Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a famed Shakespearean (and only Shakespearean) stage actor, is unexpectedly (to him, at least) passed over for his coveted Critic’s Circle Award by unanimous vote from a fraternity of London’s finest theater critics. Following a failed suicide attempt and subsequent faking of his death, Lionheart strives to put on his greatest performance – a performance of revenge involving some of the most grisly and over-the-top acts of revenge imaginable on said critics, all based directly on the very Shakespearean performances he was so mercilessly panned for. This all arguably inspired many films years afterward, from the concept (“Se7en” famously involved serial killings based, creatively and gruesomely, on the seven deadly sins) to the execution (i.e. all those god-awful “Final Destination” films that were little more than a showcase for deaths whose brutality and depravity knew no bounds). Admittedly, the tone of “Theatre of Blood” is closer to the shameless, carefree exploitation of the latter than the atmosphere of suffocatingly pervasive depression of the former (case-in-point, the downright comical degree to which both Lionheart’s victims and the police are slow on the uptick to figure out what the hell is going on). You can’t feature a delighted, cackling Vincent Price serving “Titus Andronicus”-inspired dog pot pies and a “Cymbeline”-inspired beheading without at least acknowledging the utter over-the-top absurdity of the entire proceedings. Yet, there is a certain degree of satire, of thought-provoking criticism of, well, criticism, that ascend all this nonsense above the mere mindless and depraved. Amongst all the crazed monologuing of Lionheart as he walks his journey of over-the-top vengeance, one line actually stuck with me as he engaged in a “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired fencing duel with one of his potential victims, when he angrily exclaims,

How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because because you lack the ability to create yourselves!

Never mind the fact that Lionheart perhaps has far too lofty an opinion of his acting skill, he’s saying what countless actors must have been thinking for centuries. Indeed, with hardly an exception, the critics to whom Lionheart directs his theatrical revenge are old, white, pretentious, stuffy, flamboyant assholes, the very stereotypes invading the minds of those claiming (and celebrating) the increasing irrelevance of criticism, film, theater or otherwise, making this film oddly satirical and predictive of today’s society. That, combined with a Vincent Price who seems like he’s having an absolute blast in this performance, relishing his overacting and his increasingly absurd disguises, almost put you in Lionheart’s camp, make you identify more with him and his obsessive devotion to his craft than with his snobbish victims. Of course, Lionheart is a madman who must himself be punished in a genre film such as this lest this be nothing more than a 2-hour argument for and defense of straight-up vigilantism and no-questions-asked revenge, but pardon me if I don’t exactly mourn the line of victims who have to feel his wrath before everything is set “right.” And, if nothing else, this all got me in a major mood to read Shakespeare, to see what could so inspire such creative brutality. All in all, I had as much shameless fun watching this as Vincent Price clearly had starring in it, even if I’m willfully missing Lionheart’s entire point by writing about it.

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)

Hugh Hefner executive produced this. And that’s probably the most interesting thing about it. This being Polanski’s first film after his wife and unborn child were brutally slaughtered, I was expecting much more of a totally revisionist, ultra-depraved/violent/gory, grief-laden dartboard where Polanski just let out all of his mental anguish. Instead, I was surprised at how relatively tame, aka boring, it was…well-staged, well-photographed, nice atmosphere of fog and unease, sure, but not much to really keep me awake after a long day at work and little sleep the night before. Select moments where Polanski does go outside the box of the Bard to make the Tragedy of Macbeth his own are few and far between, but overall, excellent; moments like the ghost of Banquo’s back to Macbeth, slowly turning his pale and soon-to-be-spurting-blood face towards Macbeth while the other men at the feast are practically frozen in place and time, or the murder of the King, seen in all its detail here while merely hinted at in the original text, or Macbeth’s hyperfrenzied dream/hallucination of his past sins and future doom at the gathering (orgy) of naked witches, or the brutally detailed rape/slaughter of Macduff’s family, or the march of the “forest” towards the castle, or the non-glamorized, musicless final sword battle between Macbeth and Macduff. Moments like these are violent and nauseating and utterly visceral, but that I could identify and separate them definitively, spread throughout a 2 1/4 hour movie, shows that either there just wasn’t enough of Polanski’s unique vision of this classic tale, or that I just wasn’t in the right mindset. Either way, for some reason it just felt like Lady Macbeth, in the text one of literature’s great villainesses, got sort of a short shrift here as a pitiful mental weakling instead of the wannabe-sexless woman who controls her husband like a puppet before losing her own mind, and that Macbeth’s transition from eager Thane fascinated/manipulated by a vague vision of the future into power-drunk monster was too sudden. I think I might like Shakespeare adaptations like Kurosawa’s (Ran, Throne of Blood) better than these literal ones, only borrowing the general story while retaining the themes instead of being handcuffed to the words themselves. Or something. Whatever, I’m too stupid to try to understand Shakespeare.

