cute, bicker and end up together, it's not a love story.

Bridges plays Craig Blake, a charming rich kid who gets involved with some shady real estate developers in Montgomery, Alabama. They want to build a high-rise, but a decrepit old gym stands in the way. Craig is dispatched to buy out the gym's owner, but he refuses to sell. Craig then finds himself drawn into the world of bodybuilders who work out at the gym, and he falls for poor girl Sally Field. Schwarzenegger plays Santos, a bodybuilder -- what a stretch. He provides Craig with bits of Yoda-like wisdom, such as "there's no growth without burning." Before long, Craig has switched sides.

Director Bob Rafelson's film is a coming of age story, a satire of ruthless businessmen, and an in-depth exploration of the sport of bodybuilding. It also captures the unique atmosphere of Alabama, from high society mansion soirees to tavern brawls to boardroom machinations and then back to the country club for club sandwiches and tennis.

Stay Hungry, like many 70's films, questions the American Dream of making a big score. Craig is a man who has more than he needs, and yet he's empty inside. How do you really make it? You learn to "stay hungry," as Santos suggests.

There are some wonderful performances in this film. Joe Spinell is wonderful as a scuzzy real estate developer, R.G. Armstrong is great as the voyeuristic gym owner, and Roger E. Moseley and Robert Englund are both great as oddball gym employees. This was also Sally Field's first major film role, and she does a great job. Bridges turns in his customary great performance. And Arnold acquits himself well.

No. 10 - Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Michael Cimino's debut film is not just a great caper but it's also a perfect example of the buddy genre that was so prevalent in the 70's (see The Sting and Scarecrow from 1973).

Clint Eastwood is at his laconic best as a mysterious man known as the Thunderbolt. Jeff Bridges earned an Oscar nomination as Lightfoot, a carefree young man who enjoys stealing cars for fun. When these two meet up, they decide to knock off a bank.

What makes this film so special is not just the chemistry between Eastwood and Bridges, but also Cimino's affinity for nature on an epic scale. Filmed in Montana, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot captures the grandeur of the American landscape, with mountain ranges, unspoiled lakes and endless rolling plains.

There is also an affinity for the dropouts and eccentrics of society, people who are often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers. Eastwood would return to this sort of off-the-interstate milieu in Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man, while Cimino brought his genuine love of grandiose natural mountain settings and respect for blue collar men to his next film, The Deer Hunter.

No. 9 - Performance

"The only performance that makes it, that really makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness," says reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) in the Nicolas Roeg-Donald Cammell head trip, Performance. This is a film that truly achieves madness.

Chaz (James Fox) is a tough London gangster who must hide out after running afoul of his boss. He takes refuge in a Notting Hill mansion inhabited by Turner, who attempts to regain his creative muse while indulging in hallucinogenic drugs with two live-in groupies. Chaz hates rock music and drugs, but he is soon lured into Turner's bizarre lifestyle. In time, Chaz takes some magic mushrooms and undergoes a personality transference with Turner. Or does he? There are as many questions as answers in Performance.

This film was way ahead of its time. It is stylistically daring, with jump cuts, flash-forwards, graphic sex scenes and even an MTV-style musical sequence by Jagger that verges on the surreal.

Roeg would go on to direct such 70's classics as Walkabout, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Roeg enjoyed using rock stars -- Jagger here, Bowie in Man Who Fell To Earth, and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (released in the 80's, but it feels like a 70's film).

Performance expertly captures the tough underworld of London gangsters and the indolent, decadent life of a has-been rock star. The two worlds collide, and identities converge and separate.

No. 8 - Semi Tough

Semi Tough was marketed as a football comedy in the vein of The Longest Yard, but football is merely a backdrop in this film. Semi Tough, much to the chagrin of fans of Dan Jenkins' best selling novel, focuses on the trappings of celebrity more than gridiron activities. It also explores some of the more dubious spiritual movements of the 70's, such as est and pyramid power.

Kris Kristofferson plays Shake Tiller, a wide receiver who undergoes a Cat Stevens-like conversion experience to become an adherent of the est-like BEAT movement. Burt Reynolds is Billy Clyde Pucket, a good old boy quarterback who is skeptical about the efficacy of BEAT. Billy Clyde attends the two-day BEAT seminar, in which potential adherents are verbally abused by founder Werner Erhart (Burt Convy, brilliant) and are prohibited from using restroom facilities (sample dialogue -- a woman stands up during the seminar and proudly says that she just peed in her pants). But Billy Clyde came prepared -- he has attached a "motorist's friend" to his ankle inside his pants. Billy Clyde's presence at the seminar, and his seeming conversion to BEAT, serve to disrupt Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh) from getting brainwashed during the seminar. Billy Clyde's fake conversion also serves to disrupt the upcoming marriage between Shake and Barbara Jane -- which is fine with Billy Clyde, because he wants Barbara Jane all to himself.

