Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movies 1972-90 (Is the H.S. Class of '90 America's Great Forgotten Cohort?)

I thought this was my second set of reviews within these exact years, but the other one was 1972-91.

None of these movies are going to rank among my all-time favorites so I am going to try to dispatch of them in a few strokes.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Well-made, but I found it a little overlong and perhaps a bit stiff. I am beginning to wonder too if the story/source material is perhaps not as great as it seems to promise and that I at least want it to be. I have encountered the story or a variation of it several times now and have never really been able to get into it (I have not undertaken to read the play in French yet, which I think I could still do and get something of the sense of its quality, so I will hold off on a final judgement until I at least attempt that). The premise is good enough, I think, as a starting point, but in execution it comes out rather thin, not fleshed out enough. The two other main characters besides Cyrano are little more than ciphers, and Cyrano's incapacity to present himself as a candidate for love on account of his nose is too inconsistent with his fame and established persona as a literally superior man in the realms of both arms and letters to be believable. However I respect that the story  has been a French classic for 150 years and that it obviously says something to them that resonates. I cannot quite get at what that is however.

Gerard DePardieu's presence in the title role is a plus. Not that someone else could not have done it competently (I'm sure many have done it more competently), but he is the Frank Sinatra or Alec Guinness of modern French cinema, and it seems like he should do a version of as any many classic roles in the national tradition as he can.

The Verdict (1982)

I had never seen this, though I remember it got a lot of hype when it came out. Paul Newman, the experts said, was a shoo-in to finally win the Oscar that had theretofore eluded him (that year's best actor award was won by Ben Kingsley, for Gandhi, which I have not seen but which is talked of with almost breathtaking disrespect by everyone associated with the other top films of that year). It was a gritty courthouse drama, all in all a very serious movie. I was twelve at the time, so none of this made me particularly interested in seeing it, and in fact I had probably not thought about since that time, such oblivion had it fallen into as far as I was concerned, that I was rather shocked when it came up on my list. It would not have meant anything to me in 1982 either that the film was directed by the already venerable Sidney Lumet. Indeed, it does not mean all that much to me today, as the only other picture of his I have seen was his 1962 adaptation of Long Day's Journey Into Night, which was outstanding. Oh, and the screenplay was the work of David Mamet, who would only have been 34 at the time but had seemingly already long won over the esteem and trust of the titanic Hollywood veterans involved with the film. This of course would not have meant anything to me in seventh grade either.

So is it any good? Well, I don't love it, in spite of the persuasive arguments made in its favor in various commentaries about the high level of professionalism and skill that went into making it. It is set in Boston, and much of it was shot there, which provides some interest to me, though it sounds like a considerable amount of the interiors were actually done in New York. I have always found Paul Newman to be a likable star, and I was excited to see that the great James Mason, whom I thought had been already dead by 1982 (he died in 1984, and in fact went on to appear in eight more movies after this one), in a prominent role. I might have been a little more excited by the presence of 60s megababe Charlotte Rampling if her part had been a little less thankless; in '82 it seems, writers were still sorting through what female liberation exactly portended. Probably they still are, but I think the track that it is on at least may be a little less shrouded than it was 30 years ago. The best thing in the whole movie is probably the actor Milo O'Shea's (he played Leopold Bloom in the 1967 Ulysses movie) hairstyle; unfortunately I can't find any good pictures of it to steal.

