Thursday, November 15, 2018
Maybe it only feels like John Frankenheimer’s RONIN is just about a car chase. That’s what everyone seems to remember about it, after all. It’s actually several chases, just to be more specific, but however many there are it’s the sort of pure action filmmaking you don’t get much anymore, not with this kind of sheer weight, bravado and excellence. But this can’t be the only thing the film is about. It’s now twenty years since I saw RONIN on opening night way back in September ’98 and once I stop thinking about how much time has gone by I still have to deal with what the film really is, beyond the coolness and speeding cars heading directly at the oncoming traffic. I loved the film then not just for the phenomenal action but also the unexpected, no-nonsense energy it provided which was refreshing at the time when it felt like things were always trying to get more heightened up. Instead this was a cool, adult action film with a brisk intelligence that played as strong, confident and totally assured. That stands out even more now, making the rush it provides returning to it all these years later still refreshingly potent.
At the time it felt like something of a comeback for Frankenheimer after the notorious wipeout of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU two years earlier in addition to the various lower profile cable films he directed for much of that decade (some of which, for the record, are pretty damn good) but now it seems like a true last hurrah, which I guess it was. We just didn’t know it then. It’s occurred to me before that when the director died just a few years later in 2002 it was mere weeks after the opening of THE BOURNE IDENTITY, a film that in retrospect seemed to shift the European spy thriller genre into the future. Suddenly, John Frankenheimer was the past. I never like thinking that. But even now RONIN is not a relic but a stripped down, spectacularly assured piece of work, a film that is in many ways ice cold but the feelings are there, they’re just buried way deep down where they have to be. It’s a film I still can’t help but love, for everything it represents cinematically both then and now.
Meeting late one night at a Paris bistro, Sam (Robert De Niro) is one of a team of mercenaries and thieves each with their own skills that include Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and Spence (Sean Bean). They’ve been assembled by a mysterious woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve a metallic suitcase, contents unknown. After a series of events tracking and working out the plan during which Sam and Deidre connect, the case is ultimately retrieved but after a double cross which splits the team into separate factions that also involves Deirdre’s handler Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), Sam must join forces with Vincent, the only one of them that he feels he can trust, to figure out why they were betrayed and how the case can be retrieved once again.
Part of me simply wants to say RONIN is awesome and leave it at that. I may as well admit this is the sort of film that holds a place in my head where I can never be too critical of it for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Maybe I just respond to the specific tone, one that gives me a pure rush of cinematic adrenaline in the way it strips the heist movie plotting with a side of espionage down to its essentials, putting all the characterizations into the glances between the people, the allegiance shifts found entirely in the camera moves as it glides along ominously to the next person waiting to strike. In the end it plays as nothing less than an abstract view of the world as seen by its director, a glimpse at what happens when people who are meant to be shadows get thrown together as well as a chance to make the sort of film he was best at while leaving out anything and everything that didn’t need to be there. The ultra-spare plot (story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz; Weisz is actually a pseudonymous David Mamet) is almost staggeringly simple on a surface level yet it still deals with the unavoidable human factor of it all, giving us as little exposition as possible since those details are in the looks, all in the necessity of retrieving that case and anything else is found in between the words. That dialogue is forever enigmatic yet still playful in its murkiness with references to things like a prominently mentioned ‘man in the wheelchair’ who we never meet and people who choose not to admit to the past they share unless forced. Just like the characters, it’s a film that knows you should never reveal too much of yourself by giving any secrets away.
Some of the motivations are a little murky at times and certain plot beats feel either extraneous or confusing but the film is always focused on how the various story points are revealed as much as anything, the way we carefully follow around De Niro’s Sam as he approaches the tiny bistro during the film’s first few minutes, scoping out the area in case he needs to get away. Every shot has something in it and Frankenheimer always knows how to place people in relation to each other, even if it’s sometimes for pure effect, but he loves getting them to share the frame so when he moves in for the close-up, truly isolating the character, it means something. What gets learned during a photo taking charade isn’t as important as the process of it happening and the film is more interested in the improvisation of those beats to get the job done, never cutting to something that it’s decided we don’t need to know. “What’s in the case?” De Niro keeps asking, as if the answer is ever going to matter.
The exterior world of RONIN is a grey, overcast winter in the South of France filled with tourists seemingly everywhere looking to hear about the history around them and it’s all but ignored by the insular reality that the film’s characters share, one where after talking to a person for five seconds, you know all you need to know. There’s a little Jean-Pierre Melville here only much more propulsive and the sparseness might all be a byproduct of the Mamet dialogue anyway, stripping down the necessary information to its essentials while keeping the frame always active, no time for anyone to think too long about what they have to do next. The instant rapport Sam and Vincent develop through a Howard Hawks-style method of sharing cigarettes feels very much like Frankenheimer’s own take on such relationships in understanding how little needs to be said. It’s the best way to tell if somebody is good enough, the way one character set up as a major player in the plot is essentially dismissed from the movie after an unsuccessful test run.
To a certain extent all this feels a little like it’s about the nature of filmmaking itself, with a group of people thrown together to pull off a crazy assignment within a specific timeframe, arguing over what has to get done with all that coffee drinking and waiting around late at night, developing into relationships that are transitory at best. Even the fleeting romance feels like an on set liaison, one where very little is ever said about those inevitable feelings and the possible willingness to walk away from it all that you know deep down will never be acted on. However much the characters talk about needing the money and the honor involved even when there’s a paycheck it feels like the rush of the job is too much to ever leave behind as long as they’re alive. All this goes together with a plot that hangs like smoke in the air, the editing by Tony Gibbs creating a metronome pace always adding to the pure concentration that needs to be maintained and a score by Elia Cmiral which is perfectly attuned to its rhythms, providing the essence of the whatever soul the film is allowed to have. Frankenheimer focuses on the little things, the metallic cups they drink coffee out of, the assassin keeping an ice skating target in its sight during her routine, the dogs guarding Michael Lonsdale’s compound. The incidentals give everything a certain gravity, however stylized it is, along with a shrewd sense of wit that hangs somewhere on the outskirts of every scene, slyly keeping tabs on everything left unspoken.
And those car chases remain truly spectacular and expertly done in their simplicity—they’re ‘just’ car chases, no added elements like the subway of THE FRENCH CONNECTION—as if the director of the legendary GRAND PRIX had been saving up all these ideas for years, waiting for just the right chance to combine the spectacular stunts and energy so he could show the world he still knew how to do this with no CGI or any of that. Frankenheimer gives the whole thing a true pulse that makes us feel like we’re not just watching these chases, we’re locked in the cars with them through every pulse-pounding beat so it all plays with total precision and clarity. It always knows to focus on the details we need to pay attention to, even while cutting to a close-up of some fish in a marketplace right before the oncoming mayhem (there’s a recurring use of fish in some of his films that I wish the director was still around to explain). The story moves to Paris for the second chase late in the film which is especially spectacular going from speeding down those tiny streets to eventually on the wrong way down the motorways with even these cool characters revealing on their faces just how stressed out they’re getting from every near miss and each time it happens feels a little more surprising. To compare it to something like the car chase in William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which is all about the nightmarish fury of the moment, Frankenheimer goes for more of a studied exhilaration and even a businesslike approach to how furiously paced it all is with the total focus they’re forced into through every single moment upping the intensity to the absolute breaking point. It’s phenomenal action filmmaking.
