Saturday, October 27, 2012


Can we talk here? The topic: What the hell is going on with movies?
I know I’m from another generation and all that, but it feels like the fallout from the literal deaths of cinema visionaries like Francois Truffaut, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick; combined with the artistic deaths of one-time Hollywood golden boys Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and George Lucas has resulted in the rapid demise of movies that even attempt to encourage thought or appeal to adults. I’m all for escapism and mindless entertainment, but things are getting ridiculous. Looking at the kinds of films audiences line up for these days, one would assume that a preteen fanboy twitter of “Totally awesome!” is the single unequivocal creative force and inspiration driving everything that comes out of Hollywood.

Here’s a depressing statistic: 2011 was a record year for movie sequels (there were 28!!). 2011 was also the year that saw this stellar collection of gems representing the Top Ten boxoffice releases of the year:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Kung Fu Panda 2
Fast Five
The Hangover 2
The Smurfs
Cars 2

Just what the heck kind of list is that? Have movies appropriate to a 12 year-old's pizza party DVD wish-list come to represent the collective pop-cultural tastes of a nation?  At least in the 70s there were Drive-Ins to dump these things in. Today, these over-marketed behemoths dominate every theater and multiplex around, making it near-impossible for smaller, more thoughtful films to even see the light of day. Small wonder it takes an act of Congress to get me to go out to the movies nowadays, or why my TV remains frozen on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
OK, jeremiad ended.
2011 may have been a pretty dismal movie year, but somehow the gods of substance caught the gatekeepers of juvenilia dozing off just long enough to let slip by Roman Polanski’s Carnage; an adult-oriented, deliciously nasty-spirited film so perfectly attuned my taste, temperament, aesthetics, world view, and sense of humor—it’s as if I'd commissioned it.
Jodie Foster as Penelope Greenstreet
John C. Reilly as Michael Longstreet
Kate Winslet as Nancy Cowan
Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan
A hissing cousin of Mike Nichols’ Closer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its corrosive dissection of the barely suppressed barbarism behind mannered civility (it also recalls the delightfully vitriolic “The Family” sketches from The Carol Burnett Show); Carnage is, in content and execution, absolute perfection. Adapted from the play, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the plot is simplicity itself: one day in Brooklyn Bridge Park (not Hillside!) 11 year-old Zachary Cowan hits schoolmate Ethan Longstreet with a stick and causes a bruised lip and the loss of two teeth. The well-heeled parents of the two children get together one afternoon to “discuss” what to do about it. If the yupster, retro-contemporary names of the children doesn't tip you off, one look at the tastefully decorated apartment of the Longstreets or the affluent, Barneys New York sleek of the Cowans clarify exactly what genus of modern parent we're dealing with here.
The Longstreets and the Cowans make a "superficially fair-minded" attempt to arrive at a civilized solution to their sons' playground savagery
Seriously, a setup like this has more thrill potential for me than a Dark Knight/Avengers marathon. The cast…Polanski… all were enough to send me into delirious orbit. When the theatrical trailer premiered online a full five months before its Christmas premiere, I could barely contain my anticipation. Happily, I was put out of my misery when a friend got me into a pre-release screening (which just happened to be the John C. Reilly, Christopher Waltz Q & A included as a special feature on the DVD). Had I harbored any fears of the finished film not living up to the promise of the trailer – I hadn't – they were dashed within the first moments of this expert and economic black comedy (the film is only 80 minutes long) when it became apparent that Polanski was going to fold me up into a neat little overexcited bundle and pack me up in his hip pocket. 

While I detest popular entertainments that insidiously glorify bad behavior (which pretty much takes in the entirely of reality TV, most sitcoms, and a great many contemporary motion picture comedies), I apparently can’t get enough of films that really stick it to those deserving targets who seek to hide their intolerance and misanthropy behind masks of bourgeois decorum.
"Luckily, some of us still have a sense of community. Right?"
In the days of the Marx Brothers, these types were the high-society matrons and stuffed shirts we longed to see brought down a peg by a custard pie to the face. Today they’re the evolved, socially-concerned yoga mat carriers; the university-educated followers of kabbalah who clutter the weekend Farmer’s Markets; the protectors of property values in yuppie enclaves who tsk tsk in sympathy at the unrest in the urban jungles they read about on their Kindles while waiting for their iced venti sugar-free mochas at Starbucks.
What's so brilliant about Carnage is the way it recognizes that in today's world, outside agents of irreverent anarchy like the Marx Brothers are no longer necessary to expose these people's pretensions. No, they're their own worst enemies and perfectly capable of doing it to themselves.
"Morally, you're supposed to overcome your impulses, but there are times you don't wanna overcome them."
The comedy of Carnage is in how quickly the sophisticated civility of the parents turns to gloves-off savagery when things don't proceed as smoothly as anticipated. Buttons are pushed, boundaries are crossed and before you know it the playground children begin to look like paragons of self-control in comparison.