6.5/10

Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971)

Pretty terrifying, and almost exclusively because of Jessica Walter’s acting. An Ally-like obsessive psychopath to be sure, but I like how little to no effort is made to explain, say, her past or any other reason for that madness. All we see is a quirky but cute girl who mixes an impossibly innocent/childlike smile and laugh with terrifying verbal outbursts and a surprising sexuality that contrasts completely with that innocence at the drop of a hat, all of which gradually descends into outright mania when she becomes more and more obsessed with Eastwood’s radio DJ Dave the more he pushes her away. The mystery as to why she’s so crazy makes the crazy that much more interesting. Eastwood doesn’t do his film any favors with his acting, with the same whispery/raspy voice as his Man with No Name just not really fitting in contemporary California, other than seeming custom-made for a radio show. However, look for instance at the odd little Adam and Eve, Roberta Flack interlude that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the Jessica Walter-centric suspense, as Eastwood and his girlfriend feel safe at last and make love in the woods. The whole time during this long, drawn-out sex scene, I was expecting Clint to lean his head down and kiss his girl, only for him to lift his head up and for us to see that it’s suddenly Jessica Walter, and then he wakes up all sweaty in his bed. That never happens, which arguably makes this scene out of nowhere seem even more out of place, but at the same time, I applaud Eastwood for refusing to use the long-unoriginal it-was-all-a-nightmare gag. In fact, that I was expecting something terrible to happen in this scene of utter idyll is testament to how Clint, directing a film for the first time, was able to combine a truly creepy performance out of Jessica Walter and a simple yet incredibly effective air of suspense (combining ‘is she watching him just off in the distance?’ stretches with sudden moments of jarring, shaky-camera, exploitative violence) to keep your attention from start to finish. Eastwood’s transition of power from the front of the screen to behind it made a great beginning here.

8/10

Even Dwarfs Started Small (Werner Herzog, 1970)

Bunch of little people being destructive for 90 minutes.

5.5/10

Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)

