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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TWO FOR THE ROAD 1967


For me, the epitome of romantic films is Stanley Donen's bittersweet look at love & marriage, Two for the Road. Chronicling the rocky 12-year marriage of Mark & Joanna Wallace (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn) by way of a series of interwoven south of France vacations, Two for the Road, no matter how many times I see it (and we're talking waaaay in the double digits here), never fails to give me waterworks.
When I was a kid and first saw this film on TV, I remember being struck by how hurtful this couple could be towards one another, yet, in the middle of an argument, if one of them said the words "I love you," everything ground to a halt and nothing else mattered. This certainly wasn't true of my parents, and I wondered then if this wasn't just shameful Hollywood romanticism or something I would discover as a grown-up.
Now that I'm older and very much in love in a 12-year relationship of my own, I understand now what I didn't then: those three little words do have the power to reduce everything else to insignificance. And against all reason and logic, amidst all the disappointments, tears and casual pain inflicted, unabashed Hollywood-style romance really does exist!
Therein lies the lasting appeal of Two for the Road. There is something touchingly authentic in this depiction of love as a journey. An imperfect journey that, while inescapably funny, sad, joyous and difficult, is ultimately, unapologetically, and unremittingly romantic!

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
It's the much-needed antithesis to those false Doris Day /Rock Hudson romantic comedies I grew up on. Finney & Hepburn are are introduced by this exchange on encountering a young bride and groom:
Hepburn- "They don't look very happy."
Finney- "Why should they? They just got married."

And the tone of the film is set: humor mixed with achingly observed truths. I love that our first glimpse of them is from behind their windshield, Hepburn's eyes obscured by mask-like dark glasses, Finney's face a bitter scowl of discontent. They are like exhibits in a sociology museum.
In this scene and the one following that takes place on a plane, director Stanley Donen conveys, cinematically and economically, a wealth of information about this couple without the need for lengthy exposition. Their car and wardrobe suggest their financial success while the empty space that is always between them illustrates their estrangement. Their body language is coolly stiff while simultaneously displaying the casual, take-each-other-for-granted familiarity of a couple that hasn't enjoyed being in each other's company for some time.
But the film's delights aren't all visual. The sharp dialog fairly crackles throughout:
Finney- "I just wish you'd stop sniping."
Hepburn- "I haven't said a word!"
Finney- "Just because you use a silencer doesn't mean you're not a sniper."

PERFORMANCES
This is my all-time favorite Audrey Hepburn movie. It's like Audrey Hepburn unplugged! Never has she appeared more relaxed, natural and...sexy! She swears, she's funny, she's deeply affecting and moving at one moment, cold and cut-off another...a real marvel of a performance. I've never seen her like it before or since.
Faced with the challenge of having to show the progression of a relationship in non-chronological order, Hepburn manages to capture subtle yet distinct elements to her character that never leave us in any doubt as to what point in time a sequence is occurring. Transforming herself from the inside out, she takes us from the softer-voiced, light-hearted young woman at the start of the relationship to the poised, somewhat hardened sophisticate of the latter.





One would be forgiven if it was assumed the above images were taken from different films at different times in the actress's career. Not to take anything from the costumers, make-up people or cinematographer, but Hepburn's internal transformation is what holds the film together and makes her Joanna Wallace one of her most fully realized film characterizations.
Finney suffers from a character arc that is not as effectively drawn and as such is easy to overlook, but he shines in making a man of questionable likability a believable and dimensional character.
Making up for that small lack is the electric chemistry between Finney & Hepburn.
They practically define the word. Their scenes together have so much heat and genuine affection that it's doubtful that the film would even have worked without it.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Hepburn's beauty, of course. And her CLOTHES! Has there ever been a classier cinema clothes-horse?
Rugby dress with plastic visor
Suffering as only a movie star can: In a trippy black vinyl pantsuit.

My personal fave-rave and a real mind-blower: Hepburn in a Paco Rabanne cocktail dress of silver metallic plastic discs. WOW! Every time I see her in this scene I think, "What a knockout!"


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The scene that never fails to get the ol' waterworks going occurs early in the film when Finney & Hepburn have just met and are reluctant road partners. Claiming he travels faster alone, Finney gives Hepburn her walking papers and she rides off with a gentleman in a snazzy car after only a brief, half-hearted attempt at hitchhiking. Not having the same luck, Finney is later seen ambling down the road towards a mechanized roadside warning. Of course, Hepburn materializes from behind the sign and I barely see the ensuing exchange through the tears welled up in my eyes:
Finney- "What happened to your slick friend in the Alfa Romeo?"
Hepburn- "I told him I was in love with you, so he put me down."
The look in Hepburn's eyes rips a hole in my heart each and every time.
In a film where everything is mirrored, doubled, and circles around on itself, it's only fitting that the movie should end as it started: Finney & Hepburn in a car, her eyes shielded by glasses.
They are as we found them, but we the viewers are different. We now know what we couldn't have known at the film's start; their marriage isn't perfect, but there is something about their love for one another that is. And within that fact lies the glimmer of hope that the bittersweet ending we're watching is a real Hollywood happy ending after all.
I also love that these are the last words spoken in the most romantic film of all time:
Finney- "Bitch."
Hepburn- "Bastard."

Copyright © Ken Anderson