Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THE DAY OF THE LOCUST 1975

"It's hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." Nathanael West The Day of the Locust

America is a country that believes in dreams. We're encouraged to follow our dreams; we're induced to dream big; we're promised that if we believe in our dreams enough, then they most certainly will come true.
But of course, not all dreams come true.
The Day of the Locust is a dark vision of losers on the fringe of Hollywood, a city built on dreams. The question the film posits is: what happens to dreamers when they realize their dreams have betrayed them?
During the mid 70s, America was in the throes of a nostalgia craze that swept up all of pop culture (from fashion to music) in an idealized preoccupation with the 1930's. Perhaps this is why, when John Schlesinger's epic, multi-million dollar adaptation of Nathanael West's sour indictment of the Hollywood dream-machine (and, in turn, America's willingness...even need... to be duped by its promises) hit the screens, audiences responded as if they had been kicked in the stomach.
After the soft-focus 30s kitsch of The Great Gatsby (1974), I guess no one was ready for a glamorous, all-star, nostalgia horror film.

Karen Black as Faye Greener
Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes, I know...)
William Atherton as Tod Hackett

As a story of the lost and lonely lured to California by the promise of an unattainable dream, The Day of the Locust, written in 1939, is as relevant as ever. Take a look at the faces of the so-called journalists and paparazzi behind TMZ and you'll see exactly the kind of predatory bitterness and resentment West wrote about seventy years ago.

The Day of the Locust is one of my all-time favorite films and I admire it immensely, yet I readily admit that watching it is not entirely an enjoyable experience. I remember back in 1975 when my family and I saw the movie at a theater in San Francisco (on a double-bill with Nashville, no less), the climactic riot scene brought my sister to a state of heaving sobs, and during the cockfight sequence someone behind me exclaimed, "This is worse than 'The Exorcist'!" It is an amazing, sometimes breathtaking, film, but it's no walk in the park.



WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Its visual style. It's a nightmare vision of Hollywood that looks like a dream.
The "San Bernardino Arms," where many of the film's characters reside.


In this vision of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Ennis House" the statue of a dead horse graces the bottom of the pool.
Interior of the Wright house. Glamorous, yet cold and empty.

PERFORMANCES:
Karen Black has publicly expressed her lack of fondness for this film, but I suspect this has more to do with the well-publicized behind-the-scenes tensions than for her performance in it. While clearly a controversial choice for the siren that leads men to their destruction, I find it to be one of the finest performances of her career.
As the vain and shallow temptress who thinks her theatrical pretensions are evidence of talent, Black achieves moments of genuine pathos.
Comical if she were not so pathetic, Faye Greener can't distinguish false posturing from real feelings.


"The Simpsons" may have forever dampened whatever poignancy the name Homer Simpson ever held, but Donald Sutherland is such a heartbreaking marvel in this film that, were it more widely seen, his repressed and lumbering Homer would be the one eclipsing the cartoon doofus.
In a film of so many spectacular, full-scale set-pieces, one of the most powerful moments is a simple scene of Sutherland sitting in his sun-baked garden, eyes heavy-lidded with sadness.
He is the picture of loneliness and longing, and when the camera moves in for a close up, the light barely catching a tear falling down his cheek
...the effect is devastating.



THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I really love how they use faces in this movie. Fellini-esque in the way the people are captured in tableaus of desperation and unidentifiable hunger. It's like getting a celebrity-eye-view of what fans must look like.




THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Was there ever a sequence as grotesquely surreal as the apocalyptic "The Burning of Los Angeles" riot scene that caps this movie? At this point in the film, things have reached such a tense and tortured pitch (there seem to be two or three different climaxes) that not only are the film's protagonists all keyed-up, but so are we. As a Hollywood premiere erupts into a mad mob scene, we in the audience may find ourselves feeling the cathartic release of violence without even knowing it. It is one of the most compellingly visual sequences ever captured on film.




The banal rendered nightmarish


Horror has a face



The day of the locust: burnt offerings and a human sacrifice

Hollywood rarely gets it right when it turns its lens upon itself, but The Day of the Locust is, for me, one of the finest films about Hollywood ever made. As one who loves film for its ability to feed our dreams, I appreciate how The Day of the Locust explores the potentially destructive, ultimately empty allure of the dreams Hollywood packages and sells to us.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

18 comments:

  1. a wonderfully written account of impressions, feelings, and analysis of "Day of the Locust".
    As troubling a movie as "Day of the Locust" is, Mr. Anderson accurately describes the lure and fascination that disasters have for humankind.

