Thursday, March 10, 2011

This Month's Movies--The Deer Hunter (1978) & And Then There Were None (1945)

The Deer Hunter was a big deal when it first came out, sweeping the Academy Awards and earning reverent praise as one of the masterworks of its era. I was 8 at the time and remember it well; though I also remember Barry Manilow's Even Now album coming out the same year and seeming to be about equivalent in cultural importance. One thing that was strongly emphasized about the Deer Hunter was that it was absolutely not for children, so naturally I didn't see it at the time. Then, due to a variety of circumstances, some of which I may examine later in this piece, the movie, while it seems to have remained more or less well-regarded, also seemed to become somewhat forgotten by the general consciousness as regards such things--I never hear it referenced or quoted from in the way other movies from that time period are, for example--so I went on never having seen it, or ever thinking about seeing it, until its turn recently came up in my latest classic-movie-list-generating system.

My expectations were guarded but I was not wholly incurious to see it. Given the overwhelming impact it had made on its initial release, I thought it must have some power that did not resonate or fit in with the contemporary zeitgeist but would be able to arouse recognition in anyone who retained some connection to the world out of which the movie arose. I also knew that it was largely set in a steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania, with which kinds of places I have a decent familiarity, and which I have always in fact thought are underutilized as settings for films and other stories, even to the extent of planning a (never-written) story or short novel in such a locale myself. It has lots of big stars (Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken) who have been ubiquitous my entire life to the point that I am rather tired of all of them; however as they were all still young here and, with the exception of DeNiro, not quite established in the public mind as Themselves yet, their presences, while they did not excite me, did not put me off as most productions overstuffed with modern celebrities tend to.

Predictably, I found the parts of the movie set in Pennsylvania of more interest than those set in Vietnam. Many scenes were actually filmed in Ohio and the hunting scenes, rather incongruously, in Washington state, but there are still plenty that were shot in Pennsylvania, and certainly that look like Pennsylvania, the rocky, hilly terrain with its brown grass and brown trees, the smallness and darkness of an overcast or rainy day in a valley town hemmed in by the mountains all around and the low, cloud packed sky above, the soft-lit dreariness of aging stores and other interiors. These details of place give the movie such sense of reality and coherence as it has. The dialogue and characterization, while some effort was made which at various moments seemed promising, ended up not forming into a memorable whole. The parts in Vietnam obviously take the arc of the characters' development in varying directions, but the result, which is a problem I have found in many Vietnam movies, neither gives a clear sense of any especially illuminating reality about the war in any of its aspects, nor follows or builds upon the earlier scenes in the movie in a way that offers any much probing insight into what exactly is happening to various of the characters and why. That war is a terrible madness that not infrequently drives people who experience it far off the course of ordinary cognitive/psychological relation to life, and that the Vietnam war was perhaps even more extreme in these regards than other conflicts, are fairly well established viewpoints in this culture. Whatever statement one aims to make however, in order to produce a gripping work of art, one's subjects have to retain/emanate some sense of humanity that is deeper and nobler than the horror of whatever actual circumstances are being depicted. I don't feel that that was successfully achieved in this movie.

The Vietnam War of course would only have been over for three years when this came out. Though I would have been 5 years old when it ended, I have no memory of it as a current event. It has always existed for me as belonging to the past, even when that past was scarcely a few years gone, which is as nothing to an adult. A not insignificant portion of the political and social atmosphere of my whole life have been, supposedly, influenced by this war, especially the animosities and societal fault lines exacerbated by it, yet I have never had much of a feel for what it, and all the disputes surrounding it, really signified, I mean one knows in broad terms about the divisions it caused and how it undermined trust in the government and that the geography and psychology of southeast Asia seem to have proved especially nightmarish for Americans to cope with, but somehow whatever agenda or position the author or historian or filmmaker of the accounts of it are trying to push I find I have a difficult time trusting in to any reasonable extent.

Hardly anyone in the mainstream critical community gives any indication that they think the film's stature has declined over the years, though most of their approving reviews do not have any very distinct air of freshness about them, as if they saw the movie decades ago and haven't gotten around for whatever reason to seeing it again since, though they probably meant to. I can sense the movie already having something of this effect with myself. Among the various reasons why it was so lauded on its first appearance was also that Robert DeNiro was either at or very near the height of his reputation as an actor at the time, which was colossal. He was regarded in a similar light in the late 70s as Brando was in the 50s. No one in Hollywood under 40, possibly under 50, is regarded in anything approaching the same esteem today. He was seen as something more than just a highly accomplished professional, or even an exceptional talent, but as a kind of dangerous force that was threatening or exhilirating depending on which side of the cultural divide one stood on. In contrast to Brando, however, who as he got older worked sporadically, became ever stranger and more ornery, ballooned to an immense weight and generally remained a figure of some fascination at least to me, DeNiro at some point around the late 1980s lost this edge, this aura of being different, by several insurmountable degrees, from everyone else. Whether this has had any effect of making his other earlier, more celebrated roles less interesting, I do not know--I remain a fan of his performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull at least, and I think they will hold up. In some of the other films, though, including this one, it does seem now like he is playing the Robert DeNiro persona as much as a unique character in a unique story. There may not have been anywhere else to go with the role as it was written--in any case the dimensions of the character in this movie are not what they are in these other parts.

