A Society Would Be Wise To Pay Attention To The People Who Do Not Belong (Arthur Penn)

When Arthur Penn was still a teenager he was in the US Army, in Europe & in the Second World. I’ve only been in

brando-pennthe middle one, I would imagine that the full set gave him a little perspective to bring back to his acting studies. He was in the right place at the right time for NBC, an expanding TV network where he served an apprenticeship as a director before returning to the theatre then into film direction. His older brother Irving was a big-time fashion photographer for “Vogue” so Arthur knew how far having a discerning eye could get you, His first film, “The Left Handed Gun” (1958) was a study of that troubled American youth Billy the Kid with Paul Newman stepping in when James Dean was unable to make the gig. In the next decade he made considered, provocative movies before directing a film which has come to be regarded as a spearhead of modernity in American cinema.

Arthur Penn was a Kennedy Democrat, a contemporary of the brothers in the White House. After 2 terms of a Republican general as President there was an optimism & a determination to address social issues which had been neglected during the Cold War politics of the 1950s. “The Miracle Worker” (1962) is the story of Helen Keller, a deaf, dumb & blind kid & a tutor’s attempts to communicate with her. It’s intense though it flicks obvious emotional switches. When I was a kid I was affected by  the film but I was so much older then. “The Miracle Worker” is a Liberal’s wet dream. Like  another pile of self-satisfied sentiment, “That Shawshank Thing”, the Academy loved it. Oscars for Ann Bancroft & Patty Duke but… nah !  “Mickey One” (1965) is more like it. It’s a surreal riff on film noir with a bigger thing for the French New Wave than Hollywood. A paranoid story of a stand-up comedian (Warren Beatty) who is, or thinks he is on the run from the mob. In 2010 Penn spoke about the film’s reflections on McCarthyism…” it was in repudiation of the kind of fear that overtook free people to the point where they were telling on each other and afraid to speak out. It just astonished me, really astonished me. I mean, I was a vet, so it was nothing like what we thought we were fighting for.”  Arthur Penn was a man with a message & a mission to pass it on. His films are worthy of consideration because of this.

“Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), now let’s see if I can do this thing without using the word “zeitgeist”. Two young American outsiders, double the trouble. The bad guys & gals had never looked so beautiful, sexy, fashionable & cool. The violence never more casual, shocking & in slow motion. There was a great cast to support Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway, the whole gang, Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman, Michael J Pollard, was Oscar nominated. We laughed at the crime & the cops as Flatt & Scruggs picked out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. The whole package, script, cinematography, editing, was shaking the tree. If there was such a thing as New Hollywood then this was it. Those objectors to the violence, to the lack of accuracy, to the attitude (“a squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade”) were kicked to the kerb as a  $2½ million movie grossed $70 million. The film critic of the New York Times was sacked after his negative review. Arthur Penn & his crew showed that the rock & roll youth market would go to the movies if the studios offered a little more to see than Elvis’s latest piece of joyless dross.

A director who knew what the Woodstock Nation would pay to watch was hot. His next film was adopted from a counter-culture anthem, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. The 18 minute song is a rambling hippie monologue which finally comes to a point about avoiding the draft & that war is bad…m’kay. From this insubstantial foundation an almost 2 hour long movie made rather heavy handed points about the  rubbishness of the “straight” world. Hollywood Hippies…f**k ’em ! Next time round, with more capacious material, Arthur Penn was back on it.

“Little Big Man” (1970) may be a mess but it is our mess. In the same year  Dee Brown’s best selling book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” reflected an identification with the ecological, anti-materialist concerns of Native Americans by the counter culture, “Little Big…” is a story told by 121 year old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who has, he says, seen things & done things. The film, like Crabb’s life, is long & sprawling, playing fast & loose across moments in American history. Kind of like “Forrest Gump” only watchable & not at all sappy. Then, like “Dances With Wolves” only without the condescension, Jack spends time living as a Cheyenne, taught the ways of the “Human Beings” by Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George who nicks the film with his performance & his “good day to die” schtick.

Picaresque is the very word for this film. Story lines are resolved by “with one bound he was free” or are just left hanging. The changes in tone from tragedy to comedy are capably handled, the satire is sharp. Hoffman’s little man shifts with the winds of change. Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam & a manic Richard Mulligan as Custer are just passing through but leave an impression. It’s only recently that I’ve been picking up copies of classic 70s movies. “Little Big Man”  fits right in there.

