Tuesday, August 28, 2018
This has been a long, hot summer of very little sleep. Hot during the day, a little less hot later on and too much on my mind. There’s the world, sure, but there’s also trying to figure out just what the hell happened. I finally drift off eventually, somehow at some point, but I don’t even remember my dreams very much anymore which could be why I’ve been feeling so blank during the day. I can’t even decide what I’m preoccupied by. Except for the obvious.
If it’s true that Robert Altman films often become something different each time you see them then I’m not sure what that means for the future of my BREWSTER McCLOUD viewings. It’s a film that, more than most, seems determined to defy anything you expect from it. Sometimes I think I have a handle on what it might possibly be saying. Sometimes after watching it again I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking. By this point I’m still not sure what I’ve decided but I’m fairly certain I love it anyway. Released in December 1970, it was Altman’s first film to come after the blockbuster success of MASH and could loosely be described as being in a similar comic vein but the film seems determined not to give a viewer the same kind of satisfaction, remaining intentionally obstinate in refusing to explain itself. It’s a film that wants to ask what freedom is and can be while still being fully aware of the dangers of what that freedom can result in, the mistakes you’re destined to make causing you to crash back down to earth. On the other hand, I could be wrong about all of this. And if that’s the case, I’ll watch it again to come up with some other idea.
Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) secretly lives in a fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome, building a device which will allow him to achieve flight and “fly away”, while watched over by the mysterious Louise (Sally Kellerman) who acts as some kind of protector for him out in the world, keeping a firm hold on his innocence. Meanwhile, a series of strangulations in the city where the victims are found with bird droppings on their faces mystifies the local police so they call in the ultra-cool cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) from out of town and he insists on getting right to work with no time for ingratiating himself with the local politicos. As Brewster continually avoids detection by the Astrodome security guard he meets up with comely tour guide Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) who has her own plans for him without being aware of the complete truth of his situation.
That may count as some kind of half-hearted plot summary but it’s entirely possible that there’s no real way to say exactly what BREWSTER McCLOUD is about. It has an undeniably counterculture feel which sets it right in the time it was made, displaying total contempt for any possible concept of authority whether cops, security guards, or anyone who has taken it upon themselves to make life hell for other people in the world. I hadn’t turned up yet in 1970 but the film feels like a representation of a time when everyone was smoking pot and watching things fall apart as the 60s ended so they simply said, fuck it. This gives the tone an undeniable bitterness displayed towards the world, towards those in power and at the whole damn unfairness of it all but at the same time the film moves along seemingly without a care in the world displaying a free-wheeling vibe of whatever might be possible, down to messing with the lion in the MGM logo or stopping the opening credits and starting them back up again when it’s good and ready.
The victims of the strangler are all found with bird shit on them and the crimes are justified in the film’s view (so is the birdshit), since no one else is going to do anything about these people, after all. Whatever Brewster might actually be responsible for, in the eyes of the film he’s a total innocent and that naïveté allows him to glide through his existence with everything working out for him like magic, at least partly because of Kellerman’s mother figure/fallen guardian angel (literally)/whatever she is, watching over Brewster clad only in a trenchcoat, at one point stripping down and singing “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” while she bathes him and carefully explains the dangers that sex poses to freedom even if for some people it’s the closest to flying that they’ll ever know (I’m still not sure I follow all this, but never mind). As if to kinda, sorta tie the rambling storyline together, Rene Auberjonois plays a lecturer explaining birds and their similarities to human behavior as if to explain the character’s actions, gradually taking on the mannerisms of a bird as Brewster gets closer to finishing his flying machine.
The screenplay is credited to Doran William Cannon who also wrote the legendary SKIDOO who later said in the New York Times that Bob Dylan told him the BREWSTER script was “perfect” but by all accounts Robert Altman, as you would expect Robert Altman to do, pretty much tossed it out the highest window (for one thing, that script was apparently set in New York) and did whatever he wanted. The off-kilter look at the world is certainly reminiscent of SKIDOO but this film has a lighter touch and feels more effortless in that Altman way as bonkers as it is, as indecipherable as it is, so everything flows together and it really is a film where it feels like anything could happen. The location shooting in Houston offers its own unique vibe with extensive looks at the flat landscape of the city and around the Astrodome including a side trip to the Astroworld amusement park (opened in ‘68, closed in ’05) seemingly for no reason other than it was there and it’s easy to believe that the film has a great deal of meaning to anyone from there.