The collapse of the career of the director Cimino after its brief peak with this film is also well documented, to the point that he is now depicted, and even comes across as, something of a clown. He is still not that old today, and there are numerous relatively recent interviews of him available on the internet--he is apparently still regarded as a genius in France, for example--and he is really obnoxious. I realize that successful artists are frequently jerks of one kind or another, but this guy dismisses basically everybody who isn't 100% devoted to his peculiar vision of himself and his work as an idiot. When other accomplished people castigate someone as an idiot, I may not like the sting of recognition I feel thereby, but I sense there is probably some truth in it as far as the accomplished person's viewpoint goes. I do not have the same confidence in the assertions of Michael Cimino, to be brief about it.

In keeping with my apparent inability to warm up to anyone from the early baby boomer generation, I have never been much of a fan of Meryl Streep, though she is supposed to be the equivalent of a living national treasure, as well as relatively gracious and humble despite her tremendous accomplishments. In spite of all this, I still can't bring myself to like her. The unconquerable smugness that seems to be the trademark of everybody born from about 1944-54 who ever accomplished anything, as well as a great many people who haven't, though not as blatant as in some of her more obtuse peers, still reveals itself in her work in a sort of coldness that subordinates genuine spirit, humor, and the like for very fine and technically impeccable approximations of those qualities. I sometimes admire grudgingly, but I am never moved; and I admit it is my weakness that where movies and other performing arts are concerned I like to be moved. Anyway, my object in introducing the subject was to acknowledge that Meryl Streep was quite, quite pretty in this movie, much more than I had ever noticed before. So what? It is nothing to the point whether I think Meryl Streep was pretty or not, many people are after all pretty when they are in their twenties, and few are Meryl Streep, but I guess I don't find Meryl Streep particularly interesting separated from her prettiness, which is not the case with everyone. As it is, even the baby boomers were not wholly uninteresting when they were young, though to me mainly as the period of their youth gives insights into the kind of society and world they both left behind and have led us into since.

1945 I don't think is generally considered one of Hollywood's greatest years, but it is perhaps its most singular one in terms of mood and style. In a year that may have well been the bloodiest in human history, the films, no doubt as a reaction to this horror, tended to be almost excruciatingly slow, gentle, escapist and slightly dreamlike. I am thinking of things like The Clock, The Bells of St Mary's, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. And Then There Were None, though an adaptation of an Agatha Christie book which centers around the mysterious deaths of ten people invited to an estate on an otherwise uninhabited island, has nonetheless temperamentally much in common with these other pictures. While it is darker than they are, it is still quiet, understated and has an atmosphere of weariness about it that, also like the other movies, does not especially seem an asset on an initial viewing, but which I often find myself recalling long afterwards more than images from snazzier prodoctions. The characters are guests in a spacious mansion that is the sole edifice on an isolated island to which the boat to the mainland comes by twice a week. There is little food, some drink, no host, two dubious servants, numerous of the (originally eight) guests are antisocial, and of course once the plot gets going people begin dropping dead one by one at more or less regular intervals. It is one of those movies that is rather ridiculously unreal but makes an expert use of various familiar trappings of reality, or at least British literary conventions--the country house, tea-time, references to the train to London even though there is not any chance of anyone trapped in the house catching it, the characters as representatives of various professions (there are a judge, a doctor, a General, a soldier-adventurer, a secretary, a police inspector, a butler, and a professional guest). The plot of course is silly and while it has something of the appeal of a logic puzzle and as a kind of basic brain scan of the society that produced it, it does not withstand much probing scrutiny into its depiction of the human condition.

They did give me one of my 40s babes in the person of June Duprez, who never looked so good as she did here. She was English and did not have a major career--this is probably her best-known movie, and I had never heard of it, or her, prior to its popping up on the List. I am glad she got the part--she is worthy of being remembered a little. I love the clothes she wears in this too. Nothing fancy, but the simple, sensible and smart look that predominated at the time.

Is there a town or a college somewhere where women still look like this? I think there actually are some, I'm just not able to get into them.

This was directed by the legendary French auteur Rene Clair, who seems to have decamped to Hollywood for the duration of the war. I don't think I have seen any of his other movies yet. He receives most of the credit from the critics for the success of this movie, the forbidding, gloomy atmosphere and visual style I mentioned earlier, and no doubt he deserved a good deal of it. I do maintain however that this sort of mood was very much the spirit of the time and was influencing everyone. I'm not sure it is ultimately a great movie, though I certainly liked it, and loved loved loved the mood and atmosphere, for reasons of my own personal taste however, which do not seem to be much in accord with anyone else's.

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