I was at the front of the queue for Penn’s 1976 Western. “The Missouri Breaks” starred not only Jack Nicholson in the one after “Cuckoo’s Nest” but also Marlon Brando in the one after the “Godfather”/”Last Tango” double. Hell yeah !  A film of its time, a little out there, lots of black hats & no white ones, a low key story of muddied morality. It was not the meeting of movie mahatmas we expected. Brando felt it would be best if he improvised his part. Penn, aware that the whole emphasis of the film would be changed but vulnerable against star-power, let the cameras roll & hoped to influence the post-production. Jack, seeing he could not compete with Marlon’s excesses, reined himself in to counter his co-star’s energy. Critics, offended by what they saw as Brando’s self-indulgence, set about him & the film was a box office flop.

From a distance & with repeated viewing  the method in Brando’s madness becomes more apparent. Despite unpredictable meanderings of his accent the “regulator”, Lee Clayton,is an impressive, very watchable performance. He is hired to eliminate a funky bunch of horse thieves led by Nicholson , including Harry Dean Stanton, Fred Forrest & Randy Quaid, who all have fun with Thomas McGuane’s snappy script. “The Missouri Breaks” is a beautifully filmed piece with some unforgettable Brando business which fits right in with the new Westerns of the 1970s.

There’s no room here for “Night Moves” (1975), Penn’s New Wave take on the crime thriller. Another time, maybe in a riff on Gene Hackman because he was at the top of his game as the disenchanted shamus Harry Moseby. Penn’s career faltered in the 1980s, while he continued his reflections on the changing times in America his disillusioned outsiders were never as sharply, smartly showcased as they were in the early films. Back then it was his & his generation’s time & he was one of the most assured, articulate film directors around. It’s not just the 3 movies featured here that will reward anyone who appreciates intelligent, concerned movie-making.

Morons I’ve Got Morons On My Team (Strother Martin)

Strother Martin was a noted character actor in, mainly, the Western movies. A former National Junior Springboard Diving champion he moved to La-La Land to work as a swimming extra in films’ water scenes…apparently that’s a real job ! It was not all rooting & tooting but most of the work Strother obtained in films & television did involve wearing a gunbelt & a hat. A distinctive sneer, an air of general malevolence, meant that the hat was usually a black one. He became one of a small group of actors who added value with any performance, recognisable to both audiences & casting directors. In 1967 he delivered, according to the American Film Institute, the 11th most memorable line of the cinematic century & it was not “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”.

In “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) Strother plays Captain, the sadistic warden of a Florida prison where war veteran Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to 2 years on a chain gang for the imaginative crime of cutting the heads off parking meters. Luke’s travails have parallels to McMurphy in “…Cuckoo’s Nest” It is an anti-authoritarian, modern, masculine movie which, together with “Hombre”, marked Newman’s move from fine actor to film star. There is an amount of religious imagery in the film… whatever…it’s a cracking film with memorable set pieces (egg eating, car washing, communication breakdowns ), Strother Martin keeping a cold, cruel eye on a bunch of cons which includes the talents of Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton. Pa Walton & Oscar winner George “Dragline” Kennedy.

After a “failure to communicate” Strother Martin’s star was rising. In 1969 he appeared in all 3 of the year’s major Westerns. The top-grossing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” was another Paul Newman joint, they made 5 films together. He was becoming a regular in John Wayne’s movies too. “True Grit” was the 4th time Martin had worked with Duke. He was also a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (above ) & was retained for the director’s next western romp “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”.

Strother was perfectly cast as part of the  “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash” pictured. It was as a member of a gang that he had first shown out in the big films. In John Ford’s marvellous “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) our man Martin, along with Lee van Cleef, were the sycophantic sidekicks of my man Lee Marvin (Liberty), hired gun, all-round rotter & the scourge of Shinbone. In “Hannie Caulder” (1971), a Western vehicle for the pneumatic but limited Raquel Welch, the Clemens Brothers, a trio of inept, despicable, probably malodorous outlaws, are played with such relish by Strother, Ernest Borgnine & Jack Elam that they steal the movie more effectively than they rob banks.

It wasn’t all lollygaggin’ around various saloons though.

