Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Three Movies From the Seventies

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978)

Three-hour plus Italian epic about peasants circa 1900 in the sweeping, novelistic style that was popular from 1975-82 or so, especially in Europe, but was also visible in things like Acopalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Kagemusha and other films of the period that took it for granted that there existed a critical mass of moviegoers who would go to the theater, and sit through long, dense, meticulously detailed serious movies, especially if they were the work of important directors. I suspect that this is actually very good, but I was unable to get into it at this particular time. My mind kept drifting away from whatever was going on in the movie to focus on my own personal existential crises. But I will try it again someday. It verily is about the extremely humble and limited lives of rural peasants, I believe in the northern part of Italy, in a period probably within the lifetimes of the director's parents, their childhoods at least, a life that most Italians by the 1970s had, with evidently mixed feelings however, ceased to lead. I was not struck on this initial viewing with what was most important about it.

One probable reason for why I had trouble getting into the movie (besides the fact that I am too exhausted in the evening anymore to really concentrate on anything) is that I watched it on a faded VHS copy in which the indoor and nighttime scenes especially were so dark that I imagined they could not have been thus on a good print. Netflix doesn't have it. In truth, they don't have a lot of what I want these days. Here is my current list of 'Saved Titles: Availability Unknown' with that service:

1. Alice Adams
2. Follow the Fleet
3. Giant
4. Giant: Bonus Material
5. Odd Man Out
6. Separate Tables
7. Soldier of Orange
8. Stella Dallas
9. Harold Lloyd Collection, Vol 1: Disc 1
10. Man With the Golden Arm
11. The Tree of the Wooden Clogs
12. Three Brothers

Obviously I have found old VHS tapes for a few of these and watched them, but it seems like that ought to be an unnecessary hassle, especially as none of the movies in the above group are obscure in the least, and all of them, except maybe The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, have easily recognizable stars. I guess I imagined Netflix as bascially a subscription library that would have anything that has ever been released on DVD readily available. Actually, of course it is an ambitious, scheming, 21st century internet business that wants to make billions of dollars, and that apparently doesn't involve investing in enough copies of Odd Man Out to make people like me happy. I have read that they are making fewer DVDs available because they want to phase out the mail order part of their business, which costs them a lot of money, and push everybody onto streaming. I don't have my television set up to receive streaming, which probably isn't that hard, but it seems like it might be a minor pain in the neck at the very least. And then it isn't clear that the things I want to see are even going to be available anyway.

Silver Streak (1976)

Sometimes a pointedly humorous book or other entertainment causes me to ask myself, what is that I want from a comedy anyway? The truly successful comedy in any art is a rare achievement. The work that is not primarily intended as comic but is punctuated with frequent humor or wit is often better received and gives more pleasure. The straight comedy, it seems to me, comes laden with an expectation that is usually impossible to live up to. Long form works especially depend on certain jokes, or persons, or situations, being so conceived as to maintain their ability to amuse throughout the length of the story, and feeding off of and into other jokes.

Silver Streak is not altogether unsuccessful--there are a few modest laughs in it, the premise and characters give it at all times the potential that something very funny might happen, and it has some sociological interest as a relic of its time--but in the end I didn't get enough fun out of it to be satisfied. I did make a few mental notes re certain things that struck me:

I was always under the impression that the early to mid 70s were the nadir of passenger rail travel in the United States, the last of the dinosaur private companies going out of business at the beginning of the decade and the early years of Amtrak which followed being universally mocked as a disaster, so that making a movie about a train trip at this time was akin to making one now about people who read physical books and newspapers or something like that.

Gene Wilder is an odd leading man. It is not merely his hair, though that probably does influence me a little, but the way he moves and his expressions, he does not give off the air of a guy really inhabiting a character or carrying a movie. Often it seems as if his mind is remaining archly aloof from the film while he physically moves through and mouths his part. This kind of thing was appreciated at the time. By the time I became conscious of the movie landscape, around 1980, Wilder was still a big name though most of his big roles were behind him by then and his star was, however imperceptible it probably was even to him, going into decline.

Very 1976 how Gene Wilder manages to get laid by a complete stranger within an hour of getting on the train; which turned out to be extra fortunate, because all of the mayhem that broke out on the train immediately after the successful consummation of this tryst would probably have forestalled it if they had waited a second hour. Maybe it would be a good thing if the crime rate really went back up again after all.

Jill Clayburgh. To paraphrase Ben Jonson, she was evidently not for all time but for an age, that age being approximately from 1975-1980. She was always a name from my childhood, but I had never seen her before. She reminds me of somebody's mother--the mother who is not really very nice and is in fact judgmental and a bit of a snob.

The Conversation (1974)

Interesting movie in terms of visuals and sounds, which depict pretty well what the sensory impression of existing in America in 1974 felt like (this was the first year that I have any real memory of at all). The fact that it was made at all is a testament that it was also at the peak of the power of the more humanistic and art-focused New Hollywood movement, the snuffing out of which, we are told, would begin in earnest in the following year with the colossal success of Jaws. But in '74 things still appeared to be solidly moving in the less bombastic and more subtly alert direction of which this movie is a good illustration.

There are a lot of the kinds of little artistic touches in this that elude most filmmakers but please the viewer and keep drawing him back into the story, especially in the first half. The choice of jazz music works very well here, and also calls back the popular pastime of sitting in a room playing longform records out loud, which I don't think is something people do much any more. The old reel to reel tape machines and the other for the time sophisticated recording equipment possess a kind of mesmerizing beauty--maybe this did not strike people as so in the 1970s. Most of the characters in this wear eyeglasses, and by the standards of the present these glasses are almost gaudy ornaments on the face--again, this may be a happy coincidence with the fashion of the time, but I found I was frequently drawn to contemplate the fact and nature of this eyewear. The party at the shop after the surveillance convention with its instant bar of hard liquor bottles and the seedy, quietly desperate quality of the guests and conversation, also strikes me as reminiscent of its time. These things all work well. That said, the actual plot itself, while well-written and quite clever even, I don't find as compelling. The narrative, for me, does not go hand in hand with what else is interesting in the movie.

The disc came with multiple commentaries, including one by Francis Ford Coppola himself. I listened to about twenty minutes of it. I have not gotten into any commentaries in a while. The 70s guys will talk all about the film and what they are doing but I find it in their case more interesting to just watch the movie and find out what works for me on my own. The 70s are still near enough, to me anyway, that explanation is either overkill or pointless. You need to get to it on your own or it doesn't do you any good. Now going farther back in time, though maybe all the way to the 50s or even the 40s, I find a good commentary can be helpful, or at least enjoyable, because you are dealing with things that you are not directly connected to in time or sometimes place. But with newer things, if you don't understand them even somewhat intuitively, then they are not meant for you anyway I suspect.  

Good role in this for Harrison Ford. One gets the feeling too that the character he plays in this is what he is really like.

I remember as a child always thinking minor 70s icon Cindy Williams was *pretty* in her famous roles in "Laverne & Shirley" and American Graffiti, but as an adult (me) she too seems to possess some kind of generic 70s quality that I am kind of repelled by. Maybe it is that these people are all about the age of my mother and I must have seen them, or their type, on television a million times and identified them vaguely as some kind of alternative mother or mother-aged female figure and that is all playing into my response to them now. Who knows.

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