This is my part 3 and the final part of my entry for the Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). I’d like to thank them not only for doing a great job (as usual) of hosting, but also of putting up with my last-minute entries once again. Enjoy!
As I argued in my introduction to this series, while the prevailing view of film history is many of the feature films of the late 60’s/early 70’s that dealt with the unrest of the time did so indirectly through either genre or by using the past as a mirror to view the present, there were in fact a few films that tried to confront the chaos and issues of the time directly, with mixed results. But there’s another group of films that dealt with the turmoil and unrest directly, and as always, they tend to get overlooked. That group would be documentaries. As with the Iraq war in the 2000’s, documentary filmmakers took on the Vietnam War, for example, long before feature filmmakers did (or, to be fair, could). All in all, I saw seven documentaries – five features and two shorts – that dealt with the war in some way, and I cover them here. Also, civil rights for African-Americans were better represented through documentaries than through mainstream Hollywood, and I feature documentaries from the two leaders who were considered the yin and yang of African-American rights during the 60’s, as well as one of the leaders of the controversial Black Panthers.
“Why are we in Vietnam?”: Far From Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig, Interviews with My Lai Veterans, Winter Soldier, F.T.A., Letter to Jane, Hearts and Minds.
Still photo from “Far From Vietnam”.
As I mentioned in my post on foreign movies, French artists – as well as many others in France – were among the first to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, in fact, one of the first (if not the first) documentaries to come out against the war came from France. Far From Vietnam (1967) combined the talents of, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, all under the supervision of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Each of them shot, or collected, footage for a short segment, all to help challenge not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but also the image the U.S. was presenting to the rest of the world about the war being just and necessary.
As with just about every anthology movie I’ve seen, some segments are better than others. Resnais opts to have Bernard Fresson (who appeared in several of his movies, including Resnais’ previous La Guerre est Finie; he also appeared in Costa-Gavras’ Z) as “Claude Ridder”, a French government official (or perhaps a journalist) who tries to convince a Vietnamese woman (Karen Blanguernon) of the rationale for the war, though it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as well. That’s an interesting and powerful enough premise, but while it’s possible the woman doesn’t speak because she’s bored with, or ignoring, what Ridder says, how much more interesting the segment would have been if she had been allowed to engage him by speaking back, and allowing a true dialectic to be set up. Godard, meanwhile, ponders on whether or not he’s able to even make a film about the war (especially since he’d been denied entry), even though he’s obviously against it. Godard isn’t just talking about himself, it seems, but whether anyone could make a film confronting the war, and while that approach is also not without merit – Atom Egoyan would demonstrate decade, in his highly underrated 2002 film Ararat, that it was possible to make a good film about whether or not art can confront genocide – Godard doesn’t really go anywhere with his segment. Much better are the scenes showing the history of colonial involvement in Vietnam, footage of protests taking place across the United States (as well as people shouting at, or booing, the protesters), and a puppet show depicting the American government’s view of the country. Perhaps the best segment at all deals with the widow of Norman Morrison – the man who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon on November 2, 1965 – Anne Morrison, a Quaker, and her meeting with a Vietnamese woman named Ann Uyen to explain how much she was in favor of her husband’s act. The way the film presents this story simply, without any histrionics, makes it all the more powerful. Far From Vietnam may not be a great documentary, but it’s a good one that does challenge the official story.
Iconic image from “In the Year of the Pig”.
Emile de Antonio may not be a household name as far as filmmakers go, or even documentary filmmakers, and that’s a shame. Point of Order! (1964), his first film, takes on McCarthyism by editing together footage of the Army Hearings and shows just how much of a bully McCarthy was. After collaborating with author Mark Lane on a documentary companion to Lane’s book Rush to Judgment, which challenged the Warren Report’s view of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which de Antonio stressed, for him, had less to do with any feelings for Kennedy – he wasn’t a fan of almost any politician – than with the fact he felt the U.S. government was lying to its people), de Antonio followed with another film challenging the official narrative given by the U.S. government; In the Year of the Pig (1968), this time on the Vietnam War. Part of this, like Point of Order!, is what de Antonio called “collage cinema”; merely putting together archive footage to tell a narrative, and here, it’s the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (as well as a brief history of French involvement in Vietnam after WWII), from merely sending advisers to sending troops and then escalating the “police action”. We see government and military officials, including presidents (most prominent, of course, is LBJ), generals (Generals Clark, LeMay and Westmoreland), CIA officials (John Foster Dulles) and others justifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam every step of the way, even when things go wrong. We also see footage of wounded soldiers and Vietnamese. Finally, de Antonio has assembled interviews with people speaking out against the war, including activists such as Father Daniel Berrigan, journalists such as David Halberstam, and government officials such as Senator Thurston Morton. As angry as de Antonio is about the policy carried out here – and he’s very angry indeed – he’s careful not to demonize the ordinary, everyday soldiers stuck in the quagmire (we get an interview with a deserter). Also, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of the film (she liked it with some misgivings), de Antonio provides context that the news coverage of the war wasn’t doing at the time, and presenting the U.S. involvement as the Vietnamese might see it. If there’s a weakness in the film (also in Far From Vietnam), it’s de Antonio’s romanticizing of the North Vietnamese (he likens Ho Chi Minh to George Washington), given what happened Vietnam after the U.S. pulled out. Still, without going overboard on trickery, de Antonio’s film remains a stinging and powerful film, and a reminder to question the “official story”.
Scott Camil interviewed in “Winter Soldier”.
Speaking of which, one of the most notorious incidents during the war was, of course, the My Lai massacre, when on May 16, 1968, members of Company C went into a Vietnamese village, which was apparently believed to be a Vietcong stronghold, and ended up killing anywhere between 347 (the U.S. army figures) and 504 people (according to the Vietnamese government), all of them civilians, many of them women (who were also gang-raped) and children (Joseph Strick’s Interviews with My Lai Veterans, a documentary short photographed by Haskell Wexler, interviews five members of Company C about what happened, and we learn they were ordered to treat everyone as an enemy, since they had lost people to booby-trapped bombs left by the Vietcong, and were frustrated at not finding the responsible parties. Strick gets a nice balance of interviews, but the film is too short to do the atrocity justice). Eventually, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was the only officer charged in a court-martial concerning the event, and both the military and the government maintained this was an isolated incident. Winter Soldier (1972), a rarely-seen documentary with no director credited (it was made by a collective of several filmmakers and technicians, among them David Grubin and Barbara Kopple), was made to counteract this narrative. It documents the “Winter Soldier Conference” (the term is taken from Thomas Paine’s first “American Crisis” paper, when he wrote of the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” that shrink from service to their country) sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit from January 31, 1971 to February 2, 1971. Among those veterans who participated was future Secretary of State John Kerry, and he and the other veterans testified as to the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in (there were civilian witnesses as well, though the movie concentrates on the veterans). The movie shows several scenes of testimony, as well as behind the scenes footage of veterans talking to each other, and individual interviews with some of the veterans (most prominently Scott Camil – Graham Nash would later write a song about him called “Oh Camil”, and he’s featured in one of the special features on the DVD). For the most part, the testimony is given in a calm, clear-eyed manner (although one veteran is barely able to choke back tears), making it all the more horrifying and stomach-churning (do not watch it while eating). As a documentary, it’s merely competent on a technical level. Also, while the speeches some African-American veterans give about racism within the Army are probably meant to parallel how the higher-ups viewed the Vietnamese, it still feels shoehorned in. Nevertheless, Winter Soldier remains a powerful corrective to the revisionist view of the Vietnam War that came about long after the war was over, especially when Ronald Reagan became president, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies became popular, and the “Swift Boat” campaign against Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 took place.
Jane Fonda and Steve Alaimo in a sketch from “F.T.A.”.
One of the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation was Jane Fonda, who remains the most polarizing civilian figure involved in the Vietnam War. Fonda, who had started out as apolitical growing up, became radicalized in the late 60’s, and especially became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Along with organizing the Winter Soldier investigation, she also had making talks with veterans across the country so she could listen to their experiences, and in the early 70’s, got involved with a revue-type show – along with then-boyfriend Donald Sutherland – meant to counteract Bob Hope’s USO shows, with their rah-rah patriotism and their cheap humor, which she and many saw as being out of touch with what the veterans were really going through. Originally, the show featured Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman (later best known as Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati and Mr. Moore in Head of the Class), but in an interview included on the DVD, Fonda said she wanted the show to be more inclusive of women and minorities (she admitted she was too strident about this), so singers Len Chandler, Rita Martinson and Holly Near, as well as comedian Paul Mooney, were among those included in a later tour. Women’s rights activist Francine Parker filmed this tour, known, as with the original tour, as F.T.A. (which stood for, depending on who you talked to, “Free The Army” or “F–k The Army”). along with interviews Fonda and the others conducted with current soldiers and veterans, and it was released in 1972, though along with Winter Soldier, public pressure from higher ups prevented it from getting a wide release. As witnessed today, the revue-type skits are not that great – the best involve the title song written for the revue and a skit Fonda did with Steve Alaimo where they played Pat and Richard Nixon, respectively, and she tells him protesters are storming the White House; when he insists he’ll call the army, she nervously replies, “But Dick, it *is* the army!” – but the songs can be quite good (especially one Martinson sings to the soldiers), and Sutherland movingly reads from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (Sutherland appeared in the film version in 1971). Best of all, of course, are the interviews with the soldiers themselves, and contrary to the “Hanoi Jane” propaganda that has sprung up, you don’t see Fonda coercing anyone to her point of view, but really listening to what the soldiers have to say (the other actors do so as well). That, as much as anything else, makes F.T.A. worth tracking down.
The photograph that inspired “Letter to Jane”.
Plenty has been written about Fonda being attacked by the right for her stance on the Vietnam War (as well as other issues). What’s less known is that she was also attacked by the left. After she worked for Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin on Tout Va Bien, they made Letter to Jane (subtitled “An Investigation About a Still), also in 1972, in reaction to a picture of Fonda during her trip to Vietnam that appeared in the French magazine L’Express, showing her listening to someone while a Vietnamese peasant lurks in the background. With this 52-minute documentary, Godard and Gorin are out to examine the meaning behind the photo in the same way that, say, Errol Morris has examined old photos in the New York Times recently. Their goal is to attack how the Western media covered Vietnam, and, in particular, how they covered the Vietnamese people. That is certainly a laudable goal, as even when media coverage turned against the war, it was usually only talked about in terms of how American soldiers were suffering, as opposed to the Vietnamese.. Less forgivable, however, is the sense you get Godard and Gorin are blaming Fonda for all of that. The second time I watched this, I picked up on the fact Gorin, at least, admitted there was something problematic about two men ganging up on a woman like this (though he insisted that wasn’t the motivation, even though Godard and Fonda didn’t get along during the making of Tout Va Bien), but that’s not the only queasy aspect. The two of them attempt to show how Fonda’s look of sympathy in the photograph is merely a copy of other American actors’ look of sympathy (including Fonda’s father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath, which they show a still from), and is nowhere near as relevant (or as revolutionary) as the look on the peasant’s face. Again, all of that is fair enough, but again, both Godard and Gorin seem to blame that on Fonda instead of the Western media itself and the cult of celebrity in the U.S., both of which Fonda was fighting herself when trying to express her views about the war (as well as feminism and other issues). One wonders if Godard and Gorin knew of how Fonda was targeted by the Nixon administration and the FBI for her views, and whether that would have made any difference. Godard has since disowned the film, calling it terrible, but given how callous he is here (Kael called the film “offensively inhuman”, and as brilliantly made as it is, she’s not far off the mark), I somehow doubt it.
Daniel Ellsberg interviewed in “Hearts and Minds”.
The final major documentary dealing with the Vietnam War came out right before the U.S. finally pulled out of the country altogether. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), produced by Bert Schneider, is a panoramic view of the war, showing a collage of war clips, interviews with soldiers, officials, and Vietnamese (from peasants to military members), along with clips of films about other wars (the title, of course, comes from the assertion that in order to win the war, the U.S. would not only have to defeat the army, but also win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese). We also get interviews with people like Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media) and other anti-war activists. Though David himself doesn’t appear on camera, you get a sense he not only learned from Emile de Antonio about ironic juxtaposition, but that filmmakers such as Michael Moore learned from him, and that gave me an uneasy feeling while watching the film. Much of it is undeniably powerful, as when we see the Vietnamese peasants weeping over their land and families being destroyed by American bombs. Yet I felt as if Davis was too obvious in trying to push the viewer’s buttons (unlike de Antonio). And while it attempts to portray the American pathology that led to the war, some of that can also come off heavy-handed. Still, like In the Year of the Pig, it presents a history of U.S. involvement (with the added perspective that six more years brings) and it has a multiple amount of perspectives to give you a rounded portrait of just how the war was wrong from the start.
From Civil Rights to Revolution: King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis, Malcolm X (1972), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther.
Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the consequences of the Vietnam War at home is how President Johnson’s insistence on fighting the war led him to abandon his vision of a Great Society, to go beyond the civil rights legislation he helped push through in 1964 and 1965, as he and other Congressmen felt he couldn’t pay for both. This led to African-Americans losing a lot of what they’d gained, or thought they’d gain, and also helped cause unrest. Another factor that caused unrest, of course, was the assassination of two of the major African-American leaders of the time, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A documentary was produced on each of them during this era; Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis (1970) and Arnold Perl’s Malcolm X (1972). Both of them heavily rely on archival footage of the two leaders speaking, in private, and giving interviews at the time. Landau’s movie also features celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Paul Newman giving readings from texts related to the times (Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed these readings and also helped put together the film), while Perl’s movie features some (then) present-day scenes of African-life, as well as Jones’ voiceover narration of parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography (as told to Alex Haley). The testimonials in the former film were put in to help raise money for the film, so it’s understandable why they’re included, but with the exception of Belafonte and Jones’ segments, I kept wanting the movie to get back to King’s footage, not just because some of them come off as well-intentioned but patronizing, but also because King is such an electrifying figure to watch. Not only that, but the film shows King as a more complicated figure that we usually remember him as. Yes, he’s the man who preached non-violence as a form of protest, and yes, he was someone who sought, to paraphrase Gandhi, to free his fellow African-Americans from held up by guns, and to free the white policemen from holding those guns. But as we see in the documentary, which traces his career from the Montgomery bus boycott to his funeral after he was killed in Memphis, King was a consistent advocate for African-American rights in all places, was a shrewd operator, and wasn’t above giving angry talks about what was done to him and others. We see the famous speeches, including his “I have a dream” speech, but we also see, near the end, when he comes out against the Vietnam War. Likewise, if you think of Malcolm X mostly as a hate-preaching “black Muslim”, Perl’s documentary will change the way you think about him. Yes, it shows his rhetoric against white society, but it also shows how he modified his views after he was kicked out of the American Muslim church (after his infamous “chickens come home to roost” speech, and his discovery that Elijah Mohammad, the head of the American Muslim church, had fathered several children out of wedlock) and especially after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and saw white Muslims there. While Malcolm X still preached self-defense as a viable option,he also grew to recognize how poor whites were dealing with some of the same problems African-Americans were dealing with, and that there were white who were sympathetic to his cause. Both movies, of course, end with their funerals, and reactions to them. Both of them are powerful documentaries and are well worth tracking down.
The Black Panther party sprung from disillusionment with the way civil rights for African-Americans were ignored when the Vietnam War began escalating, and while a big part of it was helping African-Americans with programs for schooling their children and helping the poor, it also was intended as a revolutionary movement. One of the prime leaders of the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, and he was the subject of William Klein’s documentary Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1969), while Cleaver was in exile in Algeria after ducking an attempted murder charge after he and other Black Panthers had ambushed police officers in Oakland (he had first fled to Cuba, but after Fidel Castro had discovered the CIA had infiltrated the Black Panthers, he decided he could no longer trust Cleaver). We see some of Cleaver living with his wife and child, but mostly, this has interviews with Cleaver talking about his revolutionary politics and his support of armed insurrection (this led to a split between himself and fellow Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who believed the Panthers’ insistence on violence as a tool hurt their standing with the black community at large). We also see him finding common ground with other revolutionaries in Africa. All of this romanticizing of the Marxist revolutionary groups Cleaver does may seem naive in spots (and also ironic, since in the 80’s and 90’s, Cleaver reversed course and became a conservative Republican, denouncing his past), but Cleaver, like Malcolm X, also grew towards more of an understanding towards white people, understanding not all whites were as repressive as he initially thought. Klein also has footage of the establishment’s reaction to the Panthers, particularly a government hearing about them. Whatever you think of Cleaver’s politics as expressed in the documentary, he remains a fascinating figure, and Klein does a good job capturing him.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, while Hollywood films, with some exceptions, dealt with the unrest of the Vietnam era mostly through the indirect means of genre and period pieces (having the past comment on the present), films from the rest of the world were often more pointed in their political content. Of course, they had their stumbling blocks as well. Whereas the primary obstacle to getting political films made in America was financial – the Production Code having been replaced by a more relaxed (if still highly flawed) system – with studios afraid of any film that wouldn’t make a lot of money, films from other parts of the world had to deal with government censors, especially if they were being ruled by a dictator. Therefore, like their American counterparts, filmmakers from Europe, the Soviet bloc, and other parts of the world also had to smuggle their political statements through disguised means, such as genre. Nevertheless, there were a few filmmakers who managed to make the statements they wanted to make clearly in their films, without that much interference. Once again, because of availability issues, I’ve only been able to watch a limited amount of films. Therefore, I’m devoting myself mostly to two of the most well-remembered political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not just because of their influence, but also because their styles are so different (though they’ve worked with the same actors and technicians) that they set up a useful dialectic to consider what a political film is and can be, and how it should be made. The Costa-Gavras part will also deal briefly with The Battle of Algiers, which, along with Costa-Gavras’ Z, is considered the father of the modern-day political thriller, while the last part will also consider a few other political films from Italy (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Germany (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), and back to France (Mr. Freedom).
Costa-Gavras: Z, The Confession and State of Siege.
“Some people sign petitions, others go to the streets – I do something as a filmmaker.” – on why he made Z.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is probably considered the father of the modern political thriller, as well as the modern political docudrama. In telling the tale of the Algierian revolt against the French in the 1950’s and 60’s, Pontecorvo sets himself firmly on the side of the Algierians while still humanizing the French (even the French colonel (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is presented as a person instead of a monster), and creates some tense scenes (particularly when several Algierian women go to plant bombs at various public places). But what Pontecorvo started with his film, arguably Constantin Costa-Gavras went even further with Z, the other most influential political thriller of the last 40-50 years or so. Costa-Gavras, who was born in Greece, had gone to France to study (his father had been a member of the Communist Party, which got him blackballed from Greece universities), but was still wanting to do something about what had been done to the country, especially after Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing politician, was murdered by right-wing extremists linked to the army in 1963. When Vasilis Vasilikos wrote a novel based on Lambrakis’ assassination, Costa-Gavras found his method of, as he put it, doing something as a filmmaker. Though it sticks close to the novel and the events themselves, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprum change all the names (Yves Montand plays the president, Irene Papas plays his wife, Marcel Bozzufi plays one of the assassins, and Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the investigating magistrate) and set in an unnamed country (as Costa-Gavras has explained in interviews, doing so makes the audience work for the information, and also reminds them what they see could be happening anywhere).
Unlike Godard, who (as I touch on briefly below) was trying to move beyond what was considered the usual “political” movie, Costa-Gavras has admitted he was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible without talking down to them. To that end, even more so than Pontecorvo, he used suspense techniques such as quick editing, a fast-moving camera, flashbacks from several different points of view, and both villainous and heroic characters (in addition to Trintignant’s character, Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced, plays an investigative journalist). This did not endear him to the leftist critics at the time, especially at Cahiers du Cinema, who attacked Costa-Gavras for being more interested in entertainment than in being truly political.* Even Pauline Kael, a big fan of the film, while pointing out Costa-Gavras’ technique was similar to the muckraking movies produced at Warner Brothers in the 1930’s, fretted over what would happen if a less responsible filmmaker made a film the same way (in her review, she wrote, “when it’s over and you’ve caught your breath you know perfectly well that its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart Fascist filmmaker, if there were one (fortunately, there isn’t), against the left or the center”). However, even though the film is certainly a suspense thriller as much as a political movie (and docudrama), Costa-Gavras doesn’t ignore politics. We see that with the black comedy of the opening, where a general gives a lecture about gardens, and it takes us a while to realize he’s speaking in metaphor in how to crush what he and the others see as the Communist threat (it’s almost like a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, though without the hypnotism, and not quite as surreal). And even though Costa-Gavras uses a lot of well-known actors (at least in Europe) for the parts, the actors disappear into the roles, so it doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Yves Montand is imprisoned in “The Confession”.
For his next film, Costa-Gavras switched gears, this time going after Communist oppression. The Confession (1970) is another docudrama, this time about Artur London (Montand), a Czech official who, without warning, was arrested with 13 other high-ranking Czech officials (like London, most of them Jewish), and interrogated for several months and put on trial on the accusation they were all secretly rebelling against the government and were in the pay of the West. Though Costa-Gavras is working with the some of the same people – in addition to Semprum writing the screenplay again (adapting the book London wrote with his wife Lise) and Montand playing a central role, Raoul Coutard returned as cinematographer – the movie doesn’t fly by as fast as Z did. For one, it’s a longer film (by over ten minutes), but more importantly, while the earlier film was trying to whip through events as they happened, The Confession aims to immerse you in what it was like to be imprisoned during Stalinist times, and while this takes place in the early 50’s (though once again, we aren’t told the exact period or location), it’s likely everyone involved was thinking about how the Soviet government crushed the Czech revolt in 1968. While we do see some scenes outside of prison, as the Lise figure (played by Montand’s real-life wife Simone Signoret) tries in vain to free her husband, and then is forced to move and work in a factory, we mostly stay inside the prison, and through the interrogations, with the officers playing both good and bad cop to Montand. Since this isn’t designed to be as fast as Z, the film does drag a bit, and I think the movie makes a mistake in the flash-forward sequences with Montand (one of only three prisoners who wasn’t executed) now living safely in exile and talking with people about the book he wants to write about the experience. Still, it excels, like Z, as a portrait of totalitarian governments (we also get a cruel irony; one of the officials who interrogates Montand is later himself arrested).
The car containing the dead Yves Montand at the beginning of “State of Siege”.
Though U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the prime area of contention between the U.S. and the rest of the world’s leftist population, they also protested U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America. Costa-Gavras took on this as well in 1972 with State of Siege. Inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrione (Montand again), a U.S. official, in Uruguay, the film begins with the discovery of his body, and then from his funeral we flashback to his kidnapping and the attempts by his kidnappers (once again, never named, nor is the country), who, while attempting to bargain with the government to get them to release political prisoners in exchange for the Mitrione figure and another official, also try to get Mitrione to admit he helped the government out with their oppressive techniques. Meanwhile, a journalist (O.E. Hesse) also challenges the official government position of Mitrione (though unlike in Z, he isn’t as successful). While Costa-Gavras is clearly sympathetic to the kidnappers (and there’s also the unintended irony of the fact the film was shot in Chile a year before they were taken over by a military coup), he presents both sides humanely, just as in Battle of Algiers (Franco Solinas, who wrote that film, was the screenwriter of this film). Yet at the same time, this doesn’t dampen the critique of how the U.S. props up dictatorships in other countries while pretending to be helping the country. And even though, once again, Costa-Gavras is using the techniques of the suspense thriller, the most gripping sequence is just one of the rebels taking a poll of other leaders individually while on a bus as to whether Mitrione should be killed (you get the feeling he’s hoping one of them will vote no, which makes it all the more powerful). Costa-Gavras hasn’t quite approached the level of these three films since (though Missing, his 1982 film about the disappearance and murder of an American citizen during that coup in Chile, and Capital, his most recent film (2012) about the CEO of a European bank trying to keep an American hedge fund from taking over, both come close), but these films alone show him to be a political filmmaker of the highest order.
*-Interestingly enough, according to an interview Coutard gave that’s included on the Criterion edition of Weekend, Godard was enough of a fan of Costa-Gavras that he gave Coutard some information that he thought would be useful to him for The Confession.
Jean-Luc Godard: La Chinoise, Weekend and Tout Va Bien.
“I don’t think you should *feel* about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”
When talking about A Christmas Carol, arguably Charles Dickens’ most famous work, my father always used to remind me the most important line of the story was the very first line; “Marley was dead; to begin with.” This was to remind me, and anyone else who might have been talking about the story, that it was, above all, a ghost story. Similarly, the first principle in talking about Jean-Luc Godard is that he started out as a critic. As Godard himself has said, he has remained a critic his entire career, he just has used film as his medium the last 50+ years to continue his work as a critic. What few people talk about is the fact he has been a critic even when not talking about other films; Godard is a cultural and political critic as well.
Poster for Godard’s first politically-oriented movie.
As early as Le Petit Soldat (made in 1960, but not released in France until 1963 because of censorship), Godard took on the Algierian struggle for independence against France. However, while Godard includes a torture scene that might make viewers blanch even today, he also place primary emphasis on the love story between members of opposite sides (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse at the time, plays a representative of one side; it was the first of seven feature films he directed her in), and takes a rather confused attitude towards the conflict (to be fair, his political views hadn’t been fully formed by then). Still, cultural and political criticism popped up in his later work; though Vivre Sa Vie (aka My Life to Live) (1962) is more a character study than a societal critique, it does show how Karina’s character becomes a prostitute to make a living (a theme Godard returned to often), Les Carabiniers (1963) deals with the madness of war from the point of view of two grunt soldiers, Alphaville (1965) is a sci-fi film about a totalitarian society, Masculin Feminin (1966) is, of course, about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (with scenes such as a journalist asking a pop star about politics, and a man trying to light himself on fire in protest, though he needs to borrow a match first), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) returns Godard to the subject of prostitution, and while Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966) are both deconstructions on genre films (the former a lovers-on-the-run film, the latter the film noir/private eye film) both of them had cultural and political critiques woven throughout the narrative (the latter film in particular was inspired in part by the Ben Barka affair). Nevertheless, Godard had, by 1967, become increasingly disgusted not only with American foreign policy but also America, period, and had swung radically left in his thinking, towards Maoism. This also led, not surprisingly to a new direction in his films.