It’d be far too easy to simply say that Morris is being purely objective in his documentary on those involved with a pair of pet cemeteries, because frankly it’s a lot more fun to debate whether he’s lampooning these bizarre people, or whether he’s being dead-serious in his depiction, or dare I say, sympathetic/empathetic.  I think the answer to that question depends entirely on the mindset of whoever is watching, and my mindset of the night was that of sympathy, so my answer of the night is the latter – sympathic/empathetic.  I took this film so seriously simply because of how serious these people were about building a pet cemetery, how enraged they were that pet corpses were heartlessly dug up by the masses when the first cemetery went under, and, quite simply, because of how much they clearly love animals (all of which facets of these peoples’ dead-seriousness are in and of themselves ripe to be satirized, which is why it’s easy to read “Gates of Heaven” as sarcastic).  These are some of the strangest people I’ve seen as the focus of a feature-length documentary, but as I said, they were so steadfast in their cause, so serious and so downright innocent in their conviction that their pets need and deserve respect in death and an appropriate final resting place, that I was able to push aside whatever snide, sarcastic thoughts I would’ve thought about these strange people otherwise and instead considered that innocence, and saw pure, almost child-like souls within these people.  Floyd McClure, the handicapped man in charge of the first cemetery the film focuses on, begins the film by simply describing how even in his youth, he wanted to create and run a pet cemetery.  Little insight is given into the other facets of this man’s life or past, just this one desire in regard to, of all things, a pet cemetery, but he talks about that one strange years-long goal with such conviction and devotion, sprinkled with clear respect for animals, that he’s immediately a sympathetic, likable figure.  As we meet some of the pet owners bidding farewell to their dearly departed, or an old lady singing a duet with her little doggie, it’s impossible to deny that they’re anything but normal, and the way they talk about their pets as if they were their own children will never not be strange, but nevertheless, that love for a pet is undeniable, and damned if that little eulogy the couple give with the cemetery administrator as they bury their dog isn’t moving.  The way they commiserate on the strange yet fascinating breed of the dog as if they’re dog experts plying their craft the way film historians would fondly discuss the art of cinema, and remembering the years of joy that dog brought, presented so matter-of-factly by Errol Morris…there’s just something so real about that, something I can’t describe in words, but merely silently appreciate.  Later, I got the vibe that the Harberts family, who run the cemetery the exhumed pets are moved to, aren’t quite as religiously obsessed with animals as the film’s previous subjects, but there’s still something just as bizarre yet real about them.  The way son Philip laments and eats his kishkes out about having to deal with dead animals on a daily basis, yet dutifully does it anyway, and the way his brother Danny laments his professional failures in life while waxing philosophical about no less than true love, is just so quirky, so subtly strange that it’s also subtly parallel to the kinds of things I would worry about and think about on a daily basis.  Though my interest started to wane as the focus shifted towards the fascinating yet ideologically bleak Harberts rather than the wonderfully eccentric yet pure-hearted people associated with McClure’s cemetery (even his nemesis, the owner of a rendering plant, is depicted as a more-or-less nice and matter-of-fact guy), the image of Danny playing his electric guitar outside, on a hill overlooking the impossibly green cemetery, and a long, silent montage of the some of the gravestones, are incredibly poignant, the ‘meanings’ of which I won’t go into, for it’s much more rewarding for the viewer to come up with his or her own meaning (and I haven’t quite come up with a ‘meaning’ yet…).  Everybody knows the adage of ‘man’s best friend’, and that the biggest selling point of a pet is the prospect of pure, unconditional love, the desire for which is clearly a key point of ‘Gates of Heaven’ – not just a film about late pets and their owners, but that instinct to love and be loved that is likely inherent in all species.  What I think made this film so poignant and moving in that regard is that that pure, unconditional love and innocence was present not just in the animals living and dead, but in their peculiar and caricature-ish owners.

And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe, so it’s gotta be some kind of minor masterpiece by default, no?

8.5/10

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

To call this one of “the best bad films I’ve seen” would probably be grossly inappropriate on my part, and grossly unfair to Russ Meyer, who three films into his filmography by now I realize was certainly shlocky and exploitative, but that’s certainly not enough evidence to call his films “bad”, but rather merely far, far separated from accepted convention. Obviously I don’t claim to be an expert on the late 60s/early 70s underground Hollywood scene, and thus my claim that the “lack of realism” of the increasingly bizarre situations that these girls find themselves in, and the dialogue in general, particularly from the Shakespeare/hipster-spewing Z-Man, is little more than a leap of faith on my part. That it all came from the mind of Roger Ebert, who I can’t help but look at as that nerdy film critic from Illinois, tempts me to believe that this compilation of depravity and a sex-starved/obsessed culture was penned by a clear outsider, someone whose knowledge of the seediness of Hollywood is confined to pulpy fiction rather than actual experiences and based his screenplay on such, for which reason the “lack of realism” comes shining through from the opening moments. But hey, the whole thing is about the outsider status of Kelly, Casey, and Petronella, and how these innocent girls are caught in the whirlpool of sex, drugs, and REALLY clever, pulpy, and downright poetic conversations – a bizarre place and time from the point of view of uninitiated outsiders becoming inured to and corrupted by that bizarre place and time, so perhaps seeing that bizarre place and time from the point of view of a seemingly uninitiated nerdy film critic from Illinois is appropriate.