“Slap Shot” (1977) is some kind of movie. Paul Newman & director George Roy Hill had collaborated on 2 super successful box-office smashes. Their story of the Charlestown Chiefs a losing ice hockey team in a threatened industrial town crams a lot into its 2 hours. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is similarly facing an uncertain future in approaching retirement. The introduction of new tactics, “old time hockey”,  a bit of the old ultra-violence, revives the teams fortunes. “Slap Shot” adroitly combines broad, coarse comedy with a dark realism (better than “Dodgeball” then). Strother plays the tightwad, conniving General Manager, Joe McGuire, with his customary perfectly pitched exuberance. Most of the cast help the film along.

“Slap Shot” was not a big success on it’s release. The biggest movie star around was effin’ & jeffin’ a little too much for the mass market. There is a list of good 1970s sports comedies & this, with “North Dallas Forty” is at the head of it (“Bad News Bears”…anyone ?). They are all better than anything starring Adam Sandler. Strother more than does his bit to make the film a success…Oh yeah…then there’s the Hanson Brothers !

Hey…if marijuana doesn’t damage your brain then how come so many people find Cheech & Chong funny ? These fabulous furry freaky guys were a very big deal in the 1970s. Their records were in the Top 10 & “Up In Smoke” (1978), the original, possibly the best stoner movie was a great success too. It is the cinematic link between Abbott & Costello &  “Wayne’s  World” (don’t mention Harold or Kumar). Like the other contender for the title, “The Big Lebowski” the movie is a bunch of quotable scenes, all equally hilarious when randomly shared with your relaxed friends. Strother Martin is Tommy Chong’s irascible father, an absolute humdinger. A shout out to a great friend, Bernie, who chose to celebrate the night before his marriage in the company of his buddies, his collection of Cheech & Chong videos & his bong. What a guy !

It’s no surprise that “Up In Smoke” makes it as the 3rd clip. C’mon it’s a classic ! There are other candidates for inclusion because Strother Martin was busy throughout the 1970s. His spark & ebullience brought something memorable to all of his scenes. In “Pocket Money” (1972) a dream team of Newman & Lee Marvin work for Strother’s sleazy rodeo agent. “Hard Times” (1975) is a macho treat in which he plays an opium addicted doctor, third wheel to Charles Bronson & James Coburn. The co-stars were not always such big names, the scripts not that great but Strother Martin was always noteworthy. You know him…the “failure to communicate” guy…mmm…the “goddamn Finkelstein shit kid” cat…oh yeah…he’s great.

By 1980 Strother had cardiac problems & unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack in the August of that year. One of his final jobs was to host US TV’s biggest comedy show “Saturday Night Live”. You don’t get that gig unless people know who you are. In a sketch he played  the strict owner of a French Language camp for children. The problem was…a failure to communicate…bi-lingually ! Strother Martin…a dude.

Ten Great Movies From the 1970s.

When I started this blog I always intended to write about cinema. There are movies which have affected and influenced me as much as my favourite LPs. My first attempts are stuck in the draft stage or have been trashed. I don’t want to be a film critic, we have enough of those. I know that a degree of context is required but I want to transmit how movies can affect the viewer intellectually and emotionally. Sticking to the facts is proving to be too arid. I will stick at it until I get it right (or right enough).     

Here, in alphabetical order are 10 films from the 1970s which I consider to be the best from a Golden Age of film-making.I am aware that in all fields of the arts you can favour that which were revelatory to your younger self. I have seen all these movies countless times and continue to be enchanted by them.  Any of the directors of these films could have dominated my list. I have restricted my choice to the one I consider to be the greatest of their work in this decade.                                                                                                                                    

Aguirre, Wrath of God Poster   Aguirre, Wrath Of God             Amarcord      Amarcord Poster

Chinatown Poster    Chinatown                              The Godfather    The Godfather Poster

Nashville Poster Nashville One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Poster

 Punishment Park Poster   Punishment Park                           Taxi DriverTaxi Driver Poster

                        That Obscure Object of Desire Poster  That Obscure Object of Desire  

The Man Who Fell to Earth Poster  The Man Who Fell To Earth   

Ok, there are 10 wonderful movies. They all deserve more than just being included in a list so that’s me for this week then. I do not have to justify my choice but do feel that I should write further about them to do them justice.