Anna Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as revolutionaries in “La Chinoise”.
La Chinoise (1967) was the first film indicating this new direction. For starters, it features politics and social philosophy right up front, as during one summer in parents, while her parents are away on vacation, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who by this time had become Godard’s second wife, and was a big influence on his political thinking) and her fellow students – among them Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), her boyfriend, and Yvonne (Juliet Berto) – hole up in her parents’ apartment and study and debate Marx and Mao, and how to strike against what they see as the fascism of Western society. Also, while Godard had always played around with plot (as per his famous response to Henri-Georges Clouzot; when Clouzot had wondered whether films shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end, Godard allowed they should, but not necessarily in that order), there was no real plot or story here until the last third or so, when Veronique goes on the train to plant a bomb and kill a liberal professor in order to radicalize the students (Chris Morris would later send this attitude up brilliantly over 40 years later in his terrorist comedy Four Lions (2010)). Finally, while Godard does have a few pop-cultural images here (most notably a rock-n-roll type song extolling the virtues of Mao), most of the references here are to political or philosophical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Andre Malraux (as the five would-be revolutionaries are studying Mao’s little red book, Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a lot of red, though that is a carry-over from Godard’s other color films). As militant as Godard was becoming in his thinking, however, he allows himself room for other ways of thinking. While he is wholly sympathetic to the students, and to a call to revolution (specifically through Maoism, which Godard was more sympathetic to than the Soviet version of communism), he also shows how much the dilettante all of these characters are, especially when they turn out one of the members for not being revolutionary enough. Also, during a long segment in the last third, Veronique goes on a train ride with Francois Jeanson (a real-life French revolutionary, playing himself more or less), and while she explains her thinking of why she’s planning to kill this professor, he gently but firmly takes apart her thinking by essentially asking, “After you do this, then what?” Finally, the film doesn’t end on a moment of triumph, but of hollow victory. Those who consider Godard akin to one of those dilettantes that he portrays here often seem to forget the ambiguity in which he portrays the characters here.
Mireille Darc being held at gunpoint in “Weekend”.
La Chinoise, however, was just a warm-up compared to Weekend (1967, though not released in the U.S. until 1968). This film, probably Godard’s most sustained attack on Western civilization, is generally scene as the end of Godard’s 60’s period, not just because he declares “the end of cinema” at the end of the movie, but also because for most of the decade, he worked in a more experimental and abstract kind of cinema, whereas Weekend still has a semblance of a plot. An adulterous married couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) go on a road trip to murder her mother for the inheritance (after which, since they each have lovers, they each are plotting to murder each other), only to get sidetracked by society as they know it breaking down on them. They run into a huge traffic jam (portrayed in an epic tracking shot that takes up almost 10 minutes), and encounter, among other figures, a man who sings his entire dialogue (Leaud), literary figures such as Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson), a piano player who plays Beethoven (Wiazemsky can be glimpsed here as one of the people listening), two garbage workers (Omar Diop – who appeared in La Chinoise – and Laszlo Szabo, a frequent collaborator with Godard) who lecture the couple about western politics, particularly U.S. (in one of Godard’s usual touches, Coutard holds the camera on one of them while we hear the other speak off-screen), and a group of revolutionaries (including Berto) who take the couple hostage. This is basically Godard’s Bunuel film, a savage satire containing his vision of Western civilization destroying itself (making the final scene of the film, an act of cannibalism, very much on-the-nose – if you’ll pardon the expression – but also appropriate). It’s appropriate then that Godard uses the road movie as a way to portray that satire, as even now, the automobile functions as both a middle-class status symbol and a symbol of freedom (or at least the illusion of it), and the way cars get used, wrecked, and fought over shows the middle-class and upper-class, as seen through Godard’s eyes, in microcosm (of course, it isn’t the only material goods Godard lays waste to here; when the couple get into an accident, Darc is less worried about her possible injuries than about the fact she’s ruined a Hermes bag). It’s as if Godard is saying all of western civilization has dropped through the rabbit hole, and there’s no getting out.
Of course, Godard was wrong; western civilization has gone on, and so has cinema, and while Weekend definitely made an impact with critics, it wasn’t as well received by the public (Godard always thought if the movie had come out after the events in Paris of May 1968, it would have made more money). And as i mentioned above, Godard retreated to more explicitly and abstract films, with mixed results. Sympathy for the Devil (1968: also known as One Plus One) attempted to be a look at the revolutionaries springing up, and also shows the Rolling Stones in the studio recording “Sympathy for the Devil”, but while you’d guess Godard was trying to set up a dialectic between the two, nothing comes of it. Berto and Leaud reunited in 1969 for Le Gai Savoir (aka The Joy of Learning), playing two people discussing language and the events of the day; it’s not as successful as La Chinoise, but interesting regardless. And One P.M., a film he co-directed with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, which features people such as Tom Hayden talking about the Chicago 8 trial, feels like a blueprint rather than a finished film. So, in 1972, after a motorcycle accident, when Godard and his new collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin were asked to get big stars for their next movie, Godard reluctantly agreed, and tried to make something that was more of a throwback to his 60’s films (in the way the story was told) and still keep his political direction. The result was Tout Va Bien (1972).
Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in “Tout Va Bien”.
Inspired by the events of May 1968, Godard and Gorin’s film is about a revolt at a meatpacking plant, as well as being about Suzanne (Jane Fonda), an American correspondent for a French radio station, and her somewhat estranged husband Jacques (Yves Montand), a former filmmaker (with the French New Wave) who now shoots commercials. They visit the plant so Suzanne can do a story, but they happen to come on the day the workers have revolted against both the plant manager (Vittorio Caprioli) and the union officials and taken over the factory. As the workers want Suzanne to go beyond the traditional story told about them, so too Godard and Gorin (as Gorin points out in an interview on the Criterion DVD edition) want the film to go beyond what they saw as the usual political film preaching to the converted, or telling them what they already knew. For starters, they make it clear from the beginning this is a film, and Fonda and Montand are actors playing roles. And even though we go through a familiar story arc – both Suzanne and Jacques are radicalized by what they hear and what they see, enough so Suzanne looks for better stories to report and Jacques goes back to making “meaningful” films – Godard and Gorin try to make sure we see it differently. For example, the factory is set up almost like a dollhouse, with the camera tracking back and forth over it (just as, in La Chinoise, we saw the would-be revolutionaries from the outside through the apartment windows), and there are scenes of Jacques and Suzanne as if they were workers at the factory. Also, Godard and Gorin show a perfect illustration of just how much the Communist Party had fallen in favor with the French left with a scene at a giant supermarket (with another long tracking shot back and forth), where a Communist Party worker is selling his book along with all the other products (and gets into a fight with those who can’t understand why he can’t explain a phrase in his book). However, while we hear about the workers plenty in the first half of the movie, we don’t hear from them again (though we can guess what happened to them), and that’s a shame.
Other Voices: Mr. Freedom, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
John Abbey as “Mr. Freedom”.
William Klein is probably best known as a photographer, but he was also a filmmaker. Born in the U.S. but living in Paris (after falling in love with a woman, he’s stayed there ever since), he was never formally aligned with the French New Wave, but did copy many of their techniques while combining them with his own penchant for comic strip images. All of that comes firmly into play with his attempted satire on American imperialism, Mr. Freedom (1969). John Abbey plays the title character, a superhero-type soldier who’s sent by his father (Donald Pleasance) to France to help bring freedom to them, while fighting the forces of Moujik Man (Phillipe Noiret), who’s opposed to “freedom”. Other than his documentary on Eldridge Cleaver (which I discuss in the following post), I’ve never seen any other Klein films (though I’m a fan of his photos), but it looks like he’s trying to make a satire and an exploitation film. Unfortunately, the latter wins out, making the satire annoying after a while. Not only that, but by shooting in English, many of the actors (Abbey and Pleasance are the only non-French actors among the main cast) seem distinctly uncomfortable, even though they’re game for what Klein is trying (Delphine Seyrig, who plays Mr. Freedom’s close ally – or maybe not – comes off especially awkward). Finally, Abbey himself is simply flat and annoying as well, Only Pleasance comes off well, and he’s only in the film at the beginning and end. Klein shows good intentions aren’t enough for a film; if it’s satirical, it should take its target seriously even if the film itself is trying to be funny.
Gian Maria Volonte in “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”.
Pontecorvo, of course, wasn’t the only political filmmaker in Italy during the 60’s and 70’s, as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi, and Lina Wertmuller also emerged during that time. Less well known, but well-regarded at the time, was Elio Petri. Influenced as much by Kafka as Communist politics, Petri, inspired by a story about the police murdering two people, got the idea to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). The movie tells the tale of Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonte), who, on the eve of his promotion from head of the homicide squad to head of the political squad (cracking down on dissidents), kills his mistress Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) by cutting her throat, and then practically dares his former colleagues in homicide to implicate him in the murder. The theme here is those in power who think they’re above the law, especially among the police (and with the rise of police-related shootings, that makes this particularly relevant here), and Volonte (who played a character completely different from this in Petri’s previous film We Still Kill the Old Way) does an excellent job at playing his character’s arrogance, and yet the same time his guilt. I only wish Petri and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller hadn’t used so many close-ups throughout the film. They make sense later in the film, as the net starts to tighten around Volonte, but used throughout the film not only makes them lose their power, it also gives you the sense Petri is trying to work us over as well. As it stands, it is a queasily effective film showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Angela Winkler in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”.
When talking about the filmmakers that emerged from Germany in the 70’s, like Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, one name that doesn’t get mentioned much anymore is Volker Schlondorff. This is too bad, as I think at its best, his filmography stands up very well, and he hasn’t been afraid to engage in the politics of the country. This especially comes out in his 1975 movie The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which he co-directed and co-wrote with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta (adapting the novel by Heinrich Boll). Angela Winkler stars in the title role, a maid and former prostitute who becomes infatuated with Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), who turns out to be a member of the Baader-Meinhof group, which had been terrorizing Germany at the time. Because of this, the police ruthlessly interrogate Blum, demanding to know if she knows where Ludwig is, and not believing her when she insists she doesn’t. While the police could be seen as just doing their jobs, the media, in the form of Werner (Dieter Laser), a right-wing journalist who begins a smear campaign against Blum, are seen as monstrous. Even though this is long after the time of the Baader-Meinhof group (as well as such similar organizations as the Red Army Faction in Italy), given we live in the age of the War on Terror and of even worse tabloid journalism in the form of Fox News, this movie is especially relevant today. If there’s one quibble, the movie doesn’t really develop Ludwig, so we never know if he’s as dangerous as everyone says he is, or more importantly, we never quite see the extent of his relationship with Blum which makes her want to protect him so much. Still, the movie does work as a stinging indictment of yellow journalism and an overreaching police, and in the end, we see Blum has been turned into what everyone in the police and press thinks of her anyway.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, while most of the films made In Hollywood and America during the Vietnam War and the time of civil unrest that were informed by those chaotic times did not address the times directly, but did so through genre or by using the past as a way to comment on the present. However, there were a few movies that did take on the times directly, and since they don’t get written about very much, I thought they might be worth covering.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” – Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Alice’s Restaurant, Getting Straight, The Strawberry Statement, Drive, He Said. Robert De Niro in “Greetings”.
Today, Brian De Palma is known, or remembered as, a director of horror/thrillers, and most of all as someone who blatantly copies Hitchcock in his films. What’s less well known is the fact he didn’t start out that way. In fact, while there are Hitchcock influences in his work from the beginning, there were also indications he was primarily influenced by Bunuel and Godard even more. Greetings (1968), which takes its title from the first word in a letter from the military letting you know you’ve been drafted, is a revue-type film more than a film revolving a plot. In his film debut, Robert De Niro plays an aspiring filmmaker who’s also a peeping tom, while Jonathan Warden is a lovelorn man trying to meet women through a computer service, and Gerritt Graham is obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, specifically with proving it was a conspiracy. Aside from being friends, what links them all together is all three of them worry about being drafted, and that’s pretty much the closest thing to a plot the film has. It was the first film ever to be rated “X” under the new ratings system (likely for the scene where Graham uses a naked woman to prove his theory’s about how Kennedy was really killed), and is more interested in sexual mores than politics, but it was one of the first films to question not only the official version of Kennedy’s assassination, but also question the idea of going off the fight in Vietnam. Also, like most revue-type stories, it’s hit-and-miss, but there’s enough that works here to recommend it. Hi, Mom! (1970), De Palma’s unofficial sequel, brings back De Niro, who’s come back from Vietnam and is trying to become a pornographic filmmaker. Most of the film concerns his sexual escapades, but this is worth mentioning here not just as a portrait of a Vietnam vet who’s (relatively) normal after getting out (De Niro’s turn in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, about another former Vietnam vet, couldn’t be more different), but also for a sequence where De Niro joins a revolutionary theater group (headed by Graham), made up mostly of African-Americans, that engages in a confrontational theater piece called “Be Black, Baby”, where white liberals put on blackface and are treated as blacks (the blacks are made up in whiteface), and De Niro, pretending to be a cop, bosses the people in “blackface” as he would regular blacks. This may be an uncomfortable piece to laugh at due to recent events, but it’s designed to be that way anyway, and De Palma is quite audacious here (especially in how he tweaks both sides). It’s interesting to wonder how his career might have turned out if Warner Brothers hadn’t taken away his equally experimental Get to Know Your Rabbit, and he hadn’t turned exclusively to horror films and thrillers.
Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Timothy Leary once told a group of hippies at the Human Be-In in 1967, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), his follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde, shows a group of people trying to live that philosophy, more or less (the drop out part more than anything else), with mixed results. On Thanksgiving day in 1965, Arlo Guthrie, son of famed folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, and soon to be a singer/songwriter as well, went to a dump to throw out garbage from a meal he’d had with his friends Alice and Ray Brock. When Arlo and his friend Richard discovered the dump was closed, they decided to put the garbage on the street with another pile that was already there. Unfortunately for Arlo, the police discovered what he had done (he left an envelope with his name in it at the scene), and they arrested him for littering. Though the charge was eventually dropped, when Arlo received his draft notice, he was eventually deemed unfit for service because of the littering charge. This so amused Guthrie that he wrote a song about it called “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, which Penn and producer Hillard Elkins decided would make a good movie.
In turning the song into a movie, Penn (who also co-wrote the movie with Venable Herndon, an off-Broadway playwright) doesn’t get to the events described into the song until about an hour into the film. Instead, Penn portrays the community that Guthrie (playing himself) finds himself in when he hooks up with Alice and Ray (Patricia Quinn, who plays Alice and appeared in Penn’s The Chase, and James Broderick, who plays Ray and had done plenty of TV work). Quinn and Broderick were the only professional experienced actors in the cast (though M. Emmet Walsh – as an recruiting sergeant – and Tina Chen – as a girlfriend of Guthrie’s in the last third of the film – have small roles), and the use of non-professionals and locals (William J. “Obie” Obanhein, the officer who arrested Guthrie, plays himself, which he justified by saying he didn’t want anyone else making fun of him; folk singers Lee Hays and Pete Seeger also appear as themselves) lends the film an authenticity that wasn’t apparent in other portrayals of hippies at the time. Not only that, but the film doesn’t paint an idealized portrait of the community or the main character; Guthrie, for example, turns down a 15 year old groupie (Shelley Plimpton) because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her, but soon after turns down the owner of a coffeehouse for being too old. Penn also shows how the women of the community get marginalized, as Alice herself starts to realize by the end, especially when Ray makes a big decision near the end without consulting her. Penn’s film isn’t perfect – the subplot involving Roger (Geoff Outlaw), a troubled friend of Arlo’s whom Ray tries to take under his wing, often veers towards melodrama that the movie doesn’t know what to do with, and while Guthrie’s amused detachment comes off well, he doesn’t always have the presence to hold our attention on screen. Still, this was probably the most honest attempt by American movies to show both the hippie culture and why it ultimately failed (at least on the scale its leaders wanted to succeed at).
Elliot Gould and a young Harrison Ford in “Getting Straight”.
Though they weren’t the only places where protests against the war took place, college campuses were often the most visible location of the nation’s unrest, partly because of all the controversial events that took place there (the attempted shutdown of Columbia University, the Kent State shootings), but also because the students were all draft age and felt a personal connection. After Easy Rider, the studios were quick to cash in on the “youth” trend and make movies about campus rebellion. Unfortunately, the ones I saw all miss the mark. I had hopes for Richard Rush’s Getting Straight, not only because I loved Rush’s The Stunt Man, but because Rush’s work up to Getting Straight, on exploitation movies such as Psych-Out (1968), while campy, at least didn’t treat the setting and characters with condescension. However, in adapting Ken Kolb’s novel about a college teacher (Elliot Gould) trying to get his Masters degree so he can go back to teaching literature, seems removed from the subject matter, despite the fact Rush and screenwriter Robert Kaufman update the novel (written in the early 60’s) to the Vietnam era. Gould’s character is now a Vietnam vet and radical who nevertheless sees the folly of both the establishment and the protesters (at a party, Gould ridicules the students as having facile goals, yet also berates his colleagues for missing the point about what they’re protesting). But the characters of the students come off as actors playing dress up rather than real characters, Candace Bergen (as Gould’s on-again, off-again girlfriend) doesn’t have much of a character to play, and she lurches from one extreme to the other, and while Gould is a perfect fit for the role, he’s forced to flail around at times, especially in the worst scene in the movie, when he’s giving his oral presentation for his masters but loses his temper when one of the judges insists F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay (this was also a bad scene in the novel, but Richard Anders’ campy portrayal makes it worse).
Bruce Davison in “The Strawberry Statement”.
When James Simon Kunen wrote The Strawberry Statement, about the protests at Columbia University in 1968, he was a 19 year old student participating in the protests, and while you might argue he lacked the perspective to talk about what was going on, but it was clearly written by someone who was sorting through his feelings about everything, and it’s compelling because of that and to hear about history as it was happening. The fact the movie version, directed by Stuart Hagmann (best known as a TV director to that point) and written by playwright Israel Horovitz, moves the setting from Columbia to Berkeley doesn’t hurt the film by itself; after all, Berkeley was another hotbed of campus unrest. What does hurt the film is just about everything else. Kunen has been changed in the movie to Simon (Bruce Davison), a member of the rowing team who gets involved in the protest movement on the campus (run by, among others, Jeannie Berlin – who was also in Getting Straight – and Bob Balaban) just on a lark rather than through any particular feelings about the state of the world (as opposed to Kunen), and he initially stays mostly because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby), one of the students in the protest. The fact that he becomes more radicalized over the movie might have been meaningful if we had seen the transformation, but Hagmann and Horovitz (who has a cameo as a professor) seem more interested in showing off with some truly bizarre scenes such as the camera zooming in and out on Simon as he imagines himself speaking out (you wonder at times, with some of the shots, if Hagmann thinks he’s making a Busby Berkeley movie instead of a protest movie). There’s plenty of talk in the one scene where Simon comes into the ad building the students are occupying, but again, Hagmann and Horovitz seem to think it should only be interesting as a background event. Also, once again, the women are ignored; Darby comes off more natural here than she did in True Grit, but has nothing to do. The only scene that really comes together, since it’s done in a straightforward way, is when Simon and Linda go to a grocery store to get food for the others, and James Coco, as the grocer, offers them encouragement and food and then pretends they robbed him so he won’t get in trouble. Horovitz apparently said in an interview he wanted to reach the average student, not the committed radical, but The Strawberry Statement (taken from a Columbia University administrator who said students opinions on how the school was run meant no more to him than if they said they liked strawberries) doesn’t seem to be made for anybody except for fans of show-off cinema.
Bruce Dern as the coach in “Drive, He Said”.
Drive, He Said (1971), which marked the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Larner, based on Larner’s novel; Terrence Malick and Robert Towne also did uncredited work), opens with the juxtaposition of a college basketball game being played (the name of the school isn’t given, though it’s meant to take place in Ohio, and was shot at the University of Oregon) while a group of revolutionaries plan a piece of theater to disrupt the game to protest the war. It’s an effective scene, and I wish the rest of the movie – which follows the life of Hector (William Tepper), the star of the team, who isn’t sure if it means anything to him anymore, and his roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta), who participated in the protest, and wants to avoid getting drafted – had lived up to it. Unlike the other two films, Nicholson does seem to have a real feel for the campus unrest (it helps he shot one scene during an actual student protest), and as a real-life basketball fanatic, he knows how to present the basketball scenes as well (it also helps his friend Bruce Dern gives a very good performance as the coach). But the subplot about Hector still being hung up on his ex-girlfriend Olive (Karen Black), who’s now with a professor (Towne), seems shoehorned in, and Gabriel also seems like an ill-defined character at times. There are striking scenes, as when Gabriel shoots up a television after calling it an instrument of evil (apparently Nicholson’s own real-life feelings), but it feels like an unfinished film. Still, like Zabriskie Point, this deserves to be remembered as a film that doesn’t actually patronize the students protesting the war.
Black Power: Medium Cool, WUSA, The Man.
“The whole world is watching” – “Medium Cool”.
Haskell Wexler is probably best remembered today as a cinematographer of such films as In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Coming Home, but he’s also a filmmaker in his own right. Most of his directing output has been documentaries dealing with various left-wing causes he’s interested in, but one of his few features, Medium Cool (1969), is one of the best movies about the unrest of the time. Shot during the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the film is told through the eyes of John (Robert Forster), a TV news reporter, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a woman from the Appalachia area who moves to the city with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). There is a relationship that develops between the two (started when John catches Harold trying to break into his car), but most of the film is about the type of stories John covers, and of course the events unfolding around them. John happens upon a story of a cab driver named Frank (Sid McCoy) who finds an envelope with $10,000 in his cab and tries to turn it into the police, only to come under suspicion for stealing the money because he’s African-American. John claims he wants to tell the story to show what kind of a person Frank was for turning in the money, but the militant group Frank is living with accuses John of exploiting Frank for the story, asking why the media is never interested in the real story of African-Americans.
In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, Wexler admits while the main reason he wrote this scenario (which the actors mostly improvised) was because of the friends he made in the African-American community who he wanted to represent fairly, but while he had a feeling violence would erupt in Chicago during the convention, he thought it would be involve African-Americans (which, given the riots that had erupted in other cities, was a reasonable guess) rather than anti-Vietnam War protesters. Still, Wexler did prepare for the latter by showing riot police preparing early on by having training sessions with other police pretending to be anti-war protesters (which was documentary-like footage Wexler shot himself). Wexler also inserts his characters into both the convention (John is covering it) and in the protests around it, especially in the memorable sequence when Eileen runs through the protest looking for Harold, who’s run off (in one bit of humanizing, one of the policemen, who’s taken a hard-line approach to the protesters, allows Eileen to go through without comment when he hears why she’s there). And Wexler has other instances of foreshadowing to the violence to come (as when John does a segment at a firing range and the manager (Peter Boyle in one of his first roles) is showing housewives how to use handguns), as well as the way the Powers That Be view the citizens (John is outraged when he finds out from his station manager the FBI is using his footage to try and catch the members of the militant group Frank was with). Instead of making the story “Hollywood”, Wexler is out to capture the reality of what’s going on (while still telling a fictional story), and doing it in a way Godard (who Wexler acknowledged as an influence, and even pays homage to in a scene where John apes Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless) would have tipped his hat to, I think.
Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins in “WUSA”.
One of the subplots of WUSA (1970), adapted by Robert Stone from his novel A Hall of Mirrors and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, also involves a character realize a story he’s doing about African-Americans is being used by his bosses for sinister purposes. Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is doing a survey of people who are on welfare, which he think will be helping them out, but is actually being used by higher-ups, led by Pat Hingle, the owner of the right-wing radio station of the title, to kick them off of welfare. Perkins’ usual nervous persona here works very well, not only making his awkwardness during the interview scenes credible, but also keeps his anger at being used and by what’s being done by Hingle and his cronies from curdling into self-righteousness. The whole sequence would have worked better, however, if Rosenberg and Stone had taking a page from Wexler and actually taken the time to get to know the characters Perkins interviews instead of just using them for the purpose of the story. That, in a way, is symptomatic of the problem of the entire film, which mostly concentrates on Paul Newman as a cynical former musician who gets at WUSA, and his real-life wife Joanne Woodward as a former prostitute. In trying to tell the story of how the right-wing is co-opting the media and is becoming dangerous because of this (a not-unreasonable fear even then), Rosenberg and Stone, while capturing the atmosphere of the setting (New Orleans) very well, seem only interested in the characters as stick figures (Stone admittedly developed them better in the novel), especially Woodward’s ill-defined character. Plus, Newman, who was a passionate liberal in real life, seems to be sleepwalking through the role, and he’s let down by the ending of the movie (different from the novel, where he was inspired to action). Except for Perkins and Hingle, the only performer who registers is Laurence Harvey as a con artist who’s aligned himself with the right-wingers.
James Earl Jones in “The Man”.
Even when Barrack Obama was running for president back in 2008, it seemed amazing the country had come along far enough that an African-American could have a legitimate shot chance at the highest office of the land. 50 years earlier, it was outright inconceivable. At least, that was the viewpoint of trash novelist Irving Wallace, who, in his novel The Man, had his African-American character become President through a bizarre set of circumstances (I don’t know if this is a mistake or intentional, but in the “Library Use Only” section of one of the branches of the Manhattan library, the novel is classified as “Science Fiction”). In 1972, eight years after the novel was published, director Joseph Sargent (the original adaptation of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3) and writer Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) made a movie from it. I’ve not read the novel, but while most of the circumstances are similar in how Douglas Dilman (James Earl Jones) becomes president – the president and speaker of the house die in an accident, though in the movie, the vice-president (Lew Ayres) refuses the presidency because he’s too ill to assume office, where in the novel, he’s been dead for a while – Sargent and Serling concentrate on one major challenge Dilman has during his term as president. Robert Wheeler (Georg Stanford Brown), an African-American activist, is accused of going to South Africa and throwing a bomb in the car of one of their ministers, and Dilman must decide whether to have him extradited or not, particularly when Wheeler claims he’s innocent and Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith) comes up with evidence that he claims proves Wheeler is lying.