Those chases as well as the expertly choreographed shootouts contain a surprisingly heavy body count of extras which might cause the film to play even more shocking now than it did then but it adds to the overall feel of a film that clearly doesn’t give a damn about respectability but instead acts as a reminder that this is a cold, blunt world that you can’t walk away from, just as De Niro insists on “no booze” to help with the pain as he helps perform makeshift surgery on himself after being shot. Michael Lonsdale plays the sort of retired mercenary hiding away from the world that you find in these movies, who patiently describes how the miniature figurines he paints represent the 47 Ronin and how people like them are the modern day equivalents, each in some ways waiting for the day when they’ll meet the end they know is coming. De Niro’s Sam doesn’t seem totally convinced by all this introspection and rationalization which itself makes sense since this feels like a film willing to discard what it’s actually about as being too wordy. But in its determination to undercut such a solemn theory the film creates its own honor, its own myth, which is maybe all it really needs.
John Frankenheimer was never a director to shy away from world affairs in his films but if there’s any geopolitical angle at all in the Irish and Russians battling it out for the case it’s dismissed by some radio reports meant to clarify the plot that basically paint them as rogues. Even a few vague hints from the plotting indicate that De Niro’s past CIA connections will insure the case won’t fall into the wrong hands so everything’s going to be ok. Do we really believe that twenty years later? I’m not sure. But this is a film about the for-hire individuals caught in the middle of all that, people without true allegiances who it feels like are the ones Frankenheimer truly understands and the McGuffin of the metal case everyone is after barely matters even as a McGuffin by a certain point. Just the people do, even if it is for revenge or just some basic human connection. Even Katarina Witt playing not herself but the head Russian’s famous ice skater girlfriend, just about the only carefree person in this universe, is potential collateral damage, nothing more. With the exception of a smiling little girl Stellan Skarsgard’s emotionless Gregor aims his gun at in one scene for no reason other than he can, it’s possible there’s not a death in RONIN that anyone would get upset over even when it’s one of the good guys, let alone all those extras caught in the crossfire. It barely feels like the film even has villains; just adversaries.
To Frankenheimer this is a brutal world, which he’s right about, and all you can do is brush it off, face forward. It’s not that he doesn’t value life, he just knows it’s all so random and like Frank Sinatra racing through Madison Square Garden to get to Laurence Harvey on time at the end of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE there’s no stopping it. There’s only so much you can ever do, so much you can ever know. Seeing RONIN back then it occurred to me how the ice skating show climax almost plays like a condensed version of Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES, which had opened the month before, only this film gets to the point of loyalty, betrayal and judgement in just a few brisk scenes and the only other thing that matters is what you’re choosing to give up in order to achieve those goals. The old school vibe of the film plays as total professionalism now just as De Niro’s ex-CIA man insists on. There are films you need more from. I don’t need more from RONIN. It’s a film that is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Everything about Robert De Niro here is razor sharp, right before ANALYZE THIS began to soften him and he still lays out the patter in classic style while playing every action scenes with the sort of total precision it feels like his character insists on. He bounces off his co-stars in a ways that brings a certain rough pleasure to their interchanges, particularly with Natasha McElhone who brings a strength to her mysterious character that never wavers, holding her gaze against the next person asking a question that she refuses to answer. The strong male supporting cast oddly includes several actors who previously played James Bond villains, as well as a few who might just as well have. Jean Reno’s sly humor gives the film what little heart it’s allowed, Stellan Skarsgard is particularly good in the way he gives total inner life to his weariness with slim dialogue that never reveals any of it, Sean Bean’s annoying cockiness that folds in record time as well as the smarmy arrogance displayed by Jonathan Pryce, sharing the screen with De Niro again over a decade after BRAZIL. As the mysterious Jean-Pierre who Vincent brings to wounded Sam to for help, Michael Lonsdale puts so much gravity into every pause and glance, even when asking about a simple plot point, as if he’s waiting for some cosmic shoe to drop and put all doubts to rest before he’s able to wipe whatever horrible things he’s done long ago from his mind.
Of course, you could ask what any film is really about deep down. RONIN is a harsh glass of whiskey downed fast but even if it is merely about a car chase you could still read so much into all those pauses and glances at relationships that will never be completed to find a way to understand the world. Frankenheimer’s 2000 follow-up REINDEER GAMES was his next and last theatrical film (it has its moments, let’s put it that way) followed by the excellent 2002 LBJ biopic PATH TO WAR for HBO. He was set to direct the EXORCIST prequel with Liam Neeson starring after this but dropped out for health reasons then on July 6 of that year following spinal surgery he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 72. What he was as a filmmaker, what he did, what he represented, has never been replaced. More than just a car chase, RONIN is about questions that don’t get answered because that’s not what life is about, whether asking what’s in the case or what’s inside a person and what are they keeping from you. Do we ever know? And does it even matter? Maybe sometimes while trying to figure that out you find yourself in the middle of that car chase going the wrong way because there’s no other choice. And if I revisit RONIN after another twenty years of trying to figure out certain people and viewing certain John Frankenheimer films several dozen more times each, I suspect that feeling will only get stronger. Whatever the answer is, admit it to yourself and no one else ever needs to know. Do what you can with that truth. Accept it and move on. Everything is temporary.
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
There’s a certain kind of dread missing from too many horror films these days, the sort involving characters that you know have reached the end of the line. You don’t get that with movies involving teenagers or twentysomethings where it’s all just sensation so there’s no vibe of regret there, not the kind you get in films where what happens is almost the last, final chapter in a long decline of regret. So much of what’s left is simply noise. Weirdly, that’s what I found myself thinking about as I revisited Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a film which faces that regret and the ways it can be denied until it’s too late. It’s a small film, just as other productions from Hammer were becoming during this late period, and it’s the last in the Frankenstein cycle made by the studio as well as the final time Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein. The end of the modern Prometheus. There’s no fire left.
Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is a young doctor determined to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) whose experiments he faithfully studies and attempts to replicate. When Simon is arrested for the crime of bodysnatching and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane he is quickly thrilled and pleased to encounter Baron Frankenstein himself, now secretly working there under the identity of Dr. Karl Victor since the Baron is, as far as the outside world is concerned, officially dead. Once Frankenstein realizes that this young doctor can be trusted, he takes Simon under his wing but it doesn’t take the protégé long to discover what the baron is really doing in his laboratory where, along with mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), is in the middle of a plan to take body parts of various inmates and bring life to a creature (David Prowse) which will justify his attempts to truly create man as he has been attempting to do for so many years.
FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is a fairly morose viewing experience and yet it’s hard not to enjoy a movie where someone spills a jarful of eyeballs during the first ten minutes. The film even makes a plot point of them later on with Peter Cushing pausing to examine one using a giant magnifying glass along with extensive shots of brains being removed, stored and transplanted, none of which appear very convincing although I’d someday like to discuss the medical accuracy of all this with my neurosurgeon brother-in-law. It’s a mostly sedate film punctuated by these bits of grossness with the occasional blood splatter to underline the point. And as glum as it all is it’s hard to ignore how much the movie finds the dark humor in where the baron has wound up and his own perverse fondness for what he’s still attempting to accomplish after all this time.
Released in the States in 1974 on a double bill with CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER which is how the New York Times reviewed them (“Both are Foolish But Respectable Fun” declared the headline), it was the final film directed by Terence Fisher who helmed some of the most legendary Hammer titles including all of the Frankenstein entries featuring Cushing but one and he brings to it a quiet gravity which makes the story compelling throughout with his careful approach that means every shot has a specific purpose, every moment feels gently laid out as it takes its time telling the slim story. You could call the film compact or maybe just threadbare due to the obviously low budget and unlike the tropes we normally expect from Hammer films, here there are no autumnal forests or frightened villagers, not much of anything outside of the basic story for that matter. Once we enter the asylum (never mind what country this is supposed to be set in) represented in model shots which, apologies, always make me think of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, that’s where the film stays, never to leave, next to no disturbances from the outside world which is how the main character who chooses to learn under the tutelage of Frankenstein wants it, believing that’s the only place where the true wisdom he’s looking for can be found.
