Those 70s Movies (Part Four).

Punishment Park (1971)

director: Peter Watkins.

The most personal of my choices, “Punishment Park” never received a general release and, like other Watkins’ films was pretty much buried. It is now available on You Tube and I was delighted to be able to view it again recently. His earlier film, “The War Game”, made for the BBC and about a nuclear attack on the UK, had been banned. Over 10 years later the film was still relevant but could only be seen in local community centres and church halls. How effective, how true does a movie have to be for authorities to not want us to see it ?

“Punishment Park” is a similar documentary style (I refuse to use the prefix “pseudo”) projection into a dystopian near future. It posits a reaction to the counter- culture by the authorities whereby, after a tribunal, those arrested are given the option of prison or going to Punishment Park, an area in the desert where those who choose have to travel 50 miles to the American flag pursued by the National Guard. The film intercuts between a group in the desert and the tribunal for the following group.

It is obviously a political film. Watkins has an agenda and pulls no punches in showing which side of the fence he stands. It is this “fence”, the polarization of American society in the late 1960s, which is shown more effectively than in any film I have ever seen. The absence of any mutual understanding between the two opposing groups is repeatedly made. The treatment of the black activist at the tribunal seems crass and ridiculous yet mirrors the treatment of Bobby Seale who was bound and gagged in the courtroom during the trial of the Chicago 7. There is always an element of “this could happen” about this movie which makes it so compelling. A monotone English voice coldly narrates adding a veracity to the images.

Seeing “Punishment Park” again is not like watching a view from another time. The same polarization exists today, the potential for oppression remains. The arguments are the same and the film is still relevant. The style is also wonderfully modern. The rapidity of the editing , the hand held shots, the involvement of the film makers as the events unfold bring to mind the films of Nick Broomfield, “Man Bites Dog”, even “The Hurt Locker. The legacy of music video on cinema is the eye-blinking speed of cuts between shots. Watkins uses this so effectively that it is difficult to believe that the film is 40 years old.

On leaving the cinema in 1972 a friend asked if we had just watched a documentary. We were surprised at his reaction but this reflects no deception on the part of the film-maker rather how effective his methods had been. A film which still provokes thought, discomfort and anger after all this time.

Taxi Driver (1976)

director: Martin Scorsese. starring: Robert de Niro.

“Taxi Driver” is the director’s first major, big budget, movie. He had made good films previous to this and “Mean Streets” is a great one. The later film nicks it because it is a more collaborative and thus more structured film than the labour of love that is “Mean Streets”. Scorsese even had a bona-fide movie star in the lead role after his boy De Niro’s turn as the young Vito Corleone in “Godfather 2”. Robert was on a roll which brought us “1900”, “The Last Tycoon”, back with Martin for “New York, New York” and then “The Deer Hunter”. (Blimey, I have missed some quality movies from this list of 10). The script, by Paul Schrader, a man as driven as the director, was a ready rolled portrait of alienation and it’s consequences. Scorsese gave notice of his intentions to make a film about urban and personal claustrophobia by employing Bernard Herrmann to score the film. Herrmann had written the music for Hitchcock’s great run of 50s classics. He wrote the music for “Citizen Kane” for Christ’s sake. This was to be his final work.

Travis Bickle, our hero, is a man estranged from the world around him. He wants to make connections but is unable to. He hates the world he sees through the  windscreen and in the back seat of his cab. When he tries to make connections he meets the platitudes of fellow driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) or fails through his own social inadequacy with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). He is, in his own words, “God’s lonely man”.

The film’s progression to the violent climax is perfectly pitched. Bickle tenses as Tom (Albert Brooks) tries to move him along and you just know that the Vietnam vet could do some real damage here. The destruction of his TV is as funny as hell. When Travis shows up at a political rally sporting a mohican it is obvious that it is all over for him and for whoever gets in his way. The involvement with a teenage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster) and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) inevitably ends in violence because Bickle is, by this time, too far gone.

Scorsese with “Taxi Driver” brought the urban cinema of Hitchcock, Kazan, Lumet and others into the modern age. He paved the way for Tarentino and Ferrera to make their provocative films. More than any director he was aware of cinema history and, I think, it was no accident that he did this. “Taxi Driver” is a modern film. Every year in the USA there are shocking murders such as the Columbine shootings. This film forewarned of these events and explains the psychology of the disturbed loners who commit them.Travis only ends as a “hero” because society will always interpret violence to suit it’s own ends. A great, GREAT film.

As a change of tone here is Michel Gondry’s “sweded” version. (see “Be Kind, Rewind).

Advertisements

Those 70s Movies (Part Three)

Nashville (1975)

director: Robert Altman. starring: a cast of 100s

This film was promoted as the movie of the Bicentennial, celebrated in 1976. Altman had not really had a box office hit since M.A.S.H. but his subsequent work (especially “McCabe & Mrs Miller”) is of high quality & received critical acclaim. While there is, undoubtedly, a political dimension to “Nashville” I feel that further viewing reduces the impact of the political campaign (the fictional Replacement Party) & emphasizes the real strength of the film, the development of a large range of characters as their stories intertwine.