For the most part, BREWSTER McCLOUD is inscrutable as well as more than a little insane but since the lecturer advises at the start to ‘draw no conclusions or the subject would cease to fascinate us’ maybe that’s for the best and we shouldn’t try to figure any of it out. Maybe the film is simply a look at what innocence might be, has to be, in a totally corrupt and decadent world. The victims of the killer are mostly horrible people out solely for what benefits them and an early shot of a newspaper headline where Spiro Agnew even declares “Society Should Discard Some U.S. People” is a reminder that they each represent different parts of Nixon in some way or another. In a BREWSTER McCLOUD reboot set in 2018 (hey, I’ve heard worse ideas by now) they’d represent someone else, of course, and they’d probably be even more deserving. More than anything, they’re done in by their own hubris, whatever that might be. One of them happens to be none other than Margaret Hamilton as the wealthy Daphne Heap who sings a terrible rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Astrodome wearing ruby slippers (or “red rhinestone shoes” as they’re called here; there are other WIZARD OF OZ allusions but it’s never quite clear what to make of them) and even screams out the N-word at one point.
Michael Murphy is the hotshot cop Frank Shaft, flown in from San Francisco to investigate the killings in a brutally deadpan BULLITT parody right down to the wardrobe but also one scene where he questions a butler that practically goes into Abbott & Costello territory regarding how tall a suspect was. It’s never clear why the films is partly made up of a BULLITT parody but considering what else is in it this makes about as much sense as anything, played in a manner which suggests that Altman thought BULLITT was a load of crap which is all well and good (photos exist of a smiling Steve McQueen with Altman on the set of THE LONG GOODBYE, so I guess he didn’t take it personally) but the answer doesn’t really matter anyway and the end of the plotline is all about doing away with that kind of empty heroism. Besides, no one that cool can keep it up forever. It’s a digression just as everything in the film is a digression, like Stacy Keach as wealthy miser Abraham Wright buried under mounds of old-age makeup which takes up enough of the first part of the film that it’s almost terrifying to contemplate that this might turn out to be one of the main characters. Of course, some of these things don’t have much payoff at all, like Jennifer Salt’s health store employee and her insistence on pleasuring herself since Brewster is never going to do it as well as the disappearance (and presumed death) of one key character who we never hear about again but that’s the sort of movie it is.
In the wake of MASH, this was early enough in Altman’s career that his style is still developing with lots of zooms and frames crowded with people like you’d expect from a Robert Altman movie in 1970 and though the look hasn’t fully matured into what it would become in his next few films even here the framing is always adventurous, always looking for an unexpected way to stage a scene. There isn’t a single uninteresting shot in the whole film from how he shoots the Houston landscape to the way the layout of the Astrodome is explored as if it’s a world unto itself or each time he finds new ways to have Sally Kellerman suddenly appear when you least expect it, including bathing in a fountain with the visible scars of where her presumed wings used to be. With so many MASH alums turning up in a similar comic vein and a few later Altman regulars appearing for the first time it feels a little like his own version of the Preston Sturges rep company, down to some fast patter and even the running gag of G. Wood’s police captain, who isn’t all that different from his performance as Colonel Flagg in MASH, always getting the name of his underling played by Corey Fischer wrong. The whole thing works more as an Altman kaleidoscope than a straight comedy (still, I have admiration for the timing of a particular pot joke at one point) but this is hardly a bad thing and there’s always beauty to be found in the druggy, scattershot vibe with songs mostly written by John Phillips that go perfectly with the sadness poking around the edges of the frame particularly “White Feather Wings” sung by Merry Clayton and the way it soars makes us want to soar, just as Brewster hopes to.