Or it’s just an incredibly clever satire.

8.5/10

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

gimmeshelter

Mick Jagger and Melvin “Jor-El” Belli: partners in vain, self-righteous douchebaggery.

Otherwise, who knew one of the most prolific bands of all time would be this dull and uninteresting off the stage and be this unworthy of a feature-length documentary (a documentary that feels disingenuous from the very first moment, by the way…those scenes of the Maysles reviewing the Altamont footage with Jagger are just ridiculous in how staged they seem. If Jagger couldn’t act in those cobbled-together scenes, can you imagine what a disaster Fitzcarraldo would’ve been if he had starred in it like Herzog originally planned?  )?

But hey, at least Meredith Hunter’s hemorrhaging torso made things interesting at the end, amiright?

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6.5/10

Up! (Russ Meyer, 1976)

Believe it or not, it wasn’t any of the S&M nonsense or nonstop nudity/sex/exploitation/lousy acting/penis/pubic hair/overall incomprehensibility that bothered me…it’s all retarded, sure, but it sure as hell maintained my attention. No, what really bothered me was, of all things, Raven De La Croix’s voice, and also the voice of that naked Greek Chorus lady…just over-embellished ways of talking that were more annoying than anything. Otherwise, yeah, it was pure unmitigated crap, but I lol’d at stuff like that huge guy screaming “BEER! BEER!” and then walking through the wall with a naked girl in each arm. An surreal, absurdist pornographic cartoon, a lot of this was. One second it seems completely chauvinistic and sexist, and the next it does a 180 and seems empowering towards women, in its own strange, strange way (Roger Ebert…what a filthy old man to have written this :lol: ), so I don’t know what Meyer, Ebert et al were going for, and hell, maybe they didn’t know. This movie is crap, and bizarre, and just plain stupid (and actually repetitive to the point of starting to get boring with the overabundance of outrageous sex scenes that’re all exactly alike), and overly-zany and nonsensical for the sake of being overly-zany and nonsensical, hence my mediocre 6.5/10…but without a doubt like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and always kept me guessing as to what the fuck was gonna happen next, so before all y’all Meyer defenders come pining for my head and tell me ‘oh, you don’t GET it, man’ and ‘you’re a PRUDE, man’, just keep in mind, I could’ve given a MUCH worse score ;)

6.5/10

The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

In 1971, “The French Connection” took a gritty, documentary-like approach in its portrayal of two cops taking on a seemingly untouchable group of Frenchmen before a huge drug deal goes down.  We watch the daily process of stakeouts in the freezing cold, footchases through city streets and subway stations, the testing of a drug’s purity, deals, busts, searches, and every other seemingly mundane facet of a full-on drug investigation in astonishing detail.  That same year, “The Panic in Needle Park” took an arguably similar approach in its depiction of the other side of that drug situation.  Okay, maybe not literally the other side of the law, in terms of the shadow organizations and manufacturers and dealers as opposed to the cops, but rather those affected by the manufacture and sale of those drugs on the streets.  This film is about two people, Bobby and Helen, and their day-to-day lives as heroin addicts barely surviving on the fringes of society – more specifically, Sherman Square in New York City, more commonly known as Needle Park.  Some of the details of their drug-riddled lives are shown in agonizing detail, like a step-by-step drug transaction of Bobby’s or many, many shots of needles entering skin.  Sometimes moments like these get too monotonous, too detailed (alright, we get it, their lives suck, move on), but boy was I impressed with the realism and the subdued pseudo-documentary style, where even those monotonous shots are presented without sugarcoating, in all their anti-glory (there’s no music in this film whatsoever).  There’s no music cue or crafty editing to nudge us in the ribs and tell us to deplore or pity these people – we must simply watch what they do, let their actions speak for who they are and the choices they’ve made.  Seeing the needle enter Helen’s arm, blood creeping into the syringe, the plunger going down, and her face suddenly going from lucid to utterly catatonic in a matter of seconds might be one of the most painful and gut wrenching images I’ve seen in a film in quite some time.