Alternative religious beliefs hover around Semi-Tough like dandelion dust. Even the team's profane owner, Big Ed (Robert Preston) is not immune to all this New Age quackery (and this is before the term "New Age" even existed). Big Ed is an adherent of "move-a-genics," which requires him to crawl around on his office floor like an infant.

Director Michael Ritchie, who previously poked fun at Little League in Bad News Bears, beauty pageants in Smile and politics in The Candidate, has lots of fun in Semi Tough with the celebrity culture of the 70's. The emphasis is not on football but on the power of celebrity. After all, Shake's fame is exploited by BEAT, just as Billy Clyde is paid big bucks to write a tell-all autobiography (the publisher tells him to focus on substantive issues, such as "whether there are more homosexuals on the offense or the defense").

After Semi Tough, mind control cults became more and more prevalent. In 1978, a year after Semi Tough came out, there was the tragic fiasco at Jonestown. The past 30 years have seen the rampant growth of New Age belief systems, with Scientology serving as the ultimate example (and they use celebrities to tout their religion, just like BEAT did with their celebrity members). What would Billy Clyde make of all this madness?

No. 7 - Thank God It's Friday

Altman's influence could be felt throughout the 70's in ensemble comedies like Car Wash (1976) and Animal House (1978), and also in this undervalued gem of the disco era.

Thank God It's Friday follows an Altman-like ensemble of characters as they converge on L.A.'s hottest disco. There's a staid insurance actuary and his prim wife who are out for adventure. There's a couple of horny guys trying to score. There's a nice girl (Debra Winger in her film debut) who just wants to meet a nice guy. There's the slick disco club owner (Jeff Goldblum) who juggles girlfriends but really wants to score with the prim wife -- who maybe isn't so prim after all. And then there's the sanitation worker who is set up on a computer date with a schoolteacher, with uproarious results -- a couple that seems ill-matched turns out to be made for each other.

Nicole (Donna Summer, in her film debut), is an aspiring singer who sneaks on stage to get her big break (much like Barbara Harris in Altman's Nashville). She belts out Last Dance, a disco classic that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song. It is great to see the ultimate disco diva captured on film at the top of her game.

Thank God It's Friday is a fun, carefree breeze of a film that encapsulates a more innocent, and seemingly simpler, time. A co-production between disco label Casablanca Records and Motown Records, Thank God It's Friday brings back the music, the clothes, the decor, and the flashing strobe lights of the disco era. This is as 70's as you can get.

No. 6 - M*A*S*H

Robert Altman had kicked around Hollywood for two decades, directing low budget films and episodic television before he made M*A*S*H in 1970. Out of nowhere, the 45-year-old veteran became one of the top directors in American cinema. The high grosses of M*A*S*H allowed Altman to make a series of daring, cutting-edge films for the rest of the decade.

M*A*S*H broke ground in a lot of areas. The sound design was innovative, in which multiple, overlapping conversations created a more authentic atmosphere. The film also evinced a counter-cultural disdain for such notions as patriotism and official military procedure. There was also the stunning juxtaposition of bloody operating room sequences with broad comedy.

What I like about this film is its lack of overt sentimentality, and yet it delivers the emotional goods at the end. There are no speeches about friendship or about the madness of war. The surgeons at the M*A*S*H unit just go about their duties, and drink and carouse in their rare off-time simply to keep their sanity in an insane situation. There is one brief shot near the end, in which we flash-forward to an officer's homecoming at an airport landing strip. It goes by in an instant, but it shows what every soldier dreams about. Amidst the comedy and carnage, it is one of those great moments that puts a lump in your throat -- and shows that Altman is more than just a farceur or a political provocateur.

No. 5 - Shampoo

Shampoo begins with Beverly Hills hairdresser George (Warren Beatty) literally in the dark. We hear him having sex with someone, and then the phone rings. It's his regular girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), on the other end of the line. She wants him to come over. So George bids goodbye to the woman in his bed, Felicia (Lee Grant), and rides his motorcycle over to Jill's place.

Thus begins Hal Ashby's 1975 classic Shampoo, with a plot as complicated at George's love life. George wants to open his own salon. He seeks money from wealthy financier Lester (Jack Warden). What Lester doesn't realize is that George is sleeping with his wife Felicia, his daughter (Carrie Fisher) and his mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie) -- all in the course of 48 hours, during Election Day, 1968.