The joy also comes from the actors who are perfectly attuned into that vibe whether John Schuck’s dopey eagerness or whatever Corey Fischer is doing in the corner of the frame that I keep discovering on multiple viewings but particularly the debut of Shelley Duvall as Suzanne Fairest, the Astrodome tour guide who instantly latches herself onto Brewster playing it as kind of a living Raggedy Ann doll (she has a giant Raggedy Ann mural in her apartment and it’s even how she appears during the curtain call finale) but also very much the girl we fall in love with and somehow manage to screw things up irrevocably when it seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong. In discovering Duvall for this film it’s like Altman wants to shoot her from every conceivable angle, including upside down, to explore all the possibilities in what she can do, to find every possible reason for falling for her. She even has a MASH poster in her apartment as if she’s the one character Altman would want that kind of approval from and Suzanne isn’t even bothered that Brewster is trying to steal her car and it’s not her car anyway, leading the cops on a chase which she charmingly calls a ‘race’ later on. That all makes what inevitably happens so goddamn sad since you know Suzanne is going to end up with her ex-boyfriend who was once an artist but has now willingly joined the establishment which is a clear sign that he’s an awful person, a Republican or a big fan of the Monkees, robbing her of every spark of life she ever displayed during her best moments but even if it’s going to get her the money she wants at least she kisses the guy immediately after vomiting. He deserves worse but it’s better than nothing.
Most of the characters in BREWSTER McCLOUD seem worried about keeping up appearances of what they’re supposed to be and the real idea of freedom comes not from flying but the realization that you don’t have to worry about that any longer, like the wife of one of the victims (played by Anglin Johnson, making an impression with barely any dialogue in her only film appearance) who never bothers hiding how happy she is that her abusive husband was just brutally killed. It’s some sort of statement on the world, at least the way it was then with a Jesus/Manson figure seen being led away by the police as if the film wants us to figure out which is which (as much time as the film spends on the investigation, it pretty much discards all police characters as irrelevant in the end). Of course, we’re far away from that 1970 context now but since things don’t make any sense at the moment it all still works as whatever statement it could be.
The BULLITT parody includes that car chase which comes complete with a Lalo Schifrin soundalike score and Shelley Duvall buckling her seatbelt instead of those hitmen, pretty much throwing away the complicated staging of such a thing as the goof you’d expect Altman to treat it as and he almost seems more interested when Duvall in her Plymouth Road Runner and Sally Kellerman in her Gremlin are screeching around the massively empty Astrodome lot each with total looks of glee on their faces. And the movie itself is like an empty parking lot, one where the director can do whatever he wants via his muses and not worry about a thing. As far as messages go, it also feels a little like Altman’s response to any idealized Steven Spielberg portrayal of the glory of staying young only this is before Spielberg which makes as much sense as anything considering how inscrutable it all is. In the end, you can find something in life that works but you have to toss that innocence aside eventually. Brewster says that he’s building the wings to fly away, seemingly never realizing that there’s never going to be any way out of the Astrodome, just like there’s no way to really fly away from real life. The rest of the world so you just have to decide what your own personal version of flying away is. And even then, there are no guarantees.
Trying to reconcile any form of reality with this is a waste of time but what BREWSTER McCLOUD does have even with all that Altman snarkiness is the sense of freedom and occasionally cutting through all the nonsense to those moments of bliss, of genuine emotion. One particular shot of Duvall where she couldn’t be more beguiling almost makes me want to cry for all it stirs up deep down but Kellerman’s reaction to something at one point is just shattering, even if the true significance of what’s happened is not entirely clear beyond the basic idea of betrayal and that Brewster is never again going to be what he could have been. Her exit from the Astrodome, and from the film, as “Last of the Unnatural Acts” sung by John Phillips plays, is haunting as if it was transmitted from outer space, Altman finding lyricism here that there was no place for in MASH, an otherworldly look at the moment and it’s almost as if from then on the characters in his films were given permission to be something else, not bound by our rules. The sometimes slapdash nature of the film means that the moment still still feels spliced in, almost as if the moment was shot just because Altman figured it out one day while checking out the location so he just did it. Much of it has that spur of the moment feel while at the same time there are moments like when Brewster makes two separate confessions through careful cross-cutting by Lou Lombardo, who also edited THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE for Sam Peckinpah the same year, which is simply masterful. Much of the film seems to have been made up of pieces put in there just for the hell of it and it’s a movie of pieces, making up some kind of partly explainable whole. And by the time we get to an end which is both glorious and brutal it’s also kind of a goof, a joke. But it’s his joke.