With a screenplay by John Elder (the pen name of Anthony Hinds, which he used for numerous Hammer productions) the film mostly stays with the three leads, four if you count the creature, for long stretches with very few supporting characters to get in the way; the orderlies don’t do much snooping around to disturb things, other patients only appear briefly or as needed and the asylum’s director, though given a big introduction, isn’t as crucial to the plot as it seems like he will be at first even when certain revelations are brought to light. Compared with certain other Hammer films where years later all you remember is the sheer power of its color scheme and one or two moments of, say, a sudden Christopher Lee appearance, aside from those brains and blood this is a fairly muted film with DP Brian Probyn, who also shot THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA for the studio as well as films like DOWNHILL RACER and part of BADLANDS, providing depth and layers to these few sets which gets me to forget how threadbare they probably were with the 70s look giving every scene an immediacy, unlike the fairy tale quality that used to be common in Hammer films. Even the powerfully lyrical nature normally found in James Bernard’s scores is mostly not found here with the music providing little more than atmosphere for the most part (although his notorious method of working the titles of movies into his themes appears to be in use here with the way the end title seems to pound out “Monster-From-Hell” repeatedly). Everything about it is intent on staying away from the world and living in its own state of quiet.
The film came roughly five years after Fisher’s great FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED with the non-Cushing offshoot HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN coming in between and everything about the character (as well as Peter Cushing) here seems older, slower, no longer that vicious bastard he developed into but someone with no understanding of how pathetic he’s become, only able to get the young doctor under his spell due to what he once was. These films never paid much attention to the continuing storyline from one film to the next although the burned hands of ‘Dr. Victor’ seem to be the result of the fiery DESTROYED climax and here, working with his two helpers, he seems to have no inner strength left, persisting on his mad quest because there’s nothing else in him. To be honest, a few of the middle entries in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle have always played a little dull for me but while MONSTER FROM HELL is a spare film it’s never dry, as if the limited scope and budget gave a focus to the direction and what the story is ultimately about. Fisher makes the blocking always about the character’s relationships to each other and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that this script could easily be performed on stage with only a few modifications (there’s a daydream I’m going to fixate on for the rest of the day). It doesn’t have the crass energy of something like DRACULA A.D. 1972 which had the studio desperately trying to fit into the early part of that decade but compared to other Hammers of the period which try to alter the basic formula too much this one feels like a film stripping itself down to the essentials giving it a different kind of energy, the real monsters truly shut off from the rest of the world and the creature who is unlucky to be their creation finding no one to care enough about what they’ve done to him.
Unlike other Hammer productions which increasingly tried to toss sex into the mix during this period, this one oddly has almost none with Shane Briant’s vaguely androgynous nature indicating that he doesn’t give much thought to the idea at all. And Madeline Smith’s mute Sarah is clearly a total innocent, dubbed ‘Angel’ by some, even if her unfortunate backstory as well as Frankenstein’s plan for her “real function as a woman” is consistent with other sleazy elements the studio would place into films during this period whether they made sense or not and, with the scripting not exactly always intricate, ultimately serves little purpose at all. It’s also a very small cast, slightly disappointing considering how much enjoyment in these films can come from the supporting characters and the few patients we meet that the doctor is keeping a close eye on are intellectuals and artists whose lives have led them to this end and what little we see of the outside world is mostly made up of authority figures and the grave digger who retrieves the bodies for Simon, terrified but still mainly interested in money for his next drink. Cushing, wearing one hell of a wig, commands these unfortunates with his gaunt, sunken cheekbones looking like a beacon of death over all this, helping us see how he can take over this place from the weaklings supposedly in charge. Even if he does seem visibly older than the last time he played the character, Cushing’s physicality becomes so much of the performance with even his pauses given all the weight in the world and one scene where he leaps onto the monster in an attempt to subdue him is still surprising as if the film is suddenly given a jolt of adrenaline we didn’t know it was even capable of.
The creature is made up of body, hands and the brain from those various asylum patients and the design worn by David Prowse appears to be more of an ape suit than full makeup job. It’s sort of part humanoid, part monster, at times looking just absurd and cheesy but also strangely compelling so when the monster wakes up and realizes what he is, the effect of his reaction is mostly just sad with of course only ‘Angel’ displaying any sympathy for him at all. So he’s not exactly a monster from hell although admittedly FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER UNDERGOING A SEVERE DEPRESSION wouldn’t look very good on a marquee. But the way Fisher allows those scenes to play, even giving us extended close-ups of him, allowing us a chance to ponder the creature when he’s strapped in upright as a surgery takes place, unconscious, slowly breathing, waiting for his new brain. When he finally attacks near the end it’s mostly lumbering confusion in search for the truth of what he was, using giant shards of broken glass to attack his victims, a remnant from the brute’s former life. The US cut is apparently missing some gore which is visible in other countries and at least one bloody close-up on the Paramount DVD feels cut short but there’s still plenty to see anyway in those surgery scenes along with lots of talk about the body taking over the brain, in some ways just doubletalk in the script but also a reminder of how there really is nothing being accomplished in this creation of a monster who, despite the title, isn’t actually from hell but has merely been born into it.
The arrogance displayed by Shane Briant’s Simon is of course a sign that he’s taking after what was once the behavior of Dr. Frankenstein but here that character is played as more callously uninterested in others than the flat out cruelty he displayed at his worst with the younger doctor soon realizing that the hero he venerated isn’t really much of anything; unable to perform surgery, no appreciation for the arts, lack of manners and even laughing at bad jokes with the increasing monstrosity of his actions that he blithely waves off. Frankenstein is determined that this new creature will at last make all his sacrifices worth it, never realizing that no one else cares and it’s a film with the light going out, containing a sadness for humanity and all the wasted dreams that you are sometimes left with. It even offers what feels like an ending, unlike all those other Hammer films which seem to abruptly conclude without so much as an obligatory wrap up scene and maybe this one also seemed abrupt and unrewarding when I first saw the film long ago but now it makes perfect sense. Sometimes in life you find yourself in the place you always dreamed of but then you realize too late that it’s nothing more than a prison. And that’s all it is.
Peter Cushing brings all the gravity imaginable to the role with his clipped speech and grave intonations, everything about his manner making it a true fusion of performance and film. His older nature here is invaluable with the simple reading of the line “I never shall” as his voice cracks when insisting he won’t give up is infused with more genuine emotion than the actor ever seemed to allow in his characters. There might be bad lines in the script, but never the way Cushing delivers them even when standing there talking to the monster as if it’s all perfectly normal. Shane Briant has a certain stiffness to his acting style but one that also makes clear how unafraid he is with a quietly defiant gaze, showing how ready he is to help Frankenstein in his goal. Madeline Smith of Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and also LIVE AND LET DIE plays much of her largely mute role as blankly staring innocence, kind of a living prop but the enigmatic quality works and she’s always present in the moment no matter what. A few years before he played Darth Vader alongside Cushing in STAR WARS, David Prowse brings a slovenly humanity to all that lumbering as the creature and in some odd way that mask combined with the blank expression coming from his eyes is perfect to make us wonder what he’s thinking or if he’s thinking anything at all. Among the few smaller roles Patrick Troughton, familiar as the priest in THE OMEN plays the gravedigger and brings a grubby humanity to just a few scenes while Bernard Lee, “M” in the James Bond films, briefly appears as one of the asylum patients having basically no dialogue but manages to communicate all the regret and loneliness in the world in just a moment or two.