“The Panic in Needle Park” is a character study more than anything else, so it goes without saying that it relies on the performances of the two lead actors to actually make us give a damn when they shoot themselves up into oblivion, and when much of what we see are repetitive, albeit powerful, moments in their everyday, pathetic lives.  Al Pacino, in his first big starring role, has his moments, but didn’t floor me in the least.  Too many times, the young Pacino delves into film school method acting…the look-at-me! style of an inexperienced method actor looking to make a splash a la James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”  He’d scream a little too loudly when angry, fidget a little too obviously when trying to express withdrawal, and would just be a little too expressive when trying to, say, hustle someone or use his charm to get in his more composed brother’s good graces.  He was trying too hard to act, to stand out, though signs of his acting skill to come in later films can be gleaned here and there.  The real find here, though, is Kitty Winn as Helen.  Seeing her dissolve from shy yet resolute young woman into pathetic, lethargic junkie, is heartbreaking (I was practically screaming for her not to pick up her first syringe the way the audience would tell the girl not to enter the haunted house in a horror movie).  One minute, she’s clean, but making a deal for Bobby – out of her element, but trying to act tough – and later she’s drooling, has no life in her eyes, and can’t get out of bed.  You wouldn’t believe they’re the same person, but she conveys both Helens convincingly, until they become one in a descent of subtly epic proportions.

Repetition ultimately prevents “The Panic in Needle Park” from being anything remarkable – after a while, the formula of Helen and Bobby shooting up, then meeting other junkies in Needle Park, then Helen and/or Bobby getting hassled by the local narc, then Helen prostituting herself, then Bobby getting pissed and screaming at her in full-on Al Pacino mode, then the two of them making up and screwing and shooting up, and the process starting all over again, gets old after a while.  Hell, that exact repetition is probably the entire point – what could be more pitiful than the never-ending cycle that is the repetitious life of a junkie?  The naysayer in me wanted something different to happen after a while – the shot of a needle entering an arm or an overdosed junkie dry heaving loses its squeamish power when you see it again and again – but clearly this film is about realism, so any route for these people but the nearly hopeless, circuitous route would do no good in getting a point across (although a scene involving a cute little doggie and a predictable worst case scenario pretty shamelessly tries to tug at the heartstrings in a film with otherwise impressive realism, so that certainly didn’t work…).  I say nearly hopeless because the staying power of the relationship between Bobby and Helen is impressive, and unexpected.  I would say it’s heartwarming how they clearly care for and need each other, but then again, what does that get them but overdoses, jail sentences, and poverty?  They go through hell, and do some awful things for ‘bread’ and pump some awful shit into their bodies, but some way, somehow, they always end up together again and again.  For what it’s worth, they’re destined for each other, however long, or short, that may be.  The tragedy, though, is that someone like Helen could’ve destined herself for so much more.

8/10

Fat City (John Huston, 1972)

It’s the story of two boxers – one past his prime, the other not yet in his prime, and each one’s attempt to make it big (or in Tully (Stacy Keach), the older one’s case, make it back).  Working from the ground-up in a dinky little gym, fighting in sparsely-advertised bouts against other has-beens or other raw rookies, and balancing boxing with hard labor jobs, no money, and woman trouble, the fame and glory usually afforded to the hero of a sports movie is out of the question.  We know it, and whether or not Tully and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) want to admit it, they probably know it too.  “Fat City” is a pretty hopeless movie, in that its grungy, disheveled protagonists are chasing hopeless pipe dreams – just what you’d expect in a John Huston movie, reminding us of the the gold diggers’ hopeless pipe dreams of fame and fortune in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” decades before “Fat City”, and of drunk counsul Geoffrey Firmin’s hopeless pipe dream of reconciling with his wife in “Under the Volcano” years after “Fat City.”  I don’t think that “Fat City” is quite as consistent or as stunningly unique as either of those films, but when it works, it works.  When it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Exactly what you’d expect from a decent movie ;) .