BREWSTER McCLOUD may not the best Altman film or my favorite Altman film or even the most Altman film made by Robert Altman, but it’s likely the one that gives less of a fuck than any of them and even during an ending where it’s impossible not to think of the Fellini influence it still plays completely as its own thing. It’s an angry film, but one that was made after exhaling for a moment and realizing how little any of it matters anyway. And part of me wonders if it makes more sense than I want to admit. That’s the thing about regret. When you have those people in your life you feel insulated somehow, you think everything’s going to be ok. But it doesn’t last and you can’t have it both ways. And that’s when you fall. What you have to do then is go with the flow since we’re all going to lose in the end. But maybe there’s a way to do it and be part of the circus as the best possible version of what you can be anyway.
One thing about the various performances is the level of human connection it gives us to go along with the absurdity and how well it ties into the Altman vibe, with Bud Cort perfectly in sync with that as he shows off a very particular delusional innocence with his glasses a key part of that performance and it’s easy to see the beginnings of what he would do for Hal Ashby in HAROLD AND MAUDE just a year later. Sally Kellerman brings the right sense of caring and effervescence to her indecipherable character, while Shelley Duvall is a miracle of a screen presence with such joy at times along with her own calculations when she reveals what she really wants. Along with the likes of John Schuck and Corey Fischer there’s the poker face of Michael Murphy who doesn’t let up the McQueen skewering for a second even at his final moment, William Windom’s unrelenting officiousness as Houston official Haskell Weeks and Rene Auberjonois as he continually bounces off the vague story points to take his lecturer as far in the direction of transforming into a bird as humanly possible.
Being certain of saying anything about this movie is probably a lost cause but you could also say the same thing about life or tomorrow or just walking down the street. Sometimes we find a dream right in front of us and we become that dog chasing a car who wouldn’t know what to do if he caught it. Either we regret that we couldn’t make the leap to fly away or there was no way to stay up in the air where we would have been free. Then again, if I smoked pot regularly maybe I’d have a better idea. It’s that sort of movie. Maybe you just need to figure a way to keep your feet on the ground and the birdshit off you and that’s all there is. Maybe there’s nothing to say and Altman just finished this film then took off to make McCABE & MRS. MILLER, released only six months after this film opened, while anyone tried to figure it out. There’s nothing like BREWSTER McCLOUD, even among films that came out in the crazy year of 1970, and the still-available Warner Archive DVD is worth getting since you could always use another Robert Altman film close by to obsess over. Maybe one of these days I’ll dream about my own version of the movie, where some of it gets crossed with my own cast of characters. That is, if I ever fall asleep but I’ll probably screw things up then, too. Of course, the summer does end eventually. Maybe that’s what I really need to be worried about.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
There are those moments when you connect like you thought you never would. For a brief period of time everything is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not just about the good things. It’s about that connection. You’ve both felt the pain and it stays there deep down, but it’s so hard to reveal that truth. You want to believe it will lead to a greater connection that will somehow heal the pain and hurt. It doesn’t, of course. It never lasts. Maybe opening up is never worth it anyway.
Sydney Pollack’s film of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, based on the Horace McCoy novel, was released in December ’69 and it almost feels like one of the first real 70s movies, that period when it seemed like anything resembling a happy ending was illegal. Starring Jane Fonda right at the start of the massive acclaim both she and Pollack would receive over the decade to come, it’s a searing look at the American Dream as well as the rot which sets in when there’s nothing left of it and nowhere else to go. The older I get the easier it can sometimes be to pick out which films play like the real thing in their fatalism and which ones are mostly made up of hollow cynicism. It’s very possible that THEY SHOOT HORSES is about as unrelenting a film as I can think of—simply calling it “depressing” almost feels reductive—but the pitch is always right, it feels correct in its portrait of a world that can only ever care so much and sometimes you realize will never care again. However accurate the portrayal of the period is, the world of the film always feels lived in which adds immensely to the bleakness and those convictions hold all the way to the very final image. Produced by ABC Pictures, it hasn’t always been an easy film to see (to the point that back in the early 90s Sydney Pollack himself had to spearhead a restoration so the film could be released on laserdisc) so possibly the film’s legacy has been hurt simply due to lack of availability. But once seen it’s impossible to shake, a true stunner with some of the best work in the careers of all involved.