For me, Hammer Films have always come from the past, they’ve always seemed inherently nostalgic. That’s my own perception, of course. They were older, I sought them out, I loved them for a while, but then moved on except for the occasional return particularly during the Halloween season where their autumnal nature fits the mood perfectly. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL isn’t just a final chapter of this saga, it’s an epilogue, both in the story of this character and possibly to Hammer as well, even if the studio still had a few titles like TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER to go at this point. By itself, it’s a worn down star vehicle for Peter Cushing with enough oddball touches to set it apart. But in the greater context of the people who made it and the genre which surrounds it the film is about reaching a dead end which gives it a certain power. You can waste your life, which might be the greatest horror of all. And then where will you be.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Once it seemed like I was on a straight path but that feeling went away long ago. Too much has gotten screwed up, there have been too many detours. Right now it feels like I got off at an exit because of construction and can’t find the way back on. That’s when the drifting happens, I guess, hoping that some new sign will go up to lead you back on the main road. Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW is about that drifting, about refusing to face the reality of what’s right in front of you, because all you want to do is move on to the next thing. Released in 1973, the film teamed up Gene Hackman and Al Pacino during their first rush of superstardom and it’s one of the most 70s films imaginable; rough and scrappy, boozy and smoky, in some ways half formed but with moments that are so rich you can feel yourself right there in the scene. Sharing the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, it’s still maybe not quite top tier since, after all, some of the other films featuring these guys from the period include the likes of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE GODFATHER but it’s an indelible character piece and tough to shake. Now available on a gorgeous looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive it deserves to be looked at as a key part of that decade and the legacies of those involved.
Ex-convict Max (Gene Hackman) and ex-sailor Francis (Al Pacino) meet by chance on a country road in the middle of nowhere and the two drifters quickly strike up a friendship with Francis, quickly dubbed “Lion” by his new companion, tagging along to go to Pittsburgh where Max says he has money waiting for him to open a car wash business. Lion, meanwhile, is on his way to Detroit so he can hopefully reconcile with the wife he left behind and finally see the child he’s never met but Max also talks him into partnering up on his car wash once they get all this taken care of. On the way they stop in Denver where they meet Max’s sister Coley (Dorothy Tristan) and her best friend Darlene (Ann Wedgeworth) both of whom would like it if the two men stuck around for a while but even though Max is insistent on reaching his destination it’s still not going to be easy for them to get there.
There are things you remember about SCARECROW. That deserted country road of the opening scene as the credits quietly flash by, the two of them sizing each other up, waiting to see who’s going to get a car to stop first and it’s almost as if they can’t keep going until they finally team up here. They become friends simply because one gives the other a light, Francis wearing down Max’s wall of distrust in the process and there’s no other reason, it just happens, almost as if they both somehow know they need each other out there. Francis, nicknamed Lion by Max who doesn’t want to keep saying his real name, offers up his theory about how crows are actually laughing at the scarecrows used to keep them away so he does the same in life, getting people to laugh along with him, and it’s a theory Max rejects without even realizing that’s exactly what already happened between the two of them. But he refuses to admit anything, sticking to his notes and his plan of getting to Pittsburgh, never seeing the obvious let alone that the term Scarecrow is eventually going to apply to him whether he likes it or not. Director Jerry Schatzberg’s previous films were PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD and PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (that one also with Pacino), both of which almost feel as if they’re about the magazine layout depictions of their misery as much as anything else but SCARECROW digs into the personalities of the two leads and, with Panavision cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, is a widescreen look at their journey via freight trains and thumbed rides, just trying to keep moving without getting weighed down. It’s not about the beauty that they encounter out there in the middle of the country but the sprawl, about how long it really takes to get from one point to another and how far apart people can become even when they’re close by. Zsigmond gets the foreboding beauty of the landscape, the feel of why you’d want to stay out there but also why you shouldn’t, closely observing the camaraderie as the two of them stay near each other in the frame when they walk down those endless train tracks, that breakfast scene where they get to know each other with the bond quickly growing as their food comes. Max insists that he doesn’t trust anyone at the precise moment he lets this guy in, never realizing how much he’s going against his own creed.
Written by Garry Michael White, SCARECROW has a rambling vibe, jumping over key moments whether their first real conversation or talk of finding a job that immediately cuts to them being thrown out of the place. Though it obviously plays as something from the post-MIDNIGHT COWBOY period in what we generally think of as the aimless road movies of the early 70s, not to mention any OF MICE AND MEN thoughts, the whole Lion and Scarecrow thing makes me look at it as a sort of inverted WIZARD OF OZ, maybe with that lamp Lion carries around for the child he’s never met serving as the tin man’s heart and every woman they encounter versions of Dorothy who have already found their home with no need to wander anymore. In this case it’s the guys who don’t know where they’re supposed to settle down in anything they can call a home. Dialogue indicates Max’s sensible sister Coley, now making a living as a junk dealer, has already done a good amount of drifting with him and I wonder about that backstory which is only hinted at but she’s clearly had enough of it all while Max is still out there, looking for what was and what he thinks will be ahead of him, getting into fights that he’ll claim he didn’t start at the first opportunity. He’s focused solely on his goal of starting a car wash in Pittsburgh and every cent he’s put into the plan all itemized out but it still sounds vague as if his supposed determination is going to solve everything, no plan for what might go wrong. He answers, “Home cooking” when asked what he missed the most while in prison but it doesn’t seem like he’s ever had a home at all, never really knowing what he didn’t have.
Pacino’s Francis ran away from the responsibility of adulthood to join the navy, a backstory that sounds a little like Freddie Quell in THE MASTER, and much as he wants to make things right he’s still just that scared kid. All he seems to remember of his service is what dawn looked like from a ship and all he thinks of when he meets someone new is how to get them to laugh. If Max is about to get into a fight, he’s the one who knows how to stop it by making a joke. One thing the two guys definitely have in common is how they’ve both been sending their money somewhere as if in preparation for the future they hope for as if that excuses their present. Each of them thinks things are always going to be the same, no matter how long they’ve been gone and Lion insists that he’s headed for something big as if he’s just going to stumble into his destiny. There’s a vague feeling that they’re both romanticizing their situation a little too much, creating these myths in their heads but they’ve just left wreckage and pain, something they refuse to ever face up to.
Set in an America of working class bars that open early, it’s a product of the early 70s with long takes, scenes that are never in a rush and bluesy riffs on the soundtrack by Fred Myrow who did something similar for the opening of SOYLENT GREEN the same year but it’s not quite about the period the way certain other films are which makes sense because these guys seem out of time anyway after being away so long. It’s the women they encounter who all seem to be left waiting for the men to accept responsibility and even Ann Wedgeworth’s Frenchy who ruins that home-cooked dinner and claims she doesn’t know where she got the nickname seems to have her feet on the ground at least a little, as if she’s waited too long for a few too many guys to finally wise up. At one point when Max is out on the dance floor in a bar with her, Aretha Franklin playing on the jukebox, as she looks at him he suddenly seems overwhelmed by all that possibility and is ready to make this move, you can feel the choice bubbling up inside of him. But the moment soon passes with another fight out there to start, just as when Lion makes a key choice near the end it’s a reminder that he’s still afraid, that both of them will never be prepared to face the reality without losing who they think they are. The plot takes a prison detour as the two of them are hauled in after a bar brawl which is frustrating since I just want to see them on the road but in a way this section is the closest the movie gets to showing the normal work of the real world, with its own rules, hierarchy and soul deadening horrors in the form of Richard Lynch in his first film ready to make his own demands of Lion. Certain characters are discarded at one point which is also frustrating but that makes sense too, considering how determined Max and Lion are to keep going. And things take a turn after the prison stay with Max realizing how much he needs Lion, even doing an impromptu striptease in a crowded bar to prove that he’s becoming a scarecrow too. But Lion is so totally damaged after what’s happened to them and all those laughs not being enough that there’s a haunted look in his face, one I understand.
