Friday, June 12, 2015

Movies, 1969-1990: Unifying Themes: Societal Repression, The Cosmic Illogic Inherent in Money Ownership & Power Relations

Ju Dou (1990)

Early offering from the Chinese New Wave of the 1990s that produced many fine pictures in the classic art house tradition, much appreciated by me. This starred the soon to be legendary Gong Li, who amply demonstrates why she became a huge star and the international face of Chinese art cinema in that decade. I saw her in some other films (though not this one) at that now distant time, but I had not been struck by her talents as I was on this occasion. Perhaps it is because I am older or this is a better performance than the other movies I saw, or maybe having watched the social evolution of people from all over the world in the last twenty-five years I am simply nostalgic for the time and personalities of my youth. I believe this is the first Chinese movie from that 90s Wave, which I guess must be long played out by now, that I have seen since they were relatively new--judging by this, they are holding up well, but as noted above they always had a timeless, universal, classic air about them.

As you have probably discerned, this is very much the kind of movie that I like, and the kind that will always work if well-executed (ed--because it is like a literary stage play), in that it is a simple story, in which the number of characters and the actions/possibilities open to them are severely restricted due to social mores/physical disability/social status/power/duties, and so on, but several very clever and not obvious twists take place within these restrictions that besides constituting the plot heighten the interest in the story by creating possibilities and conflicts that given the bare outlines of the situation one would not have been foreseen but which are in fact the kinds of developments that do come up in life in almost every individual instance to some degree and constitute most of its drama.

I had to watch this on Youtube, as I was not able to procure a copy of any recording either free or inexpensively via the usual means (the computers I use are still plugged into a wall, and where they are is not my favorite place to have to watch a movie.

Sugarcane Alley (1983) 

In French, set in Martinique in the French West Indies (which remain to this day a colony of France). The director was Euzhan Palcy, a native of the island and, as people like to note these things, a black woman, which latter fact I had not known when I saw the movie, as the style seemed to me in line with what was typical in mainstream French cinema at that time. The film is based on a novel, Rue Cases-Negres, which is usually translated as "Black Shack Alley", by Joseph Zobel, who was also a Martinique native. It is about the hard, materially impoverished lives of the black laborers who work in the sugar cane fields, and the struggle of one of the boys of the village to win acceptance to and attend the colonial school in the main city on the island.

The movie certainly has value for its atypical setting and characters, and the presentation was tasteful, though as noted above the attitudes and assumptions and aesthetics it seemed to promote I did not find noticeably different from what seemed to prevail across the general spectrum of respectable haute bourgeois French opinion in 1983. Palcy, the director, was only 25 at the time and a first time filmmaker, after having come to Paris at 17 and taken degrees in French literature, theater, Art and Archaeology, and film; so it is fair to speculate I think that her brain would, at the time she was making this film, have been pretty well saturated with the outlook prevalent in the Parisian intellectual world. I did not find any unanticipated pleasures or twists in it. As the main drive of the movie is effectively about escaping from Sugar Cane Alley and being able to lead a wholly different kind of life this prevents the viewer, I think, from taking too much of an interest in the life of the characters stuck there, apart from the usual voyeuristic one. This is in contrast to Ju Dou, which is able to generate, by zeroing in on certain pertinent aspects and and curiosities of individual situations, a considerable amount of interest and drama out of lives lived in circumstances at least as suffocatingly narrow as those in Sugarcane Alley. This bit of skill in my opinion was missing from this movie.

The Stunt Man (1980)

I probably should have watched this a second time, as I began to sense towards the end that there was something in it that might be interesting that I was not picking up on. This is a different kind of movie from a different kind of time, and a time that I have a pretty solid memory of (I was ten years old in 1980), the mores of which, probably to my detriment, probably still inform my sense of what the world must actually be like even today. As I went along with this movie my mind, which was doubtless tired to begin with, often got sidetracked by recollections of the moods and attitudes of that era and neglected to pay close enough attention to the story. So I barely even remember what it was about.

1980 of course is now clearly seen as the last year of that drifting, indulgent, minimally organized period that followed upon the social rebellions of the late sixties, and some of the signature behaviors unleashed during the period, such as drug-taking, divorce, rates of violent high crime and underachievement as a political statement had ceased to be novel energies adding excitement and subject matter for conversation to the national life but were settling in as the banal normal order of life that the dullest people could take for granted. Of course these behaviors did not end or even begin to substantially decline in 1981, but it does seem that with the election of Reagan and his immediate slashing of the highest tax rates from 70% to 28% and his general unabashed cheerleading of money-making and striving that a tighter order began once again to be imposed on society from above. It was fairly imperceptible at first and to me at least did not really come into any sharp view until the 90s, but it was enough that it made some of the drifting and indulgence that had characterized the 70s seem suddenly less desirable or likely to lead to anything really interesting.

Apropos of nothing, Peter O'Toole in his old age somehow came to look just like my grandmother.

Barbara Hershey was the babe in this movie. I haven't seen her in much and don't have much of an opinion about her, except that she gives off an aura of always expecting more from you where she is concerned while she considered herself to be perfectly sufficient as she is where you are concerned, which is obviously more than I can successfully undertake in any interpersonal relation. She was (and is) very popular as babes go among the men of the 1970s generation. They are quite devoted to her.  

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

This one speaks I guess to the virtue of seeing something a second time. The first time I saw this, which was some years ago, I didn't see what the big deal was, and I especially couldn't figure out why it had been so popular. I let what I perceived to be its archness--archness being something I detest--get under my skin, and it prevented me from being able to appreciate some of the finer points of the movie. It is really quite well-made, has a good script, a very good story, is quirky, and is not, I think, so arch as I thought it was previously. In truth, it was better than I had anticipated it would be even before the first time I saw it, as I was predisposed against it because I knew the baby boomers liked it, it was seen as transgressive against old Hollywood and so on, but of course now it is obvious that it is much more in the tradition of what everybody likes about old Hollywood than almost anything being made now.

This movie has been written about ad nauseam, and I don't have anything pertinent to add to the existing body of work, but I am glad I am still capable of seeing something differently, and in a positive sense, on a second viewing.

This was supposed to be a really short post describing my most basic, even animal responses to these movies, and perhaps it is, but it once again still took a week to write.  


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