In 1930s Los Angeles with the Depression in full swing, Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into the La Monica Ballroom situated on the Santa Monica pier and is immediately recruited to take part in the big dance marathon that’s about to begin, partnered up with a bitter young woman named Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda). The other contestants include the delusional actress Alice (Susannah York), a former sailor (Red Buttons) as well as very pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and husband James (Bruce Dern) along with many others, each of them desperately coveting the cash prize the contest promises. With emcee Rocky (Gig Young) in charge at the microphone, the marathon begins with the crowds soon starting to grow and challenges being added. As the weeks go on, the contest continues and even as more couples drop out it doesn’t seem like it will ever end.
The word brutal rarely comes to mind when thinking of the films of Sydney Pollack and a full decade after his death he’s probably remembered as a director with a filmography consisting of a certain smooth, easy listening professionalism featuring music by the likes of Dave Grusin backing up that vibe along with a deceptively simple, inquisitive feel to the storytelling. But more than that it feels like the basic theme which most often attracted him was the conflict that arises between a man and a woman who hopefully come to a mutual understanding in the end. It’s as if during rewrites of these films he was always asking the question of what the conflict really was and kept arriving at the same answer. The dance marathon of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (Screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, from the Horace McCoy novel) uses that basic framework as its spine with most of the film taking place in this giant set where we can never leave with the two leads literally draped over each other at times as they try to stay awake out on the dance floor. The film contains that central relationship but it also has bigger things in mind than any mere romance as if it knows that such a pairing is never going to be enough to make it through this world. In other hands the claustrophobia would become too much and the visual repetition would grind the film down but Pollack along with DP Philip Lathrop (too many other credits to list but also POINT BLANK and THE GYPSY MOTHS during this period) always keeps the camera active, never staying the same place for long and as wrenching as it sometimes is to watch you can’t take your eyes off these people as they keep struggling.
With a burnished look to the images the direction is intense but never showy, the camera always knowing just where it should be and looking at the film now, it’s a reminder that Pollack understood how to use the 2.35 Scope frame for telling the story using his actors and their faces like few other directors ever have. There’s a clarity to it, every shot is layered, he knows what the story is and finds it in those faces just as he finds the rhythm of how incessant all this must be, down to every last cut. He’s always keeping the characters alive even in the back of shots as we feel their exhaustion and desperation, that blaring siren alerting contestants to the start and end of each break time eventually becoming the most horrific sound imaginable. By the end the sound becomes something else altogether and it’s never going to stop. Often coming to a mutual understanding can help his characters move beyond their troubles but not here, there’s no chance, with the hours of the contest going on, the days going on, as they become sleep deprived beyond comprehension. They’re all trapped, every single one of them.
It’s a film that is at times overwhelming in how it almost forces you to keep watching but it also has that sense of yearning for something better if you can only keep going just a little while longer and it cuts deep, placing you right alongside those people who have no place left to go beyond the hell they’ve arrived at as they spend as long as possible denying the truth. This is the end for them, out on the Santa Monica pier with nowhere left to go before the end of the world. It feels a little more exaggerated than what’s described in the book but intentionally so while highlighting the futility of it all, moving up to the very edge of all-out surrealism without fully tipping that hand and keeping the genuine horror in check as total exhaustion seeps in. In 2018 it’s a world of extended cruelty for all of us anyway, one giant episode of reality TV, so if the film ever felt too outlandish in how far it pushes them or even how it portrays the regular people cheering them on in the stands, it doesn’t anymore. It’s a fairly liberal adaptation of the book, keeping some of the basic structure and details while finding the focus through the characters and it might be even darker, if that’s possible, building up the story through the exhaustion that seeps into those faces and in what they don’t say. At the very beginning each one of the contestants we’re about to know are all lined up to take part like characters at the start of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode unaware of what the twist is going to be and not knowing the all-out hell they’re about to be placed in the middle of, the cheering audience members literally throwing coins at them on the floor as they perform or eat their meals while standing up, waiting for them to keep going. It could be a microcosm of Hollywood, of America, of the world, of what people really are deep down, whether they’re the ones still trying against all reason or the ones who have simply given up and want to do nothing more than endlessly watch.