The biggest criticism you could make about SCARECROW is that it feels like a series of meandering but well-shot acting exercises more than a full narrative with a firm spine to it. It’s no surprise that it’s worth it just to watch these two guys dig into their characters and they’re both absolutely on fire here with moments that are indelible to understanding them. But it all still keeps us at a distance with the vague feeling that Schatzberg has let DP Zsigmond completely take over the visual approach to the film, not that I blame him, at one point shooting a crucial beatdown from a distance when it might be more satisfying to be up close. There’s even one shot during the prison sequence containing a lens flare that offers such exuberant perfection within the frame that you imagine the cinematographer viewing it in dailies and deciding this one shot is why he was put on this earth. But the lack of real payoff means that the film feels like it’s building to big scenes that never quite come, simply dwelling on how they sort of listen to each other’s stories and the way the camera half catches the people in the frame. Even what might be Pacino’s biggest moment during a phone call late in the film keeps him mostly off camera as if it’s willingly holding back on the real connection. Without that catharsis, in some ways the film is a FIVE EASY PIECES only without any equivalent of the chicken salad scene to latch onto and totally understand these guys. Sure, there’s a very funny bit in a department store where Max asks Lion to create a diversion so he can steal a purse but it goes by way too fast. The moments that stick in your brain from SCARECROW are the little things, the way you sometimes remember people no longer in your life, the gestures certain characters make as they reach to someone else almost in desperation after being convinced that they’re going to be alone forever, realizing it’s all too late. You see it in Pacino’s eyes when Lion is pretty much told that he’ll never be a man and it’s what makes him crumble most of all. Hackman’s final moment almost acts as a protest at the very idea of being forced to care, trying to keep himself together by putting the straw back into the scarecrow he’s become. It may not work, but he doesn’t have a choice anymore.
So much of it is really about how Max and Lion go together mixed with that visual style and you feel the two actors connecting with each other as the characters reach for that connection. Gene Hackman has sometimes named this as his favorite film and it’s certainly one of his most atypical roles, his natural intensity always on the surface but you feel the anger simmering inside him, you see that desire to not answer to anyone always on his face and within that characterization is a freedom almost unlike anything else he’s ever done in his career. Al Pacino plays the total innocence in Lion, not a mean or cynical bone in his body almost in denial of what’s all around him with the growing awareness of the world around him bubbling up that in the end he doesn’t know what to do with and where he goes with that knowledge in a climactic scene shot on location at the Belle Isle Fountain in Detroit is utterly devastating. Dorothy Tristan as Max’s sister offers such a sensible nature that I wish there was time to explore that relationship a little more while Ann Wedgeworth, given a movie star entrance meant to catch Max’s attention, is like a heart and soul that the movie almost doesn’t know what to do with. Eileen Brennan has a memorable bit as a barfly who Max goes home with and Penelope Allen who as Pacino’s wife unrelentingly lays into him when she turns up. She later played the head bank teller in DOG DAY AFTERNOON so the scene now plays like a connection to that film and oddly when Lion goes to a church to pray late in the film I can’t help but think there’s a snatch of the GODFATHER melody stuck into the score. Maybe I’ve just seen some of these films too many times by now.
The look of this film is what Blu-ray was seemingly made for, giving clarity to the widescreen imagery and those washed out 70s colors, letting us focus on the characters and their relationship to each other so the Warner Archive disc is essential for any fans of these actors or road movies from that decade. SCARECROW might not always have the payoff we’re looking for, even as far as downbeat 70s movies go, but it’s still extremely rewarding as a character piece as well as a look at just being out there on the road, putting off the truth for as long as possible. It’s a film about how sometimes you have to know when to stop but you just can’t help yourself. Even when there’s nowhere left to go and you’ve done all you can do, you just keep going. You have to. It’s all you know how to do.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
We can’t stop thinking about the past no matter how much we try. There are even reasons why we shouldn’t. Sometimes my dad took me to the movies, of course he did, and even if many of those memories are uneventful they’re what I choose to remember. And there were a few special occasions as well, almost as if he knew how important all this was going to be for me. Once he took me to the 57th Street Playhouse to see a few Jacques Tati films and this may have confused my 11 year-old self at the time but looking back on it I’m so grateful, almost like it was a small yet key event that helped open up my mind at that early age to what else was out there. Other days were more about the pure enjoyment of it all, like the Sunday afternoon when he took me to the late, lamented Regency for a double bill of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. It was the only time I ever went to that theater and though my memories are a little hazy—one thing I recall was actress Nedda Harrigan from the Chan film appeared before that film to talk about it—I may as well get extremely maudlin about the whole thing and say that this was probably the best day of my life. This past September marked 20 years since he died. I don’t know what that means. On the day of the anniversary I found myself more introspective than I expected to be, thinking about what was and what wasn’t, about memories that hadn’t come to mind for a long time. All those things I never got to tell him and never got to know. So that night for whatever reason I put on A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, thinking of him and what we could talk about after all this time if we watched it together again now, forgetting about everything else as much as possible.
Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), business manager for the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), introduces her to New York Opera Company manager Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) in order arrange for her to invest in the organization thereby giving her an entrée into society. In order to get a piece of all this action Driftwood attempts to sign the famous tenor Rudolfo Lasparri (Walter Woolf King) for the company but a chance encounter with piano player Fiorello (Chico Marx), best friend to unknown singer Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), leads to him signing up that tenor instead. As they all set sail for New York and the new opera season, Driftwood is shocked to find Baroni, Fiorello and their friend Tomasso (Harpo) stowing away in his steamer trunk which means Driftwood must do what he can to keep them from being discovered while somehow getting Baroni together with his lady love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) the soprano in the opera company who Lasparri very much has his eye on.
Released in 1935, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA may be the best film the Marx Brothers ever made even if it’s not the greatest Marx Brothers movie. The much more anarchic DUCK SOUP which they made previous to this was possibly the high water mark of their earlier run at Paramount; some might choose HORSE FEATHERS (1931’s MONKEY BUSINESS doesn’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time) and it’s possible that either of these films brings me more personal hysteria than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA does and the unapologetic insanity found in them might be the greatest pure examples of their humor onscreen. DUCK SOUP was also their last at that studio after it underperformed and it was apparently Irving Thalberg, wonder boy head of production over at MGM, who had the idea of how to get people interested in them again when they went over to that studio. Except for the absence of Zeppo, who departed his straight man role after DUCK SOUP to become a Hollywood agent, the brothers remained more or less as they were (not entirely and we’ll get to that) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA surrounds their comedy with an actual story, production values, high end songs, elaborate costumes; in other words, give people who don’t want to see a Marx Brothers film reasons to see a Marx Brothers film. And even if it is more ‘normal’ the film succeeds, combining these elements beautifully and even while speaking as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of the classic MGM aesthetic, in many ways this feels like a golden age masterpiece, playing now as the ideal of what a Hollywood movie circa 1935 could possibly be with all the entertainment value imaginable. It looks pretty, not that anyone sees a Marx Brothers film because it looks pretty, but it takes a mixture that shouldn’t work as good as it does and it all flows together, even if any sense of anarchy that was a key part of the earlier films is pretty much wiped away.