Sargent had intended to make the movie for TV, but it was put out in theaters instead, and when Jones was interviewed not long before President Obama took office, he admitted he wished they had the time and money to make a proper movie when they heard they were headed to theaters instead of TV screens. You can see Jones’ point; everything is spelled out completely, especially in scenes where an African-American reporter (Robert DoQui) spurs Dilman to take charge of a press conference by wondering when Dilman will get to speak his own mind, and where Kay (Barbara Rush), wife of Arthur (William Windom), the Secretary of State, denigrates both Dilman and his daughter Wanda (Janet MacLachlan) right in front of them at a state dinner. Also, obviously, the production values weren’t as good for a TV movie back then as they would have been for a regular movie. Nevertheless, this is still worth watching for a couple of reasons. Most of all is Jones’ performance as someone who knows he’s a pawn for several different sides but manages to weather things as best as he can. At first, I was worried he was playing things a bit too stiff, but once his character starts to assert himself more, he gets better and more expansive in the role. The other reason is what many films from well-intentioned directors about race have left out – namely, casual racism. Hollywood has been very earnest in portraying the real bigots, less so in portraying those who would say, “I’m no racist, but…” and then turn out to be just as bad as the obvious racists, or in portraying those who are more patronizing than racist. The only out-and-out racist character here is Kay; even Senator Watson, who apparently is pro-segregation, never becomes a caricature, and you can see how the other characters, in trying to help Dilman – including Jim (Martin Balsam, who, along with Jones, gives the movie’s best performance), his chief of staff – treat him in a patronizing manner, writing out his scripts for his questions (which is why the reporter calls Dilman out), which might be reasonable for a politician who’s not prepared for the office of presidency, but still comes off as if they feel Dilman might not be able to handle the office because of his race. That, and Jones’ performance (along with Balsam, MacLachlan as Dilman’s more radical daughter, and a few others) lift The Man above not only most made-for-TV movies of the time, but also most “well-intentioned” movies dealing with race.
“We’ve got to pick a candidate” – Nashville.
Ronee Blakely and Henry Gibson at a political rally in “Nashville”.
When Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), my third favorite movie of the decade (behind the first two Godfather movies), gets discussed, it’s usually in terms not only of its technical achievements – the way he and writer Joan Tewkesbury are able to juggle 24 major characters in a movie almost three hours long without breaking a sweat – and its portrait of both the city of the title and of country music, that city’s main product. But it’s also worth discussing in terms of politics and the way it references the unrest of the time. After all, one of the main storylines Altman and Tewkesbury weave into this panorama of a movie is how Hal Phillip Walker, a candidate we never see but hear throughout, is running for President as an independent (for the Replacement Party). We hear his slogans (written by Altman’s friend Thomas Hal Phillips), and while some of what he says makes sense (“Congress is made up of 535 individuals. 288 are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress”), but he also spouts platitudes that sound both safe and ridiculous (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”), and takes some out there positions (he wants to eliminate tax subsidies to farmers), which makes him like most every other politician, no matter how much he paints himself as an outsider. Not only that, but John Triplette (Michael Murphy), Walker’s campaign manager, and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a local political organizer, are as unscrupulous in their own ways as any other politician’s campaign staff, especially when maneuvering Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a fragile singing star, into singing at a rally/concert for Walker, or getting Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a waitress and tone-deaf singer who doesn’t know she can’t sing, into doing a striptease at a fundraiser for Walker.
Just as important, we see how closely, through the prism of country music, the entertainment industry and politicians are entwined. This had been a fact of American life since at least the 30’s, but rarely acknowledged in the movies. Altman and Tewkesbury are less interested, however, in how politicians might use the lessons of Hollywood to change their image – as Elia Kazan had done in A Face in the Crowd – and more in showing how cozy and yet fraught with negotiation that relationship is. One of the stars Triplette tries to nab for the rally is Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who pens patriotic hymns (for the upcoming millennial of the country, he’s penned a song which includes the refrain, “We must have done something right to last 200 years”), and professes himself above politics, refusing to endorse any candidate, yet agreeing to play the rally only if Barbara Jean plays (meaning Connie White (Karen Black), Barbara Jean’s rival, won’t play). That’s just one of many ways Altman and Tewkesbury subvert our expectations. Due to not only the horrors veterans had to face in Vietnam, but also the way that had started to be portrayed on screen, we expect Pfc Kelly (Scott Glenn), who follows Barbara Jean around, to be a deranged stalker of some kind, but he turns out to be just a devoted fan. We also are set up for some kind of assassination, given not only the mistaken signals we think we see with Kelly, but also Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s mistress, speaking with melancholy about both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, so it comes as quite a shock when not only have we guessed the wrong assassin (it’s Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), a quiet man who had hitchhiked to the city), but the wrong target; it’s Barbara Jean and not Walker (this, by the way, shows another subversion of our expectations; Haven, who had come off as unctuous and selfish up till this person, ignores the wound he gets, thinks of others instead of himself, and pleads for the crowd to keep calm and to remember, “This isn’t Dallas!”). Medium Cool ends with chants of “The whole world is watching!” (taken from the audio of the protests outside the convention), and a cameraman (played by Wexler) pointing his camera at us after a tragedy as if to remind us of that fact. Altman’s movie, by contrast, ends with a rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”, a song that had sounded complacent earlier, but now comes off with a combination of defiance and of the feeling of “bash on, regardless”!
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows -“Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Bob Dylan
Scene from “M*A*S*H”, a Vietnam movie in all but name.
Along with being a successful screenwriter and novelist (the novel and movie versions of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride), William Goldman is probably best remembered as the man who, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, coined the phrase, “Nobody knows anything.” He was, of course, talking about the fact no one knows while thinking of, making, or releasing a movie whether it’s going to be a hit or not (also, nobody knows if it’s going to be any good or not). At best, he argued, it was an educated guess. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people who work both in the movie industry and the media from deciding there are certain “rules” about what kind of movie will be a hit or flop, or whether it will be any good or not. Among those rules, there’s quite a few when it comes to so-called “political” films. The most well-known, even today, is arguably Samuel Goldwyn’s dictum, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” (never mind that one of the most famous movies he produced, The Best Years of Our Lives, is sending a message about how veterans of WWII – and of any war in particular – have difficulty adjusting to life at home). There’s also the idea that political movies don’t make money, because they automatically alienate any of the audience that disagrees with whatever statement the movie is trying to make. Along those lines, there’s also the argument in an industry where profit is the most important thing, political movies will inevitably get watered down in the attempt to please everybody (or not offend anybody), the result being they please nobody. In addition, there are people who argue that movies (and art in general) is best at either not talking about politics, or, if they have to talk about politics, by doing so in an indirect or metaphorical way, either by using genre, or by using the past to comment on the present, or even a combination of the two (along the lines of using the past to comment on the present, there’s also the view that hindsight brings wisdom and understanding to movies, and movies about recent events suffer from not having that hindsight and wisdom). Finally – and this especially comes out when movies (or, again, any work of art) try to talk about the unspeakable horrors of something like the Holocaust – there are those who argue movies (and again, any work of art in general) automatically diminishes any major event it tries to depict.
To be fair, there’s some truth lying in a few of those “rules”. For one, many of the best films of the late 60’s/early 70’s dealt with the volatile times by going through genre, whether dealing with racism (Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes), Watergate (The Conversation), the influence of corporations (The Parallax View), and so on. Not only that, but many films of the time also used the past to comment on the present, especially with Westerns (Little Big Man) and war movies set during WWII (Catch-22, The Dirty Dozen, Slaughterhouse Five) or Korea (M*A*S*H) commenting on the Vietnam War, as well as some of the other turbulent issues of the time (as The Dirty Dozen and Little Big Man both took on racism). Also, plenty of movies that have put distance between us and the events of the past have been better for it, like Steven Soderbergh’s Che (a much better, and more honest, movie than the biopic made in the 60’s) and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos). For another, many movies that have attempted to put the statement before the art have been heavy-handed and not particularly memorable as movies, or they have compromised in their efforts not to offend anyone. Still, I tend to agree with Steven Soderbergh, who, in an interview on the Criterion version of Battle of Algiers – one of the greatest political movies ever made, and one which i’ll be covering in another post – pointed out at some point, saying, “Oh, political movies don’t make money/don’t work” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and just used not to make anything like that. Not only that, but I would argue to the “don’t send a message”/”art by definition diminishes any historical event” crowd that while art shouldn’t be restricted to doing any one particular thing, if it doesn’t at least partly touch on the world we live in today, than it isn’t worth anything.
John Wayne in “The Green Berets”.
The period in American film we think of as “the 70’s”, or Hollywood’s second Golden Age – which actually probably started in 1967-68, and only lasted until 1975 or so, until, so the argument goes, Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster (another argument I find rather simplistic, but that’s a topic for another blog post) – has been pretty well discussed in terms of the movies that chose to comment on the chaos of the real world of the time indirectly, either by doing it within a genre film or by using the past to comment on the future. But in selecting this period to write about (though I chose the era of 1968-72 for the purposes of this blogathon, I’m going outside of the parameters slightly; more like 1967-75), I became interested in looking at those few films that did try, however clumsily or confidently, to confront society’s ills of the time head-on. I did bend the rules in a few instances to talk about some particular films, but that was usually to talk about a film that doesn’t get mentioned much when talking about this time, or, if it does, not in the way that I try to look at it. Obviously, what was going on in America is important, not just because Hollywood was back then the biggest movie-producing country in the world, but also because the chaos that happened here and elsewhere around the world took off largely from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as other conflicts around the globe. While it’s true there were no Vietnam combat films to come out of Hollywood during the war (with the exception of The Green Berets, John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War film; and frankly, in my opinion, the less said about that one, the better), there were a few films that took on the protest against the war. This will not be a comprehensive overview, as some of these films are still unavailable in any form that I could find (though I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M, I’m still curious to see it, and am disappointed I couldn’t find it anywhere), and I was limited by time, but it will, I hope, shed some light on the films in this milieu that do work, as well as on the ones that didn’t (for the latter, I’ve already written about Zabriskie Point, so I won’t repeat myself). Also, a few films took a direct look at what was going on with politicians at the time, and I’ll explore those as well. Finally, the Vietnam War wasn’t the only issue tearing the country apart during the time. The civil rights movement was a big part of the 60’s, and the fallout of the promises made to African-Americans that were broken was also a big part of the era. Unfortunately, as badly as Hollywood lags behind these days when it comes to race, it was even worse back then, and so there were few, if any, features taking on the civil rights, or black power, movements of the time, though a few of the Vietnam protest films do touch on it somewhat, and I mention those.*
Jean Luc Godard.
While Hollywood was slow to look at the chasms tearing the country, and the world, apart, the rest of the world wasn’t, and Part 2 will be dealing with how other countries confronted the chaos of the time. Again, I was guided mainly by availability issues here. There’s quite a number of films from those who were considered major political filmmakers of the time that simply aren’t available, from such acclaimed filmmakers as Marco Bellochio (China is Near), Alain Tanner (Middle of the World), and Bo Widerberg (Adalen 31), among others. And that’s just among European filmmakers; anyone from Africa or Asia is ignored. I do try and have somewhat of a variety within Europe when I can, but mostly, I’m going to be concentrating on two of the most well-known – certainly, two of the most notorious – political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not only because of the quality of their films, but also because they worked in French, and next to the U.S., France had the biggest occurrence of unrest in the Western world during that time (May 1968). Finally, while feature films in the U.S. may have lagged behind the times, at least in dealing with the hot-button issues of the time directly, documentaries, then as in now, were a step ahead. I’ve seen several documentaries dealing with the Vietnam War made during U.S. involvement, and those will all get a look. Also, there are a few documentaries about major African-American leaders during the racial unrest of this period.
Along with the fact this is an incomplete overview due to both availability issues and time issues, frankly, there are a couple of other missing chapters I feel I must address. Firstly, you will notice the virtual absence of anything dealing with the feminist movement. This is because, for the most part, Hollywood ignored the feminist movement, mirroring not just the power structure in the U.S. at the time, but also many of the factions of the anti-war and the civil rights/black power movements of the time. Hollywood didn’t start making movies about women’s rights, or at least about dealing with women’s issues, until later in the decade. Most of the few that do so simply aren’t available. I do try to take a look at how the films dealing with the unrest of the time shortchanged women, but that will be it. Also, you will notice a distinct bias, not on Hollywood’s part – Hollywood, after all, as I said before, is primarily a business, and therefore primarily out to make money – but on mine. Admittedly, I’m dealing only with films that took a left-wing or radical point of view (which is in line with my political thinking most of the time), but that’s also because, again, with only a few exceptions (The Green Berets, which I mentioned above, and Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, which I will deal with in part 2), most of the films that explicitly, or implicitly, expressed a right-wing point of view were genre films (Dirty Harry is a cop film, Death Wish a vigilante film), and in addition, these are all well-known and have been written about; again, I was looking for films under the radar and not genre films (The Confession qualifies on both counts). Finally, I had hoped to be able to see The Boys in the Band – despite its mixed reputation and my negative feelings for the work of William Friedkin – to at least touch on the fact that while stereotypical portrayals of gays still abounded in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s in general, there were works that, for their time, did attempt to treat gays as humans instead of as just caricatures, but I was unable to see it in time. So again, this is far from a complete overview of the films that tried to deal directly with the chaos of the time during the Vietnam War period, but I do hope it’s enough of a cross-section to show, for good and bad, how Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, other countries, tried to come to terms with it.