How does George manage to keep juggling all of these contradictory desires? He doesn't. The resulting farcical entanglements, evasions and revelations are brilliantly plotted by co-writers Beatty and Robert Towne. The plot hinges upon a series of interrupted sexual couplings. Even George's profession reinforces the narrative -- the plot strands will get entangled, combed out and then washed clean.

While Shampoo succeeds as a sex farce about a stud who can't turn off his magnetic allure to any woman, it also explores its characters and milieu with more depth than most dramatic films. In addition, Shampoo is a great time capsule of Beverly Hills in 1968, a city that has been overwhelmed by the sexual revolution but barely grazed by the Vietnam War. Near the end of the film, a Marine comes in to the posh salon to deliver the bad news that the salon owner's son has died in an accident. This is as close as the Vietnam War gets to the insulated lives of these pampered characters. The only other time Vietnam makes an appearance, it is in the form of a radio broadcast in Lester's Rolls Royce. Lester quickly turns the channel for news about the stock market. It is interesting to compare Shampoo to Ashby's later film, Coming Home, also set in 1968, but worlds away from the protected environs of Rodeo Drive.

The ensemble is superb. Goldie Hawn has never been better, Julie Christie is brilliant as a kept woman, Jack Warden captures the befuddlement of the cuckold with relish, Lee Grant won an Oscar for her performance as a long-suffering and long-ignored rich wife, and Tony Bill brings just the right tone of sardonic observation to his portrayal of a louche ad executive.

But the film belongs to Beatty. He not only co-wrote Shampoo but also produced it. And his performance showcases Beatty's considerable charisma and comedic talent. George is a well-intended bungler, a guy who is too good-natured to say no to anyone, and everyone wants something from him. Beatty captures George's disillusionment when his life finally collapses at the end. Jackie leaves him for a wealthier man, Lester, and George is left alone, on top of a hill overlooking the posh houses of Benedict Canyon. He is in the harsh morning light, all illusions stripped away.

No. 4 - Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon, like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, is a visually stunning journey into the past. Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film is arguably the most beautifully photographed film in cinema history. Kubrick’s penchant for perfectionism and detail pay off gloriously in this 18th Century period piece. Hand-sewn costumes, authentic locations and innovative use of candlelight to illuminate interior sets provide a palpable sense of reality. The use of period chamber music, from Mozart to Bach, adds another layer to the film.

Kubrick tells the picaresque story of an Irish rake's rise and fall with Olympian detachment. The film also has a deliberate pace, which some viewers have no patience for. But life was much slower in the 18th Century, and Kubrick's film reflects that. Some criticized Barry Lyndon for its pace, its three hour length, and its lack of emotional empathy. But I feel that it's a mesmerizing experience, if only you meet the director half-way.

One can certainly trace the influence of Barry Lyndon on Days of Heaven, The Duellists and countless period pieces that followed. But Barry Lyndon is much more than a series of pretty pictures. Despite the visual opulence, Kubrick ultimately emphasizes the emptiness of his character's regimented lives. Whether stuck in a military formation or trapped within the confines of the peerage, the characters in Barry Lyndon are hedged about by social conventions and by their own moral limitations. It is a pessimistic view of the human condition, and an undeniably powerful one. It is Stanley Kubrick at the height of his considerable powers.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

No. 3 - McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Robert Altman arguably had the most impressive output of any Hollywood director in the 1970's. He certainly directed more films than anyone else -- about a dozen or so between 1970 and 1979. Not all of his films were great, but even the least of them tried something new. And when Altman was at the top of his game, few filmmakers could match him.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971 is Altman at his very best. It is a Western set in the Pacific Northwest near the turn of the 20th century. McCabe, a small-time cardsharp (Warren Beatty) comes to a small mining town, and sets up shop -- a saloon with games of chance, and a house of prostitution. He takes on a hooker with a heart of brass named Mrs. Miller (the splendid, Oscar-nominated Julie Christie), and business booms. A large corporation wants to buy McCabe out, but he refuses to sell. So some hired killers soon arrive to do away with McCabe, in a memorable gunfight in a heavy blizzard.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller gives the viewer a palpable sense of escaping into the past. The mining town seems like a small niche carved out in an immense and forbidding wilderness. The streets are constantly muddy, wood frames are always going up. It is barely inhabitable. A cold wind always seems to be blowing through town. Altman's cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, beautifully captures the setting. We get a great feeling for nature -- the skies, the clouds, the trees, most significantly the weather. Never has rain and snow been used so effectively in a film. In the final gunfight, McCabe attempts to outgun his rivals while tramping through thigh-deep snowdrifts.