As played by Michael Sarrazin, Robert is basically the audience surrogate and we see as much though his eyes as the film will allow. He’s a dreamer who needs to learn to stop dreaming and most of what we ever learn about him consists of what he says about the things he’s read or seen, not what he’s done. He just hopes to maybe someday do some of it. Aside from a key brief childhood flashback all we know about him is his fixation on the ocean that he loves so much, dreaming of getting to see the sun set over it, straining for beauty as if that’s going to give him the answer he’s looking for. That includes the enigma of Jane Fonda’s Gloria, already hard as sandpaper after striking out in the movie business and openly hostile to everyone around her, seeing right through Robert’s fanciful stories and nothing but contempt for Bonnie Bedelia’s pregnant contestant Ruby for having the tenacity to bring another life into this world without any idea of what to do with it. You never know what’s behind that anger beyond a desperation you can certainly understand and she has no illusions of what this could all lead to beyond the hope of that prize money but she has nowhere else to go anyway.
The film keeps some of the others alive throughout whether the sailor played by Red Buttons who’s shaved a few years off his age or Susannah York’s deluded actress, the desperation of each of them becoming more and more haunting. But it still comes back to the two leads and how willingly Robert attaches himself to Gloria without question, telling her “You’re my partner” at one point displaying a loyalty she can barely comprehend so naturally she feels that betrayal when there’s the hint of him straying in another direction. Almost none of this is ever spoken aloud, just the silent dream of the sort of life they could possibly have if they hadn’t met in this hell, how everyone just assumes they’re always going to be this ideal couple. So much of the storytelling occurs in their glances at each other, the exhaustion and desperation in their eyes which can’t be faked. “What the hell, forget it,” Gloria spits out at one point when someone isn’t quite following what she’s saying. It might as well be her mantra. As far as she’s concerned, there’s almost nothing that Robert could ever do that would be right. Except for the last thing.
Aside from the stylization of certain flash-forwards hinting at the inevitable which feel somewhat of the time, the film contains such energy through all the extreme desperation that it hasn’t really dated and the way it keeps things moving makes us feel that exhaustion without a doubt. The pep of the early sequences falls away fast leading to the unbelievably agonizing derby sequences where the already tired contestants have to race around the track together which become in their endless exhaustion the most nightmarish view of trying to somehow stay alive in this world imaginable.
It’s almost as if we’re in the middle of that track going around in circles with them, falling over with no strength to get up and by the time the film reverts to momentary slow motion late in the film during the second derby it’s as if the sweat and ooze are literally pouring off of the image, the film refusing to let us go of us. A few montages along the way help speed up certain beats in the story (Pollack was always good at montages), almost as if to give us a small taste of relief but it never lasts for long with Gig Young’s emcee Rocky always looking for the narratives to sell the contestant’s stories to the crowd and forever shouting “Yowza! Yowza!” to get everyone to cheer louder and louder until all we want is for him to shut up. He;s in charge so he knows this isn’t reality, just like what we know of as reality TV today isn’t, but he’s the one who gets to be in control. All that matters is if he gets the crowd to believe it.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is a staggeringly great film (which received nine Oscar nominations, the most ever for a film not also nominated for Best Picture) and it might be too much for some but so what. At its most extreme moments it gives in to the frenzy that builds up through the incessant use of music the contestants are dancing to and how insistently upbeat it has to stay to keep the crowd going with the occasional pulling back to a state of calm for the slow number “Easy Come, Easy Go” which becomes as much of a theme of the film as anything. Easy come, easy go, that’s the way it is in this world, that’s all you can depend on. There’s no point in expecting anything else. None of the dancers have to stay there, but they can’t think of any alternative. There’s nowhere else to go. “I’m tired of losing,” Gloria insists at one point but even that’s not enough when actually winning isn’t even an alternative. And how much do you really want the pain to go away, anyway. A pivotal scene with the two leads near the end (which, unless I’m mistaken, is one of the few moments that plays out largely the way it does in the book) makes it clear that the kindest thought you can have for someone is never going to be enough. For a film coming from the man who would later make TOOTSIE there’s no comfort level at all, no respite but it still doesn’t feel cynical. It’s just despairing. And necessary. And I believe it. It’s a romance where there’s only the shred of a connection but you know there could be more, somehow, if only but there’s still only the inevitability in where this all leads. The very brief flashback at the start showing Robert’s childhood feels innocent but that feeling is over quickly and we’re reminded of it near the end in a dream image that collides with reality. It’s saying that we always were who we are. And as much as we try to change that, we’re only really dancing in place, waiting for the inevitable. And there’s nothing we can do about that, much as we may dream otherwise. Because the pain doesn’t go away. This is humanity, after all.