So what are the problems? Right now I think the movie is passing through the artistic version of a midlife crisis, where everything about it feels ever so slightly dated but it is not old or established enough in what it represents to be a classic. As I have noted elsewhere, I am not a big fan of courtroom dramas, perhaps because I am from the in-between class that is both terrified of lawyers and judges and of being mistaken by the same for one of the ranks of lowlifes from which most defendants are drawn. I did like the depiction of James Mason's modern super-professional cutthroat law firm, with its armies of spies, ambitious underlings, detailed simulations of cross-examination and questioning and coaching of the same, which must be standard operating procedure at any decent law firm but is suggested here to contribute to the subversion of justice. For all that, the presentation of the actual trial seems a little sloppy and not quite authentic. The Paul Newman character is an alcoholic and in a very dark state at the beginning of the film. Usually I find movies about alcoholics attractive--even the Nicolas Cage movie where he drinks himself to death had me thinking 'that didn't look so bad'--but this one was unusually grim. Maybe Paul Newman seems like too much of a winner so it's more disturbing to see him passed out in a cold hallway than it would be a more regular guy. I don't know.

The DVD came with many bonus features, including a bunch of previews of other Paul Newman movies from the 50s through the 80s. A few of the famous ones like The Hustler were included, but a lot of them looked to be in the mediocre to execrable category. From the Terrace, which I have written about here before, and The Long, Hot Summer, which looks to be another bloated melodramatic literary adaptation (though from Faulkner in the latter case), are included. The Towering Inferno, for which Newman at least apparently got paid 12 million clams--I hope Fred Astaire's compensation was somewhat comparably handsome--is here. There was a frigid preview for a 1979 film called Quintet which starred not only Newman but Ingmar Bergman staple Bibi Andersson and our man Fernando Rey whom we were just speaking of a couple of weeks ago, and was directed by Robert Altman, all relatively close to the height of their fame. Seeing as I had never heard of the movie anyway, I am surmising that it did not work. The worst looking one of the whole lot is this monstrosity from 1964. I forget sometimes that most of the popular culture of that period resembles this, which explains how all of these huge and legendary stars (other than Dean Martin, who is in is native element) can actually appear to be comfortable and not in a constant state of humiliation at appearing in this movie:

I have traditionally had a weakness for Shirley Maclaine, though I wonder if it would be able to survive this catastrophe.

Cabaret (1972)

This movie was quite a big deal in the 70s. It won 8 Oscars (though not Best Picture) despite being in direct competition against the Godfather, which is perhaps the most revered of all post-1960 Hollywood movies. Many of the songs in it were familiar to me though I doubt I had heard them in 30 years. And there are a lot of truly remarkable scenes and numbers and performances in it, especially those involving  Joel Grey, whose work in this movie has been often celebrated; but to have heard about how great something is for close to 40 years and to still be more than usually impressed when you finally see it does not happen all that often, so I have to give credit where that is due.

All of this acknowledged, while I think the movie is still respected 40 years on, much in the same way that I respect it, it doesn't seem very beloved. Perhaps that is as it should be, for I doubt it set out to be lovable, but other movies of the time, such as the aforementioned Godfather and something like The French Connection, seem to be lovable in spite of themselves in a way that this is not. The director here is Bob Fosse, whose movie Lenny, made two years after this, I also wrote about here recently. That movie was also pretty good and was well-regarded in its time, but does not seem to have an especially following today. I don't know a lot about Bob Fosse, but the impression one gets from his movies is that he is a skilled director, very smart, probably cynical, probably more than a little nihilistic, sympathetic to people who live in open opposition and antagonism to ordinary society, with all of these qualities slightly more in extremis than is found even in people who nominally share them with him. These attitudes, or at least the forms which they took in him, seem to have been more prevalent in the general population of filmgoers in the early 1970s than they are now. I don't think of myself as being opposed to them so much as they do not do anything for me at the most basic levels. My overarching gut reaction to this movie, I must confess, was that it was gross. Liza Minnelli seems to me so obviously gross that I feel it is a cliche to write it, but evidently there aren't people who feel that way. It was not the sex, not even the homosexuality, nor the poverty that made it gross but the general atmosphere of joylessness. I get that the shadow of Nazism is looming in the background, though at least as depicted here the Cabaret ethos is not a particularly affirming alternative even for people who are young and adventurous. Nihilism is the soil that allows Nazi-type movements to sprout and grow monstrous.

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