Altman had been developing his style of film-making for some time. A large cast, all with a story, the use of overlapping imagery and dialogue aimed for a more naturalistic film. He used a repertory company of actors & some of these appear in the film. Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Murphy and Shelley Duvall worked with the director on numerous occasions & knew how it worked. A number of fine character actors are employed  in stronger parts than they were usually. In all cases they delivered one of the most memorable performances of their careers.

Set in the hermetic world of country music (the actors, along with Richard Baskin, wrote their own songs) and a slightly sprawling 160 minutes long. The appeal of the film is the assured & fascinating way the director balances all the stories and produces a coherent and provocative entertainment from such a large ensemble. It is an admirable achievement. The last two films I wrote about are damned near perfect. “Nashville” is not, I think, perfect but is an outstanding example of the work of a director who, along with his acolytes, produced some of the best American cinema of the 1970s.

A final word about the fine cast. The great Ned Beatty, Allen Garfield, the luminous Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely (a musician who had hardly acted before), Henry Gibson (stranded since Laugh-In) and Barbara Harris all contribute to the quality of the film. Harris, in particular, is enchanting. I now watch the original of “Freaky Friday” whenever it is on TV because her performance in “Nashville” confirms her quality as an actress of note.

Here’s the trailer for “the damnedest thing you ever saw”. It checks for more actors than I have mentioned and may confuse you further. Great films can be confusing…it’s OK.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

director: Milos Forman. starring: Jack Nicholson.

How can I do this film justice ? A favourite novel, a favourite actor and a director who, from his debut in the US, looked up to the job. I went to the cinema to see it on the day it opened and went again on the next weekend. It has remained a benchmark for how cinema can provoke, intrigue and entertain. A truly satisfying experience and proof that popular art does not have to condescend to reach a large audience.

The film of the book was a long time coming. There are extensive changes to the original source and the end result is stronger for them. Jack Nicholson as the rugged individualist, McMurphy, is no less than spectacular. His confrontations with the authorities in the mental asylum and his relationship with the inmates alternately delight and depress. The introduction of McMurphy’s unfocused energy into the bleak asylum aggravates his fellows into such memorable action. Christopher Lloyd, Danny de Vito, Will Sampson and others all contribute but none more than Brad Dourif as the stuttering Billy Bibbit. His final attack on the monstrous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) seems so justified that the audience is willing a murder to happen.

Milos Foreman and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, created a film which can be bleak and depressing but, ultimately delights and uplifts. There are, sometimes broad strokes used about complicated issues but it is still story telling of the highest quality. Ah, you must have seen this anyway.

Here is the film’s theme by the composer Jack Nitzche, a man of equal quality to the others involved.

Those 70s movies (Part Two)

Chinatown (1974)

director: Roman Polanski. starring : Jack Nicholson.

I always hesitate to pin the label “film noir” (always a problematic definition) on to anything made after the the early 1950s. Whether an homage, a pastiche or a genuine attempt to add to the genre the end result, invariably, is “noirish” or “neo-noir” & those are two things that we really don’t need. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” satisfies all the necessary criteria to be film noir. It then adds layers of modernity which place the film firmly in the vanguard of ground-breaking 1970s cinema.

Released at the height of Watergate a story of paranoia, conspiracy & political corruption, though set in the 1940s would always resonate with the contemporary mood of the USA. Robert Towne’s script, the most celebrated in Hollywood, is a seamless mix of the cinematic & literary. It is a private dick story nuanced by the faction which passes for  history in Los Angeles. A combination which has served the novelist James Ellroy so well in recent years. It is to Polanski’s credit that he took such a rich source & in the process of transferring it to the screen more than matched it’s quality.

Jack Nicholson had played notable parts before Jake Gittes but the private detective is his breakthrough into the mainstream. Gittes is Bogart cynical but not Bogart tough. It is an emotional & moral involvement which keeps him on the twisted trail of the amoral, even evil, Noah Cross, played to perfection by John Huston. No film about L.A. can avoid self-reference (& reverence). The sublime example in “Chinatown” is an attack on Gittes which leaves him with a dressing on his nose and a resemblance to Donald Duck ! The thug who inflicts the wound is played by Polanski himself. There are few finer examples in Hollywood of a director letting the audience know who is in charge & that he knows what he is doing.

I am not going to analyse the labyrinth of “Chinatown”‘s plot. It is enough to say that the film has an almost unsurpassed coherence of script, direction & cast pitched perfectly to deliver a complex package which satisfies on all levels. Polanski has never again worked so closely with the Hollywood film industry. It is a pity because this remains his masterpiece & there may have been others to follow.