For one thing, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind from a story by James Kevin McGuiness) has a plot. This in itself would normally not be a surprise but compared with the past few Marx Brothers films at Paramount this warrants mention. Those are films which are never anything less than wonderfully random, scenes colliding together, costume changes out of nowhere, actions that make no real sense and a surreal mood always hanging in the air whether pondering what sort of country the mythical Freedonia is or simply how much Harpo really has concealed in his various pockets. OPERA, meanwhile, is firmly set in some version of the real world, at least a world set entirely on the MGM lot, where everything more or less makes sense. The story actually moves along from one scene to the next and the 3 Marxes become an integral part of it, even given reasons to care about what happens. Plus the main bad guy is an actual bad guy—he slaps around Harpo and even whips him, for crying out loud—not just somebody for Groucho to insult on the assumption that he’s a bad guy although he seems willing to do that anyway. It all makes me imagine a Paramount version of this film’s basic idea, maybe one where Groucho runs the opera house and whatever he does to save it would mostly be out of spite or fury rather than any concept of doing the right thing. Of course, nothing would make much sense and maybe even the music would be part of the joke (now I want to see this film) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, pausing for real musical numbers every now and then, plays that part totally straight which makes sense considering the setting but it’s also a reminder of how this is a musical comedy where the music actually matters, like it or not.
It helps that some of the music is better than average and of course the film doesn’t skewer opera as much as the pretension of everything surrounding it. Essentially it’s a story built around getting Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to sing together which gives a reason for the mayhem, not that we need one even if the film does. The structure is both airtight and loose enough that it knows not to overcomplicate things since we know who the good guys and the bad guys are so it’s mostly about arranging them all into place for the big opening night climax. More than simple randomness, Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood is always on the move given pointed insult dialogue that has a defiant and unapologetic approach whether needling Gottlieb, the incessant come-ons to Mrs. Claypool or even tossing out a familiar Garbo line (well, it is MGM) when questioned by a suspicious cop. What the film has is a balance of the impeccable wordplay mixed in with the sight gags and music so it always seems to know which one to focus on at any given moment.
Groucho’s surprise introduction at the start is one of his very best and feels like it’s toying with the expected anticipation after his delayed first appearance in DUCK SOUP. It’s one of the greatest unexplained mysteries in all of Cinema just why the various Margaret Dumont characters in these films submit to getting mixed up with Groucho and right from the start he wastes no time being indignant towards her at the very concept of being upset with him for dining just a few feet away while making it very clear he’s interested in her money as long as he doesn’t have to hear a minute of the opera. The persona of Groucho is someone who doesn’t care in a movie with a plot that sort of forces him to care but as long as he disrupts things and insults people, his job is done. Even when the plot forces him to suddenly be a nice guy it isn’t so bad and in particular I wish there had been more of Groucho just hanging out with Kitty Carlisle’s Rosa, lightly joking with her at a party while also keeping other suitors away until Allan Jones gets back. The parts given to Chico and Harpo are more strict supporting roles than they’ve had in the past with a little sanding off of their mischievous edges but they still get moments like Harpo’s endless drinking of water and Chico explaining how they flew across the ocean by taking a steamship when they try to pass themselves off as ‘the three greatest aviators in the world’.
Even Harpo is more grounded, no longer pulling steaming hot cups of coffee from his pocket or other such impossible feats and once their run at MGM begins it’s like he’s playing someone who can’t speak as opposed to someone who doesn’t speak—there is a difference, after all. Sure, Tomasso and Fiorello (nobody ever remembers their names, unlike Groucho characters) annoy Driftwood in his quest for Mrs. Claypool’s fortune but really all they want to do is help out Ricardo and Rosa and it somehow doesn’t feel like a betrayal of their basic persona. They’re just happy to help and do what’s right. Fortunately it also has Groucho and Chico dealing with each other in the classic contract routine with the recurring “party of the first part” refrain as they rip the contracts into shreds, one of those unexpectedly incisive explorations of Groucho’s persona as someone who prides himself on pulling it over anyone confronted by someone who is able to do the same to him, possibly without even realizing it. And, just so there’s no confusion, there is no Sanity Clause. When a film has Groucho and Chico debating something that makes no sense all it needs to do is find the right camera angle although that doesn’t entirely matter either. This just happens to be a film which cares about that sort of thing.
Which makes sense because MGM was kind of the Cadillac of studios back then, very pristine and safe and that style is very much in evidence, standing in contrast to Paramount which always had that silvery 30s look but never seemed to pay much attention to which way the cameras were facing or if there was any semblance of continuity between shots. At MGM everything is shiny, everyone is pretty and the filmmaking as evidenced by director Sam Wood (when it’s an MGM production supervised by Irving Thalberg it probably isn’t necessary to mention the director until the eighth paragraph) is always smoothly professional. It only really gets awkward when we become aware of how much the laughs are specifically timed for the audience which results in cutaways and inserts that stand out a little too much as placeholders before we can get to the next line of dialogue, making the film a little less elegant than it might be. But, of course, no one ever went to a Marx Brothers film for elegance. These pauses for timing were, of course, all part of the idea and the film’s history includes how they took it out on the road to perform the comedy sequences in a sort of “Scenes from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” for audiences before filming in order to try out lines and gage the laughs they would get. And it worked although I can’t help but think that some of the best lines are the ones that feel the most offhand, like Groucho’s “We can tear up the Mayor’s speech when we get there,” during the aviator charade. I’ve seen this film countless times in my life and even now some of it gets me to laugh out loud with the famous stateroom scene a beauty of pure construction as if the runner of “two hard boiled eggs” is merely ramping up to the famous image of all those people crammed into that tiny space, never complaining as Driftwood encourages it all as much as possible. “I’ve got plenty of room,” Fiorello declares. This is the Marx Brother view of the world. Everyone crams in together. It’ll all make sense eventually.
I’m old enough now that the musical numbers aren’t as deadly as they used to be with several of them placed together anyway in the big setpiece on the ship filled with, I assume, peasants from some vaguely European nation who are traveling to America, strictly the MGM kind content to sing and dance forever (one imagines James Cameron struck with inspiration after catching this sequence on TV while writing TITANIC). Chico’s piano solos were always fun anyway and Harpo’s rendition of the recurring ballad “Alone” on the harp is one of his best solos, catching just the right mood and maybe more than any other point in the film here’s where I feel the MGM/Thalberg touch with that kindly old woman in the frame as he plays, as if assuring anyone out there who might be unsure that these boys aren’t so bad after all. Incidentally, they’re clearly traveling from Italy at the start of the film even though the country is never named—there were allegedly cuts made when it played during World War II that were never reinstated which would have specified the location and apparently this is why the opening of the film is so abrupt, although a few things like a close-up of Driftwood’s Milan hotel bill slipped through.
The best pure comedy sequences here move like clockwork, particularly when compared with certain scenes from HORSE FEATHERS or DUCK SOUP which are brilliant yet feel like they’re more about barreling forward to the next joke than the pace. The scene in Driftwood’s hotel room with beds being frantically switched around has expert farcical timing while the big climax at the opening night of “Il Trovatore” skewers every ounce of pretension brought to the occasion by Margaret Dumont and what feels like a theater full of Margaret Dumonts. The three of them attack all the pomposity and grandiosity they can find, whether through Groucho’s nonsensical introductory speech, the surprise appearance of “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” or Harpo’s unending glee at doing everything he can to bring this all crashing down. That all stops when we get to hear Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle sing but it’s the thrill of telling off an insufferable prima donna who just had an apple thrown at him onstage that really matters. The way it’s all laid out is mostly perfect, ideal enough that the film was paid homage to in the 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS which starred a spectacular John Turturro as the Groucho-like “Roland T. Flakfizer” in a plot which substituted ballet for opera; it’s practically a remake and the ‘suggested by’ acknowledgement to this film buried in the credits makes me think someone in legal got worried it was a little more than just a tribute. Going too far in the other direction was the 1937 Marx Brothers follow-up A DAY AT THE RACES, never one of my favorites, which is loaded with extraneous musical numbers even though you’d think that wouldn’t be as necessary in a film set at a racetrack and hospital. What’s worse is even the comedy in that film never lives up to this one. But A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has a special flair that even now plays like total joy for me. Anyway, we love what we love. Whether it’s their finest film will never be decided since there are always going to be days when you might want to watch this one, you might want to watch DUCK SOUP. Sometimes it has to do with your mood. Sometimes it’s what you need to remember.