It does the right thing by being a sports film that’s not a sports film.  In the same vein as “Raging Bull”, “Fat City” doesn’t focus entirely on the sport or the big showdown, but rather, at least the majority of the time, on characters who just happen to be athletes in that particular sport.  The boxing scenes themselves are excellent, especially when close-ups on, say, Tully’s out-of-it face perfectly reflect a possible ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ mindset that’s just haunting and says more than any dialogue could, but really, the story here is about Tully and Ernie themselves, and how they balance boxing with their incredibly unexceptional everyday lives.  Jeff Bridges is solid if unremarkable as Ernie, a young and impressionable kid who you’re never sure if he actually wants the life of a boxer and the life of a husband that he finds himself drifting into rather than working hard for (though Candy Clark as his wife is little more than a stereotype – I was glad she had as little screentime as she did).  But really, the star of the show here is Stacy Keach, who’s just outstanding as Tully.  Yeah, he’s athletic enough (and emotive enough) for the boxing scenes to seem genuine, like he’s fighting not just for some comeback shot, but for his soul.  But the bread and butter of this performance, and this film, are the scenes of Tully’s everyday life, getting by one day working in the field and one drunken binge at a time.  When he’s drinking, he seems drunk.  When he’s working in the fields, you can feel his exhaustion and his sweat.  When he’s trying to calm down a distraught Oma (Susan Tyrrell) at the bar, the back-and-forth between the two feels authentic and improvised.  Maybe it’s just me, but I can think of few images that feel more genuine and heartwarming than that of a drunk Tully and a drunk Oma arm-in-arm outside the bar, laughing, singing, rambling and shuffling along.  I’d say that it’s a prime example of a John Huston-esque image, but I have no idea how to describe what a John Huston-esque image is.  As soon as I saw it, I just automatically attributed it to something John Huston would show us, for whatever reason, so I leave it at that.  But one of the best scenes in the film involves little more than Tully trying to convince Oma, now his girlfriend, to eat the dinner that he’s made in their shabby little apartment.  As she’s getting more and more shrill and uncontrollable, Tully’s so desperately trying to keep his cool, but his rage – rage at Oma, at the box of Oma’s jailed ex’s clothes sitting on the floor, at his being washed up as a boxer, at being unable to hold a job, at his lot in life – can barely be contained.  In an otherwise just-above-average addition to John Huston’s filmography, Stacy Keach is wonderfully subdued, even in the middle of a bout or a drunken binge (though Susan Tyrrell, who remarkably received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Oma, makes me wanna  from the moment she enters the picture with how shrill and irritating she is.  If anything, though, at least I can feel Tully’s pain :P ).

Really, the biggest issue I had with “Fat City” was its pacing and just a bizarrely uneven story structure.  Whenever a chunk of the movie focused on Ernie, I felt like Tully needed more of the movie’s emphasis, and whenever Tully dominated the proceedings, I felt like Ernie needed more screentime.  I suppose you can consider that a compliment, that I cared enough about these two characters to be annoyed whenever one seemed to be getting the short-shrift in terms of screentime, and maybe it was that the two just didn’t have all that much screentime together, but I just feel like more balance was needed between the two men and their stories – and I can’t even say which one really got the shaft, it all depends on which scene I’m watching at the time.  Also, by the end it’s implied that months, maybe even years, have elapsed from film’s beginning to film’s end, but boy was I taken aback by this little revelation.  In a movie this short (it’s only an hour and a half), that’s just another indicator that more balance was needed in story structure.  Still, though, “Fat City” is a fine film, with nice parallels to be drawn between the stories of 30-something Tully and 20-something Ernie – Ernie possibly reminding Tully of better times, Tully’s current lot in life serving as a possible sign of what’s to come for Ernie, etc etc.  They meet up under friendly terms at the YMCA in one of the film’s first scenes, and their paths grow more and more divergent as the story progresses, only to come together once again in the film’s final shot, a wonderful one.  But with a dual-storyline as uneven as “Fat City”‘s, I’m not sure that the movie even deserves such a profound and screencapingly great final shot.  Either way, though, it’s a shot that’s ambiguous and leaves a hell of a lot up in the air about the maybe-bleak, maybe-hopeful future of these guys – a telltale sign of a damned good, genre-defying ‘sports’ movie.

8/10

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