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  2. Just saw the film for the first time (read the book many years ago & had been afraid to watch, was so affected by the book) - been searching for intelligent discussion. Thanks!~

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  3. Thanks for taking the time to visit the site and comment. I read the book only after seeing the film and loved them both. I'd be curious to hear if you felt the film did the book justice.

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  4. Just watched this movie for the first time on Flix. All I can say is yikes. very good movie with great performances, especially by Donald Sutherland and Karen Black. I'm a former English teacher, but had only heard about Nathanel West's novel, not read it. It's moved to my reading list.

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  5. Thanks for reading my blog! If your reaction to the film after seeing it on TV was "Yikes!", imagine seeing it on the big screen. It was one of those movies where, after the lights came up, people were still in their seats, thunderstuck. I hope you like the book. It's excellent and fills in the blanks about Homer Simpson's personality.

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  6. I fell in love with this movie back in 1975. I also saw it many times, a couple of them on that double bill with "Nashville" which is also one of my favorites. I do not know why this filmed is in my top 5 of all time. It is a combination of all the parts, from art and set direction, cinematography, music, acting and story. One group I went with had a previously gentle fellow who burst up out of his seat during the climax and ran out into the lobby. We could hear him inside the auditorium demanding his money back!

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  7. Thanks, Anonymous (for some reason, Blogger right now doesn't make it easy to comment except as "Anonymous") for visiting my blog and sharing your experience of the film.
    "The Day of the Locust" seems to be one of those movies that really divides people. Despite it's many pleasures, it is a little more powerful than some people expect (or like). Glad to hear it's in your TOP 5!

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  8. I've always loved this film, too.
    Great work from top to bottom as you note above.
    I would just add a mention of the gorgeous score by John Barry and what a performance by Burgess Meredith!
    Too bad he was up against George Burns in the supporting actor Oscar race that year (why Burns was placed in that category for a starring role is one of the great Academy Award mysteries).
    Meredith seems to embody West's vision of people lured to their doom by Hollywood fantasies.

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  9. Hi Joe
    I used to have the soundtrach LP to this film and I wore it out. Thankfully I was able to find a downloadable copy of this long out-of-print soundtrack a few years back.
    Meredith is excellent here. I like that he is never portrayed as a sentimental character. Like everyone else in the film, he's a little grotesque. Favorite unsung actress in the film: Lelia Goldoni as Mary Dove. Tiny role, but she made a big impression.

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  10. I love Lelia Goldoni!
    I assume that you've seen her in Cassavetes' "Shadows" and that memorable small role she had in the Phil Kaufman "Body Snatchers."
    John Barry is so well known for the big Oscar films he did - and James Bond, of course - but I'm more fond of his lesser known, moodier scores. This one and "Petulia" and "Mike's Murder" especially.

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  11. Yay! Another fan of Lelia Goldoni! I first saw her in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and fell in love with her natural/exotic screen prescence. I then discovered her in the films you mentioned. I think she's terrific.
    As for John Barry, I think it's safe to confess to you that my favorite Barry score is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"... can't help it. It's gorgeous! (By the way, I really loved the film "Mike's Murder" but don't recall the score. Now a perfect reason to watch it again.)

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  12. It's heartbreaking (in the film...I should look for the book) when Tod sees Homer falling prey to the mob and can't do anything to help him. I'm another huge fan of that whole cataclysmic sequence. The word "brilliant" is scandalously overused (mostly by women in Woody Allen movies describing the men they're no longer with), but it surely applies here.

    I'm not saying an inclination towards sadomasochism is a prerequisite for appreciating "The Day Of The Locust," but it's definitely not a movie you watch to take your mind off your troubles. There are so many characters to feel sorry for (including one or more of the roosters), but I can't number Adore among them; not when he refuses to leave well enough alone with Homer and invites both their destruction.

    I echo your particular praise of Karen Black, Ken. If there were ever anyone around whom you'd be saving your own neck by walking on eggshells, it has to be Faye Greener. And Black made the role her own in wildly impressive fashion.

    And poor old Homer. If only he and Faye could've been left alone...but maybe that's just more dreaming.

    Another excellent review!

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    1. First off, can't tell you how much I was tickled by your observation on the women in Woody Allen movies!
      I thought I was the only one annoyed by that endlessly repeated, essentially meaningless, description Allen puts in the mouths of his actresses when they are speaking of former lovers. You go straight to the head of the class for that alone!
      The point you bring up about "inclination towards sadomasochism" is a good one, because while filmmakers are ever tempted to adapt classics to the screen, sometimes I don't think (as they pour millions of dollars into the financing of them)they ever consider what kind of person willingly subjects themselves to such unrelenting downers when they go to the movies. I readily admit that I have to be in a certain kind of "mood" to watch this film. It's marvelous to be sure, and one more people should see, but I've always understood people's reticence to be so thoroughly bummed out by a film. It doesn't contain an awful lot of hope.