In some ways it’s Groucho’s movie and one of his best performances too, living up to the material as he lays out every possible insult and insinuation but sometimes doing the most when all he has to do in a scene in stand there, waiting for what he knows is coming. Chico’s happy stubbornness keeps things moving with his insistence that it’s all going to be just fine while it’s almost like Harpo makes an impression out of sheer force of will, even playing an active role in the stateroom scene when he’s supposed to be asleep. The likable Allan Jones takes on what is sort of the Zeppo role but not really since he’s more of a love interest and singer plus, all respect to Zeppo, he’s got more screen presence too and love interest Kitty Carlisle’s fragility becomes endearing which helps make you believe they’ll all do what they can to protect her. Margaret Dumont, declaring every effrontery to the heavens, and Sig Ruman, always gasping in shock, turn their foils into just the right dart boards for Groucho while almost getting you to believe that they’re still trying to make some sort of sense out of him. Hey, they’re not even really bad guys. Even Gottlieb is just trying to put on an opera, after all.
Of the two films I saw on that double bill long ago, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is definitely better than CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. Just for the record. Still, putting aside any issues of political correctness, that one’s kind of fun too and I once snagged a used DVD of it for the same sentimental reasons. To this day it’s still the only Chan film I’ve ever seen and I’m fine with that. At other times my father also took me to a double bill of HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP at the Metro, the same theater where Woody Allen saw the latter in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as well as a trip to see the Marx Brothers/Hollywood homage A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE on Broadway, possibly on my tenth birthday. Of course, there are other memories not related to films or the Marx Brothers but they don’t really matter as much, not even some of the visits to Yankee Stadium. The pull and desperation to go back to those particular days just isn’t as strong. And some years later, when he was in a wheelchair, I took him to movies from DIE HARD to GOODFELLAS and even once to a Harold Lloyd series at the Film Forum. Some days I think about him. Some days I try not to. There’s no real end to any of this because the past always ends before you realize it. There are just things you remember about your father and things you remember because of him which will always matter. And I don’t need an anniversary to do that. The past stays with you, whether you like it or not.
September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998
Sunday, September 30, 2018
You shouldn’t leave California. That’s the first thing to remember. My parents did, back in the 60s after they moved out here from New York, then they went back a year later. My mother always says that when they saw the George Washington Bridge upon returning they knew they’d made a mistake. I know they went back a few other times over the next couple of years but it never really stuck then I turned up in the early 70s and that was that. Maybe it was my job to do what they didn’t. That’s the whole idea of going west in order to make a life, to see what else is out there and discover your own personal idea of freedom. But for all the western imagery found in EASY RIDER it’s a film where the two leads do the exact opposite, with California represented as little more than a place where planes land, the modern way for people to arrive. There’s nothing there for these guys anymore, I suppose, so they leave. But it never seems to have occurred to them that they don’t know what else they’re supposed to find.
After scoring a large amount of cocaine down in Mexico then selling it off for considerable cash back up across the border, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) take off on their motorcycles with the money safely hidden in Wyatt’s gas tank, heading across the country to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Finding themselves unwelcome at roadside motels, they camp out under the stars at night with their journey taking them to a welcoming rancher with his family out in the desert followed by a hitchhiker who leads them to a commune populated by a group desperately attempting to grow their own crops. After being arrested in a small southern town for ‘parading without a license’ their jailhouse detour leads them to meeting George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who soon joins them, willing and open to what they have to offer. But as Wyatt and Billy get closer to New Orleans things begin to darken on the trip across America which they originally thought was everything that they were looking for.
Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER lives in the past. It always will, there’s no getting around that. I’ll never know firsthand what it was like to be there when the film was first released back in July ’69, a month before Woodstock and Tate-LaBianca, so I’ll always be looking at it from a slight distance. Written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern the film lives in the specific moment it was made but it’s also genuine enough that it becomes more than just a relic with its own things to say about what you can really find out there. Even the idea of leaving the west behind seems part of the point of going against that genre along with any connection the two leads have to classic Hollywood and what they’re trying to break away from. As a film by itself it works as a road movie, one with gorgeous scenery and an awesome soundtrack as well as just enough moments of introspection to lend a certain amount of weight to it all. The pacing feels tightened down to its essentials and necessary story beats with the occasional awkwardness due to using non-actors or maybe because certain scenes didn’t get the necessary coverage; one of the most traumatic events goes by so fast you could hardly blame a first-time viewer from experiencing a little whiplash. But it’s the imagery that seeps in and as much as it’s a film about wandering it always stays focused while ready to jump into another travel montage boosted up by all that music. Some of the best sections play as pure cinema, whether the dialogue-free drug sale at the opening or just letting us absorb the scenery which starts off majestic but gets uglier and uglier as we move closer to the end, literal walls coming down on these guys from everything being built up around them. All throughout the photographer’s eye of Dennis Hopper shines through, catching just the right way to frame them against the majesty, against what they want to get away from.
Even the completely unhurried way the campfire scenes play out is a perfect way to get us into that druggy vibe as they wonder about the world far out there, the effect showing how much they’re willing to take their conversations in unexpected directions that could lead to all the answers imaginable, UFOs or otherwise. Wyatt aka Captain America famously throws away his watch as the two of them set off on their journey, a pretty blatant symbol of materialism and everything that idea represents but it still feels a little like he’s throwing away a small part of himself that he didn’t realize was there. “Your time’s running out,” is what Luke Askew’s hitchhiker who brings them to the commune tells him when he offers up the LSD, as if he knows that you have to have a firm goal in mind somewhere, somehow. “I’m hip about time,” Wyatt tells him but when he finally decides to take the trip with Billy and the two hookers in New Orleans it seems like the worst possible idea to do it right then. Even when you’re free you need some sort of compass to stay on track.
They presumably leave L.A. at the beginning but it’s mostly represented by Phil Spector’s “Connection” and his Rolls-Royce when he buys their coke so we never see it, the name just something that gets quizzically repeated by someone who’s never heard the term before. The west we pass through contains the remnants of people long forgotten found that Wyatt quietly looks over in the early morning, that rancher who never made it to California himself but is totally content having made a life with his family. It’s like he knew when to stop. But going back the other way on the open road is what matters, soaking in everything they pass while we listen to The Band and for a few minutes there’s not a care in the world. It’s a motorcycle movie but one that never feels like it pays as much attention to the physical process of being on the road the way certain other films do, like the car-oriented TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and VANISHING POINT which pay so much attention to the gunning of the engines, the long silences while going from one place to another. With EASY RIDER it’s more how the music relates to the scenery as they pass through it all, along with just how cool these guys look on their bikes. Something like “Born to Be Wild” feels almost beyond cliché by this point but it doesn’t affect how it all flows with the imagery whether the serenity of the desert landscapes or later on as the scenery gets uglier and the vibe angrier. Time really does stop during a few of these sections and the film always looks spectacular yet intimate; the way Hopper with DP Laszlo Kovacs frames himself, Fonda and Nicholson turns each of them into instant icons. As improv-heavy as some of it might be there’s a slickness not found in the various Corman/AIP films that the three leads were involved in before this so the camera always knows where it should be and how much it should interfere. The film’s view of drugs is taken as no big deal, which definitely ties into their outlaw nature, and it plays as unaffected when compared to certain other films from the period that feel like they’re maybe trying too hard (to be honest, I always want to like VANISHING POINT more than I do) in getting across the hip vibe but here those moments always feel like they just happen.
