Sunday, August 12, 2018
No Pain Or Anything
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.