The Godfather (1972)

director: Francis Ford Coppola. starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duval.

Coppola’s saga about the Corleone family has become so ubiquitous that it would be facetious of me to attempt any original thought about this film. I would just like to endorse the following idea. When the most visible of the “movie brats” were given an opportunity to direct big budget movies they reached back to their childhood for inspiration. Spielberg took a giant rubber shark and he really made his mark with an inflated B picture. Lucas parlayed his infatuation for the space and adventure serials of his youth into more money than you can shake a stick at with Star Wars and Indy. Childish or child-like ? You make your own choice. What is indisputable is that these films opened the door to the mega-buck blockbuster which has come to so dominate the industry.

Some 8 years older than these two, Coppola looked to the gangster films of his own youth. Edward G Robinson, James Cagney & Bogart had become stars in these tough guy roles but there had not been a “proper” Hollywood mob movie for some time. “Point Blank” was made there but looked to Europe for it’s style. The French, they made a heap of gangster flicks in the 60s. Francis, like us all, had seen these films on TV. We were shocked by the violence & loved the anti-heroes even if the got their just desserts in the end. He did not want to make a film for big kids. He made a mob movie for modern times charting the transition from concepts of  honour and respect to a more cruel and rational outlook. In doing so he created an epic which exposed America as mich as it did the Cosa Nostra.

He got Brando, who appeared to have given up, to give one more scintillating performance, dominating any scene in which he appears with his quiet authority. An ensemble of ready for prime time young guns all took their chance as the next generation of Corleones. The contrasting characters of these four adds a depth to this film that few others can emulate. A word too for Nino Rota’s score which gives credence to the director’s claim for an operatic influence.

“The Godfather” is entertainment for adults, you know those people who now take their kids to the cinema to see the new Pixar construct and hope that they have been included. Coppola tried always to make this sort of intelligent film and, on a few occasions he succeeded. If  this film had failed there would have been no “Apocalypse Now”, no “Goodfellas”, no “Reservoir Dogs”. He took the 1930s blueprint for a tough guy movie, resuscitated it and added plenty of flourishes which have become a new blueprint. A high water mark in American cinema.

The clip is 17 seconds long…you have time for that.

Those 70s Movies (Part One)

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) 

director : Werner Herzog. starring : Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski together produced a body of work which is the jewel of the flourishing 1970s German cinema (whatever happened to the German film industry ?). They made great films but “Aguirre” is the greatest of them. A film about power, hierarchy, obsession, the veneer of civilization & culture, greed & madness.  Filmed on location in South America the beauty, power & wildness of Nature is combined with an almost verisimilitude of the conquistador experience.

From the opening shot, showing the painstakingly slow progress of the expedition across the alien Andes, the cinematography continues to stun. The scenes on the rafts seem impossible to be choreographed yet perfectly mirror the increasing loss of control of the protagonists. The descent of Aguirre is a more measured & nuanced performance by Kinski than other Herzog movies in which he appeared. I have seen this film within the past year. I wondered if it retained it’s naturalness, it’s directness of exposition which i found awe-inspiring & unique. No worries, great art has a permanence that time has little affect upon.

The soundtrack, by Popol Vuh, must be mentioned. It is their first of many for Herzog & ranks with any of the outstanding soundtracks in cinema. I have added the German trailer for the movie because the idea of a dubbed Klaus Kinski is just wrong. Don’t worry if you cannot understand the dialogue, the audacity & originality of the filming will make you want to see more.

 

 

Amarcord (1973)

director: Federico Fellini.

A film about Fellini’s own memories of childhood which combines truth and it’s imagined form so accurately, poignantly & hilariously that it becomes universal. A series of inter-connected vignettes about growing up in Rimini in the 1930s with no plot,  “Amarcord” is not only the first on my list of films of the 70s but is, in my opinion, the masterpiece of cinema. The film contains all the elements which we have come to call “Felliniesque”. There are set pieces which are tours de force, grotesques, images which are, once seen, indelible. It is the energy & the ebullience of the story-telling which sets this film apart from others.

A peacock in the snow. The all-enveloping tobacconist. The voluptuous town whore. The arrival in the bay of an awe-inspiring ocean liner (the blind man asking for more descriptive detail) are all unforgettable. Personally the family outing where the mad, sexually frustrated uncle climbs a tree to shout of his need is imagination transferred to celluloid as perfectly as has ever been achieved. It is the family in the film which provides the core to the film. In turn exuberant, tragic and human. Fellini, aided by his cinematographer, Guiseppe Rotunno & his composer, Nino Rota, have created a work where sentiment, flamboyance and nostalgia (often used as criticisms of the director) are integrated into life in a way that they really are. This is a film with heart. A heart which is absolutely in the right place. Not since “La Strada” had he charmed us so much with his characters.

No trailer is needed for this film. If you read this and you are interested in films then grab the first copy you see.

Federico Fellini Picture