For a long stretch of the running time it feels like the film is in no rush whatsoever and why should there be with the long stopover in the commune making it feel like they could easily stay there. There’s no point in worrying about time or how long it will take to get to New Orleans and the visit gives Wyatt the most optimism of their journey in believing they’re going to make it even though from their looks at some of their faces a few of them don’t seem so sure. Of course, in 1969 who knew how all that was really going to go. The hippie trappings are a little expected—the women are willing to fool around with Wyatt and Billy in the hot springs (although they actually seem like they’re the ones really in charge of the commune) and the mime troupe gives me bad flashbacks of certain elementary school music teachers from long, long ago. But it’s the 360-degree prayer circle shot that sticks out now, on the surface essentially this film’s version of passing around the joint in Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (itself a shot that also featured Fonda and Hopper), only replacing any drug-induced gimmickry for the pure feeling of the moment with the resolute faces of the commune members and genuine need for food, landing on the prayer delivered by Robert Walker (Jr., just a few years after his STAR TREK guest shot and looking absolutely haunted) which contains a desperate sense of hope for the future. The commune does start to seem vaguely sinister by a certain point so I can’t blame Billy for wanting to leave but Wyatt’s brief hesitation makes sense in his quest for some form of serenity. What he finds there is one of the strongest reminders that EASY RIDER isn’t just about what makes it such a period piece now, but how much the need to sometimes break away from what we think of as the real world can be all that matters.
It’s a film with two fairly low key guys and even the jittery Hopper isn’t quite what we think of compared to his later APOCALYPSE NOW persona so when Jack Nicholson turns up in the jail cell as ACLU lawyer George Hanson it shakes the foundation of the film. He’s a live wire from his very first moment while also the “regular sort of person” they speak of and it’s as if we’re suddenly asked to join the ride after observing the first half of the film from a distance. Partly audience surrogate, partly just someone lost in his own way it’s the earliest version of iconic Jack Nicholson roles that are about some form of transformation which gradually happens here as this small town alcoholic who’s been watched over by his parents way too long loosens up during the campfire scenes, gets rid of the booze and seems like a man truly being born for the first time in his life. Even much of his dialogue has a newly found sting to it these days considering the way things are going, maybe even this very week, and his grim musing over how this used to be a hell of a country means more than ever. But when he rides on the chopper wearing that football helmet there’s a sense of total joy from him as long as he’s around that infects the film. He seems to have no idea what’s really out there in the world beyond his booze and who he can get out of jail but he’s able to tell them things about the country they never thought of as if a warning that they can only ever go so far.
The experimental cutting style of jumping forward and back during scene transitions is very much an affectation, one where if the film did it a few more or even less times it wouldn’t make much difference. But it also plays as an extension of Billy’s impatience every time they stick around somewhere a few minutes too long and whether drug induced or whatever there’s a freedom to it, of trying to explore what this film could possibly be and it’s felt throughout even down to the hard cut to a Jimi Hendrix song during one montage. It’s not worried about if the cut is jarring so much as playing like a deliberate break in the flow of the film while also a warning of what’s coming. The history and poverty and life and unending cemeteries in these small towns they pass through all blend together and the film captures that sense of road trips and the places you’ve seen, if only for an instant, that sometimes stick in your memory as you try to imagine what kind of life goes on there. And how much they matter when you remember them. Wyatt and Billy mostly keep to themselves with the nest egg of cash in the gas tank (makes me think Albert Brooks in LOST IN AMERICA gets the plot slightly wrong but never mind) and try to avoid trouble while the girls in the café just get the men nearby more annoyed of course leading to disaster. And once they finally arrive at Mardi Gras, where Billy has been so impatient about getting to the whole time, it basically becomes dinner and a visit with two hookers (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil, each of which gets moments that stand out out during the fast cuts in the 16mm New Orleans footage). The LSD trip in the cemetery feels like a way to confront things with these women after whatever letdown Mardi Gras provided but what it brings out in them seems to be everything they regret, the bad vibes bubbling below the surface for the entire film finally emerging with no hesitation, the darkness enveloping all of the hopes, the flash forward that Wyatt tried to shake off becoming something he doesn’t understand but in a way it’s what he was always expecting.
Once Wyatt and Billy head out on the road when the opening credits begin, it feels like EASY RIDER is divided into three sections—the desert and the commune, the real world as represented by George Hanson entering their sphere followed by the Mardi Gras acid trip which leads to oblivion. In other words, the way it should be, the way it is and the way it’s going. Which seems inevitable. It’s all about freedom at first, the sense of living without fear, looking for a way to make your own path. And in the film’s best moments it gets me to understand and believe. But fate manages to turn hopes into something else, like George’s football helmet that suddenly reappeared thanks to his mother allowing him to tag along on their journey. The sense of darkness begins to overwhelm the film near the end, the famous ‘we blew it’ statement which could be anything but feels like a memory of what they missed when it was right in front of them. How good they had it, what they thought they were supposed to do to be the sort of legends of the west that their names indicate they already are but the ideals from the flag on Wyatt’s jacket and gas tank with all that cash weren’t enough. The hope is maybe we can figure out what they got wrong and do something about our own fear to let us find that freedom for ourselves. Just as letting the music play through at times feels like an extension of THE GRADUATE (even down to playing one of the songs twice, specifically The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which is possibly the most sweetly hopeful of any of them) the ending works as the next step beyond BONNIE AND CLYDE, turning that rapid fire montage into a few brutal, complex flashes of imagery followed by the unending final shot. All we can do is linger there, nowhere left to go (I suppose the finale of ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, one of many films inspired by EASY RIDER over the next few years, was the next step after that) and as the credits roll I suppose it really does turn them into legends. As a film, EASY RIDER is at peace. It already knows the ending.
Sure, the way that the film uses the two leads almost has more to do with their presence than anything they actually do but Peter Fonda lends that cool blankness to his unending introspection so you can project anything you want onto his seeming awareness that something bad is coming. His silence hides the tension that he’s keeping bottled up, as if he’s actually trying to never reveal those emotions, maybe to avoid seeming like his father for all we know. Dennis Hopper keeps Billy living in the moment while never letting down his paranoia, always trying to register how straight someone is being with him and he’s really just a big kid, not knowing what’s coming next but certain that he just wants to keep going. But the whole film shifts when Jack Nicholson yawns at a threat Hopper makes when they first meet in the jail and it’s never really the same after that, not a line reading or gesture from him is what you expect. Maybe that’s why the film works so well even now—the biggest performance in the hippie movie is from the normal guy, bringing an added joy to the biking scenes and moments like his delight in saying ‘very groovy’ and Nicholson’s continued delight in realizing how well the three of them go together becomes one of the best displays of freedom that the film offers.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure my parents ever actually saw EASY RIDER. It may not have mattered anyway and, of course, whatever we know about our mom and dad doesn’t solve everything. And we all have our own idea of freedom, just as Dennis Hopper did. Sometimes it’s the need to be out there when the wind is in your hair and the music is just right. But also that the way to live is to know where you are and why you’re there. The year before EASY RIDER the film’s producers made HEAD so maybe they just wanted to get away from all that since it’s a known fact anybody who works for the Monkees are among the worst people in the world. And by this point in time America, which used to be a hell of a good country, is just about gone. So leaving California is never the answer. Enough mistakes can be made there as it is and all you can ever do is let go of the way you thought things might be. If anything, I’ve tried to learn that.