The film finishes in an opium den, with an extreme close up of Julie Christie. It's a daring way to end the film, but appropriate. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, above all, is a trip in the truest sense of the word.

No. 2 - Taxi Driver

After the seismic counter-cultural disruptions of the late 60's and early 70's, there was bound to be a backlash. And there was, by the late 70's and early 80's, in the form of Anita Bryant, the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan. But Paul Schrader sensed this shift in American values well before anyone else in Hollywood.

Schrader, one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood in the mid-70's, was raised as a strict Calvinist. He may have abandoned the religion of his youth, but Calvinist notions of depravity and guilt continued to haunt him and his work. His Travis Bickle is a tortured soul, a loner in a crowded city who is sickened by the blight of New York City. "Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets," Travis says in disgust. His plan to assassinate a presidential candidate is foiled, so he decides to kill some pimps. By this quirk of fate, he is hailed as a hero.

Is Travis crazy, or is he just tuned in to his environment? After Taxi Driver was released, New York City got even worse. There were the blackouts and lootings of summer 1977, interspersed with a real-life Travis Bickle known as Son of Sam. Things got so bad that NYC declared bankruptcy. When Ronald Reagan ran for President in 1980, his criticisms of the rampant welfare state and sorry plight of the big cities had a Bickle-like tone of moral disapproval. The fact that Taxi Driver triggered John Hinkley to attempt to kill Reagan in emulation of his hero Travis shows that Hinkley didn't get the link between crazy prophet Travis and suave politician Reagan. There was an anger that Reagan tapped into in 1980, the disgust of the Bible Belt and the Midwest at the state of American culture, especially the culture of New York and Los Angeles. Schrader had figured this out long before Reagan was elected.

And then came Rudy Giuliani. After decades of uncontrolled crime, Rudy came in and cleaned up the city, like rain washing the scum off the streets.

No. 1 - Mean Streets

While Raging Bull received more acclaim, and GoodFellas made more money, and The Departed won more Oscars, Mean Streets remains Martin Scorsese's best film.

It is his most autobiographical film, set in the Little Italy neighborhood where he grew up. While Mean Streets was actually Scorsese's third feature film, it represents the first time Scorsese's signature style came into full flower -- the expressionistic lighting, the slow motion, the jump cuts, the use of rock music and opera, the profane and self-destructive characters. But all of these stylistic flourishes conjoined with the deeper, more spiritual exploration of the narrative, not to overwhelm but to buttress Scorsese's thematic concerns.

Scorsese famously considered the priesthood before choosing another vocation, cinema, but Catholic themes remained with him. Mean Streets is his most religious film, in the sense that religion actually plays a role in the main character's life. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is working his way up the mob ladder, but he feels guilt. He obsesses about the pain of eternal hellfire, but he continues down a violent, self-destructive path. His own peculiar mode of penance entails helping out his crazy cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in a star-making performance). But there is no help for Johnny Boy, an inveterate gambler who is always in debt. Before long, Johnny Boy will drag Charlie down with him into an urban version of perdition.

There is a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere in this film. One gets the sense that the characters are trapped within a few blocks, and that escape is impossible. I also enjoy the ensemble cast. Keitel and De Niro play off each other superbly -- Keitel is the harried straight man, De Niro is the wild card (he literally enters the film with a bang, as he places a package in a mail box that explodes as he walks away). But Richard Romanus and David Proval are equally superb as two other neighborhood friends. There is an organic quality to the interactions between Keitel, De Niro, Romanus and Proval. They get so far into their respective characters that it feels like these four have known each other since early childhood. There is a sense of intimacy between them, which causes as much conflict as camaraderie. The one main female character, Theresa (Amy Robinson), serves as ballast to all the macho posturing. She is the voice of reason, but her boyfriend Charlie doesn't want to listen.

70 Best Films of the 70's

The 1970's was the Golden Age for cinema. There were so many superb films. However, I've decided to limit myself to 70. It's a nice round number.

Think about it. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Mike Nichols, John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, Bob Fosse, Steven Spielberg, Ken Russell, Sidney Lumet, Jerry Schatzberg, Bob Rafelson, Karel Reisz, Woody Allen, Alan J. Pakula, Paul Mazursky, John Schlesinger, Michael Ritchie, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino, John G. Avildsen and many more were doing their best work.

So what's the top film of the 70's? It was directed by Martin Scorsese, and it stars Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. No, it's not Taxi Driver (that's Number Two on the list). The best film of the 1970's is Mean Streets.