Jane Fonda is phenomenal as Gloria, putting everything into the character and bringing a searing intensity to the resentment she feels towards pretty much everyone. Even a tiny head shake she does at one point to indicate her non-response to something speaks volumes and you could almost swear the moment had dialogue but she puts it all in her look and every tiny gesture she makes. Michael Sarrazin (lots of now-forgotten movies from around this time but he was in THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD and THE GUMBALL RALLY, among others; he even hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1978) is sort of a more emotional version of Fonda’s brother Peter and he plays much of the role through his eyes, not wanting to admit how much he’s really trying to look at her, coming off as haunted right from the beginning by a past we never hear about. It’s as if he’s been able to deny what it all did to him up until now and the contest irrevocably takes care of what little hope he had left. Gig Young, the film’s lone Oscar winner out of nine nominations, is also remarkable to watch with the humanity he brings to his sleazy essence almost in spite of himself, a Satan who realizes he has to deal with all the damn paperwork and actually show some sort of compassion to get the damn show on. That carny life is everything Rocky knows so he’s an expert on how to get people to believe in the show and if he ever stops it he’ll die. Susannah York (also nominated but lost to Goldie Hawn in CACTUS FLOWER) is flat out possessed as hopeful actress Alice, Red Buttons brings every ounce of his eager to please persona to the part as it gradually slips away until we watch the life literally drained out of him. Just the look on Bonnie Bedelia’s face as Ruby speaks volumes of where she’s come from even before the contest starts and in her best moment sings an enormously sad version of “The Best Things In Life Are Free” for the crowd while looking like she’s going to collapse at any second with the stubborn defensiveness of Bruce Dern as her loyal husband backing he up all the way. Every familiar face that turns up in the crowd adds to the overall effect of this horrific world so there really are no bit roles whether Madge Kennedy as the old woman rooting for Gloria and Robert, Michael Conrad as one of the judges on the floor or the ever-present Al Lewis always at Gig Young’s side, absolutely perfect for the milieu but really pretty much everyone in the film is down to every single dancer out on the floor.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is still not the easiest film to see but the Kino Lorber Blu-ray which came out last year containing multiple commentary tracks that originated on the old laserdisc is highly recommended. And, in the end, it really is about the man and the woman. Which I guess makes it like other Sydney Pollack films, after all. And, besides, something has to get us to that title. But the film still knows that relationship is just a small part of a world locked in a hellish cycle of entertainment for all that will never end. Just as what Robert really wants is to hear the waves crashing, to get a glimpse of the sun out on that horizon, because that’s where the hope is, it still may not be enough and in the end even that’s taken away from him. Maybe the film is really just about all those regrets that you can never do anything with, the way Robert tells Gloria how he’s just trying to look at her face near the end but it still isn’t enough. Maybe I once knew a girl scarily like Gloria so some of this stings all the more. Maybe I was once this guy. It all ended differently, of course, but still not well. Maybe that sort of connection could never end any other way. But you still try and sometimes you have to try again. And, really, I’m trying. By this point that’s about all any of us can do.