*-I had planned on talking about how movies dealt with, or didn’t deal with, race relations before the recent events in Charleston, but of course that helped influence my decision. Also, I don’t address the genre of “blaxploitation” films because while of course they dealt with the anger that African-Americans had with white society, and, like almost any genre, it had its good and bad films, they weren’t explicitly political, and were more genre films in that respect.
These days, when the term “Pre-Code Hollywood” gets thrown around in certain circles of movie fans, it’s usually meant to emphasize the content filmmakers (and studios) were able to get away with before the Hays Code was fully enforced in 1934, like the just-short-of-explicit suggestiveness of Trouble in Paradise or The Divorcee, or being critical of the institutions of the time in ways that wouldn’t have been possible post-1934, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The Marx Brothers certainly had their share of suggestive content in the pre-Code films they made at this time (my favorite example still being Groucho’s line from Animal Crackers; “Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus”), and both Horsefeathers and Duck Soup mocked, respectively, colleges and politics (among other things). But the content of the Marx Brothers’ films made in the pre-Code era – all at Paramount – and the ones they made afterwards isn’t just in the content, it’s how the brothers were used.
Like many actors in Hollywood in the late 20’s and early 30’s, the Marx Brothers came from Broadway, as the studios grabbed talent from there who could handle the adjustment from silent films to sound films. Like many other comedians at the time, the Marx Brothers originally came from vaudeville, which is where they had originally developed and perfected their personas. Groucho was the fast-talking wisecrack artist, Chico was the book dumb but crafty con artist who told lots of bad puns, and Harpo was the silent (by choice) comedian who seemed to be on another planet. To further the Broadway angle, the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were based on two of the plays that had first brought them acclaim. I’m not a big fan of the former; it’s not just, like many early sound pictures, it looks somewhat stilted, it’s also that no one looks really comfortable, except for Harpo (who gets some good gags, like eating a telephone). There are some good scenes, like Groucho wooing his perpetual foil Margaret Dumont (“Oh, I can see you now, you and the moon! You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”), the auction scene (“Believe me, you have to get up early if you want to get out of bed”), and the famous “Why a duck?” scene. Groucho would blame this on co-director Joseph Santley, whom he claimed didn’t understand comedy, while Joe Adamson, author of the Marx brothers biography Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo felt the fault lay with the other co-director, Robert Florey, who apparently didn’t think the Marx Brothers were funny.* Whatever reason, while it does set the template of their other films for Paramount – in that the plot is just an excuse for them to run amok, especially Harpo – it’s not especially memorable.
Animal Crackers, on the other hand, is when they start to hit their groove. It’s not that the plot is that much more sophisticated – in The Cocoanuts, it’s a jewel robbery, while here, it involves a rare painting and two forged copies of it – or that those playing off of the Marx Brothers had much more to work with (Kay Francis plays a thief in the former, while Lillian Roth (the subject of the 1950’s biopic I’ll Cry Tomorrow) plays the ingenue in the latter). It’s more the Marx Brothers themselves seem more comfortable in front of the camera, and director Victor Heerman (who went on to contribute to the screenplays of such films as Stella Dallas, Meet Me in St. Louis, and both the Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson versions of Little Women) seemed comfortable enough with them. Though one line from “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song that became Groucho’s signature song, was cut by the Hays Office (Groucho’s “I think I’ll try and make her”), there’s some risque material here; in addition to the line I quoted in my opening paragraph, there’s also Groucho’s line about visiting Africa (“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back in a couple of weeks!”), and his proposing marriage to both Dumont and comic villainess Margaret Irving at the same time (“Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me too”). More importantly, however, once again, it’s the fact Groucho, Harpo and Chico are allowed to act pretty much uninhibited. There’s the occasional bit where someone gets the better of them (like Irving and butler Robert Greig getting the drop on Harpo), but mostly, it’s things like Chico and Harpo humiliating Louis Sorin as art collector Roscoe Chandler (he gives them a check so they won’t reveal to everyone else he used to be a fish peddler; Harpo bounces it on the floor), as well as Groucho (when Chandler says he’s glad Groucho asked him something, Groucho retorts, “I withdraw the question!”), Chico and Harpo playing bridge with Dumont and Irving (naturally, every card Harpo plays is the ace of spades), and the insane ending, where Harpo sprays knockout gas at everyone, including himself.
Monkey Business, which came out the following year, is even less inhibited, and is the only film they made in which they didn’t really have any characters at all and are more or less “themselves”. They’re stowaways on an ocean liner, and while they eventually stumble into a plot involving warring gangsters (played by Rockliffe Fellowes and Harry Woods), the daughter (Ruth Hall) of the former (Zeppo romances her) and the jealous wife (Thelma Todd) of the latter (Groucho flirts with her), once again, it’s just an excuse for the gags. Adamson cites as a highlight the scene where Groucho breaks into Woods’ room, flirts with Todd (“Oh, no. You’re not gonna get me off this bed”), and then talks his way out of being confronted at gunpoint by Woods with nothing but his wit (“I’m wise!” “You’re wise, eh? Well, what’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the Chase National Bank? Give up?”), and it’s really funny and anarchic. Just as good are when Harpo gets involved in a Punch and Judy show on the boat (when the captain (Ben Taggart) and first officer (Tom Kennedy) try to pull Harpo out of the booth, Harpo joins them), Groucho and Chico breaking into Taggart’s quarters (“One of (the stowaways) goes around with a black mustache!” “So do I. If I had my choice, I’d go around with a little blonde”), all four brothers trying to sneak past customs by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You” (Harpo, naturally, plays a phonograph he’s hidden in his coat of Chevalier singing), and Fellowes introducing the most “beautiful” creature in the world at his party (his daughter), which Harpo naturally takes as his cue to make an entrance. The movie does have a somewhat conventional ending, with Woods kidnapping Fellowes’ daughter and taking her to a barn, and Zeppo saving the day by beating Woods in a fight, but even that gets mitigated by Chico and Harpo bopping Woods’ cronies on the head even after they’ve been knocked out and Groucho’s shenanigans; he unfurls himself from a haystack and asks, “Where’s all those farmer’s daughters I’ve been hearing about for years?”, he pretends to announce the fight, and when it’s all over, he’s tearing through the hay again (when Fellowes demands to know what he’s doing, he replies, “I’m looking for a needle in a haystack”).
Horsefeathers, which came out the following year, sticks them back in a plot. Groucho, as Professor Wagstaff, the new dean of Huxley College, is told by his son (Zeppo) that he needs to recruit football players to beat rival university Darwin in order to become a successful college, but he ends up recruiting Chico and Harpo by mistake. Oh, and all four of them try to romance a college widow (Todd), who is also involved with a gambler (David Jennings) trying to fix the game for Darwin. Again, the brothers observe the niceties of college life in the same spirit they observe the niceties of being aboard a ship, which is to say not at all; Groucho allows Chico and Harpo (who have become students at Huxley) to throw out a boring professor (Grieg again) so he can take over and make puns (“Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves”), Harpo can pull out of his jacket a candle lit at both ends (he also points out, at other points in the movie, a cup of coffee, a fish, and an ax to “cut” cards with, among other things), and Chico hides in a locker because he’s practicing secret signals. And while there is a big game at the climax, there’s no sentiment; Harpo throws banana peels to keep Darwin players from tackling Zeppo, then throws one under Zeppo’s feet, Groucho hangs out by the stands or lounges on the field reading a newspaper and smoking his cigar, and as for Chico’s signals, they speak for themselves (“Hi diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/This time I think we go through the middle; hike!”). Like the Marx Brothers’ other pre-Code films, there’s been some bits here and there that were cut out, though Groucho does get to say to Todd, “I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one”). I don’t know who was actually the first one to break the fourth wall in the movie, but Groucho was an early contender; while Chico is playing and singing “Everyone Says I Love You” (a song all four of them perform at one point or another), Groucho walks up to the camera and says, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t got out into the lobby until this thing blows over.” Finally, while an ending involving the four brothers playing cards while the college burns down was apparently cut, the current ending – all four of them marry Todd – is twisted in its own way.
Duck Soup, which came out the following year, is usually considered their best by Marx Brothers fans (though I prefer Monkey Business and Horsefeathers). Part of this is because some feel the musical performances by Chico (the piano) and Harpo (the harp) in the previous movies made those movies drag (I wonder why no one complains about the songs performed in Duck Soup, as they’re really not that great), but a lot of it has to do with, unlike the previous films, a genuinely great director was at the helm. Leo McCarey, at the time, was still best known for his work with Laurel & Hardy, and his best films (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow), as well as his best known films (Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary’s, An Affair to Remember) were still ahead of him. But while, as Adamson points out, there seems to be two movies going on at once in Duck Soup (Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly making wisecracks as ruler of Freedonia, while Chico and Harpo, who are allegedly working as spies for Louis Calhern, ruler of rival country Sylvania, seem more interested in annoying Edgar Kennedy, a peanut vendor outside the government office; not only that, but much of it plays like silent comedy), McCarey does make it all work for the most part. The movie is best remembered for the famous mirror routine, where Harpo, who’s dressed as Groucho to steal Freedonia’s secret war plans, breaks a mirror and has to pretend to be Groucho in the mirror when Groucho arrives at the scene. It’s also been much debated as to whether the movie is consciously a political satire; when Adamson interviewed the principals involved, all of them denied it, saying they were just out to entertain (Groucho would later say it was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh”), but Nat Perrin, who was credited with writing additional dialogue for the movie, did allow that satire might have crept in because of what everyone thought at the time (certainly, Groucho has been political, mocking the blacklist and admitting in a newspaper during the Vietnam War that if he had a son of draft age, he would encourage his son to go to Canada rather than fight). It’s also obvious the movie doesn’t take politics any more serious than it did college; Groucho would rather play jacks than conduct a meeting, he slaps Calhern and provokes war because Calhern calls him an upstart, Chico changes sides because he likes the food better, and Harpo’s idea of recruiting is to wear a sign that reads, “Join the army and see the navy”. And at the end, the four brothers win the war for Freedonia by pummeling Calhern with fruit; when Dumont, once again playing Groucho’s love interest (Groucho says of her to the others, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”), sings “Hail Freedonia!” in triumph, they all turn and throw fruit at her.
While Duck Soup, as I said, has become regarded as the Marx Brothers’ best film, starting when it played in revival houses in the 60’s, it was a box office disappointment, and critics at the time weren’t crazy about it either (Adamson quotes Time, the Nation, and the New York Times as all finding it disappointing). Most importantly, the studio wasn’t crazy about the film or about its box office, so the Marx Brothers parted ways with them and ended up at MGM. By the time they made their first film at the studio, A Night at the Opera, in 1935, the new, beefed-up version of the Production Code was in full force, so it was harder to sneak in more risque material (though when Groucho hears about an opera singer being signed for a thousand dollars a night, he claims you could get a record of “Minnie the Moocher” for 75 cents, and adds, “For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie”). More importantly, however, Irving Thalberg was supervising them, and while he found them funny, off-screen as well as on (Thalberg was legendary for keeping people waiting for interminable periods while overseeing the detail of every production he was involved in. The Marx Brothers – down to three, as Zeppo had retired to become their agent – reacted to being kept waiting by, among others things, stripping down naked in Thalberg’s office and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. When Thalberg came back and discovered this, according to Adamson, he called the studio commissary and ordered butter), he also insisted they needed to be “relatable” to audiences, and wanted to make sure the rest of the story and music also worked as a story and music, rather than just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to react to. Therefore, instead of Harpo, for example, simply creating chaos at will, he only reacts to being picked on by the comic villain (Walter King); Chico, who used to always hustle for money, now insists to the romantic hero (Allan Jones) he’s happy without money (though not food); and even Groucho gets a softening moment when he passes along a note from Jones to his love interest (Kitty Carlisle Hart). The film has enough great gags – the contract scene, the stateroom scene, the scene where the three of them, and Jones, are trying to hide in a hotel room from a detective (Robert Emmett O’Connor), and, of course, the climax at the opera – that the film manages to get by anyway, and it was profitable enough and well-received. However, during the making of A Day in the Races (1937), Thalberg died, and Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, didn’t think the Marx Brothers were very funny, and didn’t give them talent to work with. Therefore, while Thalberg at least understood there needed to be some genuine humor to counterbalance the sentiment and story, the later movies, while having maybe a handful of good gags (in A Day at the Races, the scene where Chico cons Groucho out of betting on a sure thing), just don’t hold a candle to the earlier ones. It’s been said the films the Marx Brothers appeared in were never as good as they were, but at least with the pre-Code films (except, as I said, for The Cocoanuts), you see them closest to their unvarnished best.
*-For the most part, both Florey and Santley’s subsequent careers were unmemorable, though Florey at least did direct the Bela Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders at the Rue Morgue, one of the better pre-Code horror films.
This is my entry in the “Luck of the Irish” Blogathon, hosted by Diana & Connie. Enjoy!