      I'm glad you like Karen Black, too, and your "walking on eggshells" comment nails her particular character's mercurial nature to a "T."
      Lastly, you pose a provocative idea: Homer was perhaps the ideal masochist for Faye's particular brand of sadism...it's interesting to wonder what would have been their fates had they just been left alone? Were I a teacher of literature, this would be an excellent essay question to pose to the class. Yet another keen observation, Rennieboy! Thanks!

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  13. RIP, Karen.

    Found your blog in a search for an image of Faye Greener to post on facebook. I surprised myself by how fast her character's name came to mind.

    Thanks for your tribute to the movie.

    My own experience, briefly: I was visiting my cousin in Charlottesville for a couple weeks that summer and I was feeling my oats, getting my first taste of 'mature audience' movies with her, and like you, seeing the two sides of Black, in Locust and Nashville, tho separated by a few evenings. Locust effected me deeply; I was identifying with Homer (for one thing, I was entering college that fall, majoring in Accounting) and had to strongly suppress the urge to scream out at the screen when the crowd revenge begins. I can still remember afterwards, after the movie was over, running with abandon in the parking lot, trying to escape those feelings.

    I stayed away from the movie for quite a while, tho I did read the book later that summer. I did enjoy revisiting it in mind, as I read the Schlesinger's bio a number of years ago. I finally picked it up on dvd around that time and was appalled at the condition. This one is extreme need of restoration.

    Thanks for your blog!

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    1. Thank you for sharing such a marvelous personal memory of your experience watching "Day of the Locust" and your summer of Karen Black!
      I think your powerful reaction to the film speaks both well of you and the power of Schlesinger's work. The character of Homer is very complex and I know reading the book made his character far richer to me.
      And I agree about the DVD Paramount released. No matter what someone feels about the film itself, it is a magnificently shot film deserving of a far better digital restoration.
      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and comment, and for remembering Karen Black on my blog in such a nice way.

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    2. Thank you for the kind and thoughtful reply, Ken..! Consider me a new fan. So glad I came across your blog. Not surprisingly, we've got such similar tastes...!
      Thanks, Ken.

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  14. Ken, I finally saw this film last weekend. Jeepers creepers indeed! This movie creeps up on you with a long, slow deliberate buildup, culminating in one of the most explosive and terrifying (and hyper-extended) climaxes in film history. As the final credits rolled, all I could say was, Wow."

    It could only have been made in the ground-breaking 1970s, where big studios took risks and allowed filmmakers creative freedom and artistic license. Storywise, so much care is taken to plant all the foreshadowing seeds that will blossom later, making the ending totally satisfying. The use of the artwork and the faces of the bit players is really brilliant and conceptual...

    I keep going back to creepy: Burgess Meredith scares me to death, especially when he transforms into that pathetic clown...Jackie Earle Hailey as the midget Mae West/ foul-mouthed Shirley Temple boy-or-girl character of Adore is utterly frightening. The beloved Lovey Howell running a house of ill-repute? I could go on and on. My mouth kept dropping open in practically every scene.

    I agree that the performances are uniformly brilliant, especially Karen Black and William Atherton (who never made it to A-List leading man, despite his looks and talent). Sutherland, Meredith, Geraldine Page....all are stellar.

    To anyone else who watches, my only caveat would be to stick with the picture till the end. It's a long one, and the pacing is slow-going in the first half. But if you love great actors and Hollywood stories, you'll be patient and be rewarded with a satisfying, fulfilling and indelibly memorable ending!

    Ken, I adore your website because your encyclopedic knowledge of film and engaging articles always give us movie lovers new things to look forward to. Cheers to you and Le Cinema Dreams!

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    1. Hi Chris
      So thrilled that you saw this amazing film. I too think that there is much that is creepy about the movie, intentionally so, to the degree that as much as I love this film, I can always understand why it flopped. It's relentlessly bleak, but so beautifully dark, I think.
      The grotesques you point out; Meredith, Hailey, the brothel madame...all form such a fun-house mirror ltake on the nostalgic Hollywood glamour that was so much the craze in the 70s, this film fairly threw audiences for a loop.
      This is one of those films i would love to discuss with you, to compare what aspects struck you as most and least effective. Again, I'm happy you saw the film (it has such a terrific Karen Black performance) and I am both grateful that you happened upon my blog, and happy it affords the opportunity to mutually share our love of film. Thanks!

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