During her career as a film critic, Pauline Kael was notorious for, among other things, never seeing a film more than once if she could help it. Part of that was because her reviews were always about her immediate visceral reaction, and she didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. Part of it was because she didn’t want to be convinced she was wrong about what she had seen earlier. But there was also a part of her that rebelled against the notion that you needed to see a movie more than once to fully appreciate it. It’s not that she wanted movies that were simple-minded – she railed against those types of movies often enough – but she honestly felt there was something pretentious about the notion that you needed to watch a movie more than once to “get it”. That is a notion I can sympathize with to a certain extent, but sooner or later, it runs up against filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (and neither Kael nor her critic rival, Andrew Sarris – who once placed Kubrick in the category of “Strained Seriousness” – was a fan). Of the 13 feature films Kubrick directed in his lifetime, only two of them – Dr. Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut – did I like unconditionally the first time I saw them (and both of those still have rewards upon further viewing). All of the others I needed to watch at least twice to appreciate more (although, to be sure, in the case of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, multiple viewings have not shaken my view that while both are worthy, they’re still both flawed), and that includes Barry Lyndon, his 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. At the time I first saw it, I thought while Kubrick had brought his usual intelligence to the movie, I agreed with critics who found it too slow. After watching it a few more times, however, I now think it’s one of his best.
As Kubrick fans know, Lyndon had long hoped to do a cinematic biopic of Napoleon, and more importantly, he had hoped to do an historical drama that, as he put it in an interview with Sight & Sound in the early 70’s, both conveyed historical information while also capturing the day-to-day life of characters in history without making them seem like they were merely parts of a textbook. However, the financial climate of Hollywood was not at its strongest in the late 60’s/early 70’s, at least when it came to the type of historical epic Kubrick was talking about (low-budget films on the order of Easy Rider were more the rage at the time), and so he had to shelve it (the project remains, like Welles’ version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Lean’s version of Conrad’s Nostromo, one of those great “what-could-have-been” projects). According to John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, the filmmaker was looking for a project that would take advantage of his research into Napoleon when (as Kubrick put it) he stumbled onto Thackeray’s novel. Kubrick had toyed with filming Thackeray’s most famous novel, Vanity Fair, but that had been adapted before for film and TV several times, so he turned to a lesser known work. Both the novel and film follow the story of the title character, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), over the course of his life in mid-18th century Ireland and England. After his father is killed in a duel early in the film, Barry is raised by his mother (Marie Kean). When he’s a teen, he falls in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who indulges him up to a point – she’s more worldly about sex than he is – but soon accepts the attentions of Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), of the British army. While her family is in favor of the match – Quin has money – Barry is upset, and he and Captain Quin eventually fight a duel with pistols, during which Captain Quin is apparently killed (later, it turns out this was all a ruse to drive Barry away). Barry flees, and is robbed soon after, which leads him to join the British Army during the Seven Years War. However, he soon tires of the war (especially after his family friend Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) is killed in battle), and when the opportunity arises, Barry, posing as another British officer, deserts. When he travels through Germany, he has a brief dalliance with a soldier’s wife (Diane Koerner), but is later discovered as an impostor by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), a Prussian officer, and forced to join the Prussian army. After he saves Captain Potzdorf’s life during battle, Barry becomes a trusted adviser, and when the war ends, Barry becomes a spy for him. When Barry discovers his target, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), is in fact Irish, Barry changes loyalties, and works for the Chevalier, accompanying him as the Chevalier plays cards with the rich and wealthy in Europe, and helping him cheat. When Potzdorf decides to have the Chevalier expelled, Barry, at the Chevalier’s urging, uses this opportunity to flee with him, and free from the Prussian army, he and the Chevalier continue to travel Europe playing cards, and in Barry’s case, dueling with those who refuse to pay (Steven Berkoff plays one of the latter). Barry soon realizes, however, this isn’t enough to sustain the life he wants, so he courts and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a rich countess, even though she’s still married to Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass), though waiting until after her terminally ill husband dies of a heart attack before marrying her. Once he does marry her, Barry seems uninterested in the Lady, and more in continuing his life of gambling and womanizing. Lady Lyndon suffers this in stoic silence, but her son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali plays him as a young man) grows to despise Barry, and ends up causing his downfall.
It’s commonly said Kubrick changed quite a bit in adapting Thackeray’s novel (though keeping the basics of the plot), and there is truth to that. For starters, instead of keeping the first-person narration of Thackeray’s novel, Kubrick has Michael Hordern serve as a third-person narrator. While Kubrick keeps many of the events of the story, he also cut some to streamline the narrative (the Chevalier is no longer, by chance, a relative of Barry’s), and most crucially, makes Lady Lyndon’s character more passive (in the novel, she helps bring about Barry’s downfall, and Lord Bullingdon only plays a peripheral part in it). However, a common theme I’ve found in books written about Kubrick is that he meant the audience to view Barry more sympathetically than Thackeray did, and I’m not sure I agree with that. It’s true Thackeray’s novel is more outwardly satirical in tone than Kubrick’s movie, especially in the last half (one of the reasons why Kael slammed Kubrick’s film version is she felt it wasn’t satirical enough in tone), and with the inserted perspective of one G.S. Fitz-Boodle (a narrative device Thackeray dropped from later editions of the novel), we see Barry being mocked and presented as someone who passes himself off as better than he actually is. But while Kubrick doesn’t go as far over-the-top in that respect as Thackeray did, I think he keeps Thackeray’s viewpoint of Barry for the most part throughout; callow but somewhat likable and sympathetic early on, especially when he’s trapped in events he has no control over (like the Seven Years War), but a scoundrel once he finally becomes part of the society he had been excluded from before (except, of course, in the scenes between Barry and his son Bryan (David Morley), particularly his grief when Bryan dies not long after being thrown off of a pony). Kubrick does grant Barry a moment of sympathy during the climactic duel he has with Lord Bullingdon (a scene not included in the novel), when Bullingdon, overcome by fear, vomits and accidentally shoots his gun into the ground and Barry deliberately shoots his own pistol into the ground. Still, for the most part, Kubrick views Barry with the same distance Thackeray did, though more as a character who cannot escape his own fate.
The only way Warner Brothers would greenlight the picture for Kubrick was if he cast a star in the title role, and their candidates were either O’Neal or Robert Redford (who turned the part down). It may be difficult to remember now, but O’Neal at the time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, thanks to his part on the TV version of Peyton Place and his hit movies Love Story, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon and, to a lesser extent, The Thief who Came to Dinner (in the annual Quigley poll in 1973, O’Neal was the #2 star, behind only Clint Eastwood). But those were all lighter in tone than Kubrick’s movie, and, except for Paper Moon, all of them were set in the present. More importantly, all of them asked little of O’Neal except to project likability (even though his characters in Paper Moon and Thief who Came to Dinner are outside the law, and his character in the former can be abrasive, they still depend on charm). Much as he would later do with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick similarly plays off of O’Neal’s image here, especially the idea of him as a romantic leading man.* In Barry’s early scenes with Nora, Kubrick plays up both Barry’s naivete (she places a ribbon inside the front of her corset, and tells him he can have it if he takes it from her, and Barry is completely intimidated) and his petulant nature (when Nora throws Barry over for Captain Quin, all Barry can do is rudely interrupt a meal the family is having by standing and staring at her). After Barry is forced to flee, Kubrick still places him as someone who has little control over his fate, as when he’s robbed (and meekly asks his robbers if he can at least keep his horse), discovered as a fraud by Potzdorf, and fighting in battles which are hardly glorious. Only in the duels Barry participates in, whether by pistol, sword, or fist (as when he fights a soldier early on during his conscription in the British army), does he seem to be a master of his own fate, but this fighting side definitely played against O’Neal’s light romantic image (conceivably, it could be argued one of the reasons why Lady Lyndon is such a passive character in the film for the most part – as opposed to the novel – is because Kubrick wanted to deny audiences from seeing O’Neal being romantic again).
Until I viewed the film again recently, I never noticed another way Kubrick emphasizes how much of an outsider Barry is from everyone else, and that’s his Irishness. During a time of relative peace between Britain and Ireland, it’s easy to forget the long history of animosity between the two countries, and while neither Thackeray nor Kubrick have the British characters insult Barry and his other family members with epithets (except when Bullingdon calls Barry an “Irish upstart”), it’s clear Barry’s heritage makes him suspect in the eyes of many of the characters. Certainly, you can see it in the contempt certain British characters hold Barry in, from Quin (who seems to regard Barry as an insect that needs to be stepped on) to Lord Lyndon, and especially Lord Bullingdon (who, until his final duel with Barry, seems to wear only a glare or smirk on his face). But it’s not just done in the obvious ways. Barry’s downfall begins when he tries to flatter and bribe his way into gaining a peerage and therefore being considered among the “respectable” society. This task, difficult enough in a society where who and what you were was determined by what class you were from, becomes impossible when Lord Bullingdon interrupts a recital Barry is hosting by leading Patrick, who walks into the room wearing oversized, and loud, shoes – as well as call out Barry’s behavior (this is when he calls Barry an “Irish upstart”) – and Barry, furious, grabs Bullingdon and starts beating him in front of the horrified guests. Thereafter, when Barry sees one of the Lords he had hoped would sponsor his peerage at a restaurant, the Lord politely but firmly rebuffs him, and as the narrator tells us, this was not the last time Barry was rebuked like this. It must be said O’Neal’s Irish accent doesn’t always stay consistent, but in a way, this makes him even more of an outsider against the other British actors.
Kubrick’s defenders and detractors have always talked about his perfectionism, and that trait was certainly a notorious part of the filming of Barry Lyndon, not just in the length of filming (it took 2 years, though this was partially because filming had to be halted in Ireland after the IRA made a threat against the production, and moved to England), and the multiple takes he had the cast go through (there were claims of Kubrick needing 100 takes for one scene, though Kubrick later claimed this number was exaggerated, and if he always used that many takes, he’d never finish a movie), but also because for many scenes, especially the ones set indoors and at night, he and cinematographer John Alcott (who also shot A Clockwork Orange and The Shining for Kubrick) used only natural light (Kubrick had a lens that had been used by NASA modified so he could shoot these scenes with candlelight). This was part of how Kubrick wanted to avoid the look of most period films at the time, by going for a more naturalistic feel to it. Kubrick also avoided the scores of most period films; instead, the Chieftains provided folk music used in the scenes set in Ireland, while for the rest of the film, composer Leonard Rosenman adapted and conducted works by Bach (“Concerto for 2 Harpsichords & Orchestra in C-Minor”), Handel (“Sarabande”), Mozart (the march from “Idomeneo”), and Schubert (“Piano Solo in E-Flat, OP 100 (Second Movement)”, among other pieces, which also makes the film seem more natural and less heavy than most period pieces of the time. Kubrick, as usual, also used a lot of long takes, such as in the battle scenes during the war (to make them seem as unglamorous as possible) and the scene where Bullingdon and Bryan walk in on the recital (to emphasize the reaction of the audience). Finally, Kubrick drew his inspiration from paintings of the period, which inspired not just the lighting but also the design and the costumes, some of which were even from that time period (though many were also custom made for the film).
For whatever reason, Kubrick, more than any other film he made, used actors he had worked with before, like Berkoff, Magee, Quigley (all of whom had been in A Clockwork Orange) and Rossiter (who had been in 2001). All of them perform well for the occasion, though the ones who come off the best are Magee (in a 180-degree turn from his character, and performance, in Clockwork Orange) and Kruger. I’ve only ever seen Berenson in White Hunter, Black Heart, so I don’t know if she was capable of more than what Kubrick asked of her here, but she handles her big scenes (her attempted suicide) and some smaller scenes (her reaction when she realizes Barry doesn’t love her) well enough. As for O’Neal, as I said, this film represents Kubrick playing against his image, and O’Neal gave himself to that willingly enough**, and while, as I said before, his accent slips often, he does fit Kubrick and Thackeray’s conception of Barry. However, his star power wasn’t enough to help the film at the box office, and while it was nominated for seven Oscars and won four, they were all technical, and Kubrick didn’t win any. The mixed reviews that seem to come with every Kubrick film also didn’t help, but again, as Kubrick himself would say in interviews, more than one viewing helped, and today, rightly, Barry Lyndon is seen in many quarters (including mine) as one of Kubrick’s best films.
*- While I personally believe Redford was a better actor than O’Neal, I also have read enough on Redford to guess – and mind you, it’s only a guess – that given how much Redford seemed to have invested in protecting his image as an actor, I doubt Kubrick would have been able to use him in the same way.
**- The only interview I ever came across where O’Neal talked about Kubrick was one with Malcolm McDowell that’s posted on YouTube, and he spoke warmly of the experience. Still, in Charles Shyer’s Irreconcilable Differences, O’Neal plays an aspiring filmmaker, and while he’s supposedly modeled on Peter Bogdanovich (and Shelley Long and Sharon Stone supposedly play, respectively, parts based on Polly Platt (Bogdanovich’s ex-wife) and Cybill Shepherd (whom Bogdanovich left Platt for)), there is a scene where O’Neal’s character is filming an historical epic and is being a perfectionist about getting the exact shot and sunlight right that plays to Kubrick’s reputation, not Bogdanovich’s, so I wonder.
To open up a play, or to not open up a play? That is the question. For we’ve all been told that films are supposed to be “cinematic”, and a filmed play is static and boring, therefore, allowing it to move will mean, at the very least, you’re not just watching people in rooms talking to each other. On the other hand, plays are tightly constructed experiences (even lavish musicals), so opening them up for film means you risk tearing apart the dramatic fabric (and even logic) that made them work so well on the stage. Of course, just as there have been examples of good movies that were just “filmed plays” (as well as, to be sure, bad ones), there have also been examples of movies that opened up the play and were still good movies. One prime example of the latter is Six Degrees of Separation, director Fred Schepisi’s film of John Guare’s award-winning play (which Guare adapted). I chose this not because it’s my favorite movie adaptation of a play (that list would include Stage Door, You Can’t Take it With You, West Side Story, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the Kenneth Branagh versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, and many others; I left off movies like Trouble in Paradise, Casablanca, and Some Like it Hot because I’m unfamiliar with the source material), but because it’s a good movie to illustrate my point.
Both the play and the movie are inspired by the true story of David Hampton, a young con artist who, in the 80’s, was able to convince several people in New York City to let him stay in their homes briefly and even gave him pocket money because he claimed (a) he was a friend of their children, and (b) he was the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. In reality, of course, Poitier has no son, and Hampton never knew any of the children of the people he conned, instead stealing an address book from someone who, like the people he conned, lived on the Upper East Side. Among the people Hampton fooled were Osborn Elliot, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his wife Inger. Guare happened to be a friend of theirs, and when he heard the story of Hampton from them, and read about his subsequent arrest, Guare became interested in turning it into a play. It eventually premiered at Lincoln Center in the spring of 1990, eventually winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for best drama. Three years later, it was adapted into a movie.
Both the play and the movie center on Ouisa (Stockard Channing, who originated the role on stage – according to Guare, she replaced someone during rehearsals – and reprised the role for the movie) and John Flanders “Flan” Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), the couple we first see with Paul. Flan, an art dealer without a gallery (he sells to people who don’t want to go through a gallery for whatever reason), and Ouisa are entertaining Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a mine tycoon in South Africa, and a potential client for a Cezanne they want to sell when their doorman brings in Paul (Will Smith), a well-dressed man who’s bleeding in the abdomen area (he claims he was mugged). Because Paul says he doesn’t want a doctor, Flan and Ouisa end up patching him up themselves, and when Paul is better, and realizes he was interrupting (Flan, Ouisa and Geoffrey were going to go out to dinner), insists on cooking them dinner. During the evening, he charms them not only by his graciousness and manners, but also by telling them about his thesis (on why The Catcher in the Rye seemed to be a template for people like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.), what he knew about their children, and of course, the fact he was the son of Sidney Poitier (whom, he claimed, was directing a live-action version of Cats, and by the way, would they like to appear as extras in it?). Everything goes well – especially since Geoffrey agrees to buy the Cezanne before he leaves; Flan is so exultant, he ends up giving Paul $50 – until the next morning, when Ouisa goes to wake Paul up, and discovers him in bed with another man. Flan ends up chasing both of them out, and while he and Ouisa are both relieved to find nothing’s been stolen, they’re still shaken.
Some time later, Flan and Ouisa meet their friends Larkin (Bruce Davison) and Kitty (Mary Beth Hurt), and discovered they too met Paul (though in their version, Paul “chased a burglar” away, and they mostly left him to himself). They eventually go to a police detective (Daniel Von Bargen), though he points out there’s really no crime. They also meet Dr. Fine (Richard Masur), an obstetrician, who treated Paul when he came to his office, wounded, and even let Paul have the keys to his apartment, until he called his son and his son had no idea who Paul was, after which Dr. Fine kicked Paul out. Eventually, they discover Poitier has no son, and they all convince their reluctant teenage children (Tess (Catherine Kellner) and Woody (Osgood Perkins) – Flan and Ouisa’s children – Ben (Anthony Rapp, the only actor other than Channing to reprise their role from the play in the film*), Kitty and Larkin’s son, and Doug (J.J. Abrams – yes, that J.J. Abrams), Dr. Fine’s son) to try and figure out how Paul knows so much about them. The four teens eventually find Trent Conway (Anthony Michael Hall), a former classmate of theirs in boarding school who’s now at MIT, and he admits he found Paul in the street one night, picked him up, and told Paul whatever he wanted to know about the people in his address book (which Paul later stole, along with some other things), simply so he could be close to him. And then the story takes a darker turn with the introduction of Elizabeth (Heather Graham) and Rick (Eric Thal), two struggling actors who met Paul in Central Park, where he was passing himself off as Flan and Ouisa’s illegitimate son.
Ouisa gives the major speech of both the play and the movie – it also gives both play and the movie its title – after she finds out how Paul managed to find them and know so much about them:
I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.
In the play, Ouisa delivers that speech to the audience, as a soliloquy. In the movie, however, Ouisa says it to Tess, as they’re gathered together in Tess’ bedroom, and this is but the simplest example of how Schepisi and Guare have opened up the play while staying true to the material. The play is presented as a story the characters are telling us in between all of the action. The movie, on the other hand, has the characters telling their stories to others. Each part of the story Flan and Ouisa are telling, except for when they’re being interviewed by the detective, is told to people they meet up with at various events in their lives – at a wedding, at a gallery opening, at a christening after-party – so we not only get a sense of the lives Flan and Ouisa live (as well as why Paul wants to interact with their lives so much), we also see this really is an anecdote told over and over again (Flan and Ouisa will sometimes beg off, or pretend to, only for someone to demand to know what’s happened). This helps lend the other major speech of the story – when Ouisa yells at Flan about how they’ve, in essence, reduced Paul’s life to just another funny story – real force. In his introduction to the play, Guare mentions how Tony Walton (the production/set designer of the play; Patrizia Von Brandenstein (production) and Gretchen Rau (set) handled those duties for the movie) encased the back wall (made of black scrim) into a picture frame, so when the actors first appeared, it made them seem like they were floating almost. Schepisi and Ian Baker, his usual cinematographer (they’ve worked together on all of Schepisi’s features except for Last Orders), capture that feeling by, as per usual, keeping the camera moving, which makes the flashbacks and transitions seem more fluid. Finally, Guare mentions the Kandinsky painting Flan keeps in his apartment (painted different ways on each side; one side representing chaos, the other control) was a big part of the set design of the play, and while Schepisi doesn’t go that far (the replicated Kandinsky is just another object in the apartment, though Flan spins it around to demonstrate to Paul, who’s very impressed), he incorporates art, and its importance to the characters, visually. This isn’t just in the scene where Flan and Ouisa go to the Sistine Chapel (and Ouisa gets to high-five the ceiling while it’s being renovated)**, but also in scenes like when Flan is describing his dream about painting, and Ouisa’s dreams about Paul, where he seems more like an object in a panting than a person.
The film isn’t without its flaws. While every single character in the story is a caricature of some sort, the children come off the worst; with one exception, they’re all written one-note, and the actors playing them all play just the one note (whatever you think of Abrams as a TV showrunner` or movie director, he is clearly not an actor, while Rapp may fall into the category of stage actors who don’t work on film, except for his work in Dazed and Confused). Only Tess is written with any kind of dimension, and Kellner responds in kind; unlike the other actors, she modulates her anger so it seems genuine rather than merely boorish, and in both the scene where Tess interviews Trent, and the scene after, when she’s told her mother, she acts as if she’s really paying attention to the other person.“ More damaging than the one-note younger characters, however, is the soft-pedaling of Paul’s character. When Trent is telling the story of how he met Paul, we see Paul stripping for Trent every time Trent told him something about people in his address book, and when Trent asks Paul to take his shirt off, Paul instead kisses him on the lips and says Trent will get more next time. Smith refused to do this, apparently on the advice of Denzel Washington, who told him kissing another man on-screen would ruin his career (it’s faked through shots of the back of their heads). To Smith’s credit, he later admitted this was immature of him, but it still rankles (also, Hall camps it up a little too much). Finally, while the movie sticks very closely to the play (all of Guare’s dialogue from the play is in the movie, except for a couple of descriptive passages that Schepisi and Baker are able to show instead, such as Paul and Rick at the Rainbow Room and riding in a carriage in Central Park), including the ending, Schepisi does allow for a more hopeful note at the end that is meant to be triumphant, but as filmed, comes across as a little sitcom-ish.
But those are minor flaws compared to how well the movie is able to capture the play’s seamless ability to go from the comic to the tragic without seeming heavy-handed. In her rave review of Atlantic City, which Louis Malle directed from Guare’s original screenplay, Pauline Kael wrote:
“In a Guare play, the structure isn’t articulated. There’s nothing to hold the bright pieces together but his never and his instincts; when they’re in high gear, the play has the excitement of discovery…When I see a Guare play, I almost always feel astonished; I never know where he’s going until he gets there. Then everything ties together. He seems to have an intuitive game plan.”
Six Degrees of Separation is the only one of Guare’s plays I’ve read, and that, Atlantic City and a segment of the made-for-HBO movie Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground (entitled “The Red Shoes”, it starred Christine Lahti as a woman who got upset when a wheelchair-bound vet (Denis Leary) ran over her red shoes) are the only works of his I’ve seen on film (I’ve also never seen any of his plays performed), but from this movie, you get a good idea of what Kael was writing about. The dialogue doesn’t sound stagy at all, even when it’s speeches (such as Paul summing up his thesis, or when Paul, in Ouisa’s dream, explains the rationale for making a live-action movie of Cats). And the intuitiveness shows up in how the film handles the darker turn, when Paul is indirectly responsible for what happens to a character late in the film. Guare doesn’t make light of what happened, obviously, but he also doesn’t make the mistake of flattening the material, either. You can see that in the climax of both the play and the movie, where Ouisa is on the phone with Tess and joking about the phrase “cruelty-free cosmetics” one minute (Tess thinks her mother is endorsing cosmetics companies testing their products on animals, and Ouisa has to explain it’s not the sentiment she finds funny, it’s the phrase), until Paul calls, and Ouisa tries to convince him to turn himself in to the police (Paul, in turn, says he’ll do it only if she comes along with him). The implicit point of the story is Ouisa realizing all Paul wants is what they have, and to be included in that lifestyle, and it also leads to her wondering if maybe that lifestyle, at least for her, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Yet Guare is never heavy-handed about making that point, and Schepisi honors that approach as well.
Of course, they also have the help of the rest of the cast. While Channing has not only been renowned for her stage work (she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the original stage production), as well as her TV work (her best-known work in that department is probably as Abigail Bartlet, the First Lady, on The West Wing), but hasn’t had a big film career (her best known role, over 35 years later, remains Rizzo in Grease; before Six Degrees, she had also appeared in Without a Trace (the 1983 film that loosely inspired a TV series nearly 20 years later) and Heartburn, among a few others). Of course, stage performers don’t always translate well to film, and revisiting a role you’ve already done many times has its own pitfalls, but Channing avoids them. She plays sophistication well, which makes her the perfect fit for an upper East Side New Yorker, but she also gets Ouisa’s hidden depths – the intelligence, sadness, and anger – especially in that final conversation with Paul. Sutherland, as usual, underplays very well as Flan, and you fully believe his passion for art, yet also his shortsightedness when it comes to Paul. And Davison (who recently worked with Schepisi again in Words and Pictures), Hurt, McKellen, Masur and Graham (who really should have had a bigger career) all do well in smaller roles. Which leads me to Smith. In recent years, Smith has come under fire from many in the media, especially the blogosphere, for his nepotism (the implication he’s trying to buy a movie career for his son), his belief in Scientology, the heavy-handedness of his more recent films (particularly Another Earth, his post-apocalyptic film), and especially how he seems averse to stepping outside his image (whatever you thought of Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/slavery film Django Unchained, taking on the title character would have been the type of risky move Smith has avoided). I can understand, and even agree with, many of those charges, yet I still think Smith is capable of being an engaging performer. It’s also easy to forget how this film was Smith taking a chance; at the time, he was still best known not only for his rapping, but also for the “Fresh Prince” persona he had maintained on his NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I first saw the movie, I thought Smith was being a little too careful in his performance as Paul, only to realize that was perfect for the character. He didn’t rely on any of the mannerisms from the show (which I was never a fan of) or his goofy persona, but won you over with his charm, yet, except for the instance I mentioned above, doesn’t shy away from his dark side either (the only time he gets angry is when Ouisa calls him stupid). It’s because of his performance that Paul resonates more than just as an anecdote, and it’s because of him, the rest of the major cast, Guare, Schepisi, and the crew that Six Degrees of Separation stands not only as a very good film, but as a very good adaptation.
*-Kelly Bishop (who played Kitty in the original stage production, and also took over as Ouisa at one point), John Cunningham (Flan) and Sam Stoneburner (Geoffrey) all have cameos in the film.
**-Obviously, this wasn’t the real Sistine Chapel (even if the production could afford to go to Italy, they couldn’t get permission to shoot there), but a replica built for the movie. The shot of the Sistine Chapel showed another example of the idiocy of the MPAA, as they demanded the portrait of naked Adam on the ceiling be airbrushed out of the film’s trailer.
`-Abrams would later create a show called Six Degrees, which isn’t based on the film per se, but on the idea of characters connected to each other in ways they (and, supposedly, we) wouldn’t expect.
“-Kellner also gets one of the best lines of the film (which was also in the play), where she mocks her mother’s willingness to appear in a movie version of Cats: “I thought you hated Cats (italics mine). You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre going. You said, ‘Aeschylus did not invent the theatre to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven’.”