As much as I enjoyed Robert Altman’s ensemble pieces, the sheer sweep of his films (1978’s A Wedding featured 48 characters) inevitably led to some actors – often the most fascinating – being given short shrift. The joy of Carnage’s four-character /mixed doubles setup is that it keeps each of Polanski’s heavyhitters together onscreen for the lion’s share of the film with the result being a satisfyingly evenhanded display of some of the most nuanced and electrifying acting pyrotechnics I've seen in a long while. The in-deadly-earnest seriousness with which each actor tackles the material makes Carnage a wildly funny black comedy of consistent laughs born of character and situation. I've often complained that I can't find a contemporary comedy that actually makes me laugh. Carnage made me laugh so loud and long that it brought tears to my eyes.
Things start to go wrong in a very big way
Everyone in the cast is truly marvelous and no individual performance outshines another, but as a child of the 70s I can’t help but harbor a personal fondness for Jodie Foster, an actress whose work as a youngster I greatly admired, but whose adult output has largely been restricted to restrained performances in substandard movies (I’m one of the few who absolutely loathed Silence of the Lambs). As the most ideologically invested member of Carnage’s quartet, Foster’s descending spiral from fair-minded conciliator to ragingly moral despot is truly something to behold. I love how she progresses from being one of those false, over-smiling "nice ladies" to an exposed nerve of indignant rage. There's not a moment when she's onscreen when she's not absolutely a delight to watch and I've never seen such a forceful performance from her (she's also a hoot. She has a comic's timing). For my money, it's the best performance of her career.
There Will be Blood: “Cruelty and splendor. Chaos. Balance.”

When I say that Carnage is the best contemporary film I've seen since Black Swan,I make the assertion secure in the knowledge that I'm coming from a place wholly subjective. I derive so much pleasure out of Carnage's malevolent satire because I actually know these people. I daresay that I even recognize some of myself in them, but for the most part I relate to Carnage because these people are familiar to me. I like the actors a great deal, making it easier for me to spend 80 minutes with people I would otherwise find reprehensible, but once again, that's me. As excellent as the film is, I seriously can't imagine a George and Martha bicker-fest is going to be everyone's cup of tea.
Although Carnage takes place in Brooklyn, it's a satire of individuals indigenous to any big city. I've lived in Los Angeles most of my adult life. I work in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, two outrageously affluent communities full of beauty and a surplus of sunshine. Yet on any given day, take a look at some of the people walking around and you're not likely to see a more sour, unhappy-looking lunch of people anywhere. People walk along some of the cleanest, most pleasant streets in the world and never speak, smile, or even acknowledge one another, lost as they are in their Smartphone worlds (a curiosity how the faces of the privileged classes so rarely reflect peace of mind). Yet these are the same folks who think of themselves as good people and pride themselves on their liberal sensibilities in spite of maids and nannies being the only people of color around and the populace's almost frontier sense of alarm at the presence of "outsiders." To be fair, there are many authentic, genuinely decent people populating this social strata, but I have to say that my partner and I have been the squirmy audience at more than a couple of dinner parties that have degenerated into Carnage-like civilized bloodbaths.

One of my all-time favorite directors, Polanski at 79 can still do more cinematically with a single set than most filmmakers can accomplish with the entire globe at their disposal. As a film that confines itself completely to the living quarters of the parents of the injured child, you can add Carnage to Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant). Although Carnage lacks Polanski's trademark"peephole" shot from those films (a distortion view of a character as viewed through an apartment door's peephole), he does treat us to this pleasing alternative by way of a cameo that's almost as much fun as when he taught Jack Nicholson a nasty lesson in Chinatown:
Roman Polanski makes a cameo appearance as the Longstreet's nosy neighbor. Minnie Castevet would be proud.
So, if in 2011, the movie industry saw fit to throw a single bone to that tiny sector of the populace craving something more intellectually engaging than the lights, bells, and whistles distraction of CGI, I'm happy that in Polanski's Carnage, it was at least a bone with a little meat on it.

Click the link below to see the Roman Polanski's 4-minute short film for PRADA (honestly, even what is essentially a commercial by Roman Polanski is more entertaining than most of today's films).
Roman Polanski's 2012 Short Film for PRADA - starring Helena Bonhan Carter & Ben Kingsley

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, October 19, 2012


One of the things I liked most about Pauline Kael was how much her passion for film mirrored my own. Poking fun at her own pseudo-sexual obsession with movies in the titles of her books: I Lost it at the Movies, Going Steady, Reeling; Kael, the late film critic for The New Yorker, was in a class by herself when it came to legitimizing the sensual side of that inter-sensory experience we call moviegoing. 
Speaking for myself, it’s easy to enjoy a wide spectrum of films from perspectives academic and intellectual, but in order for me to truly fall in love with a movie it has to hit me on some deeply visceral, highly subjective emotional level. It has to contain what I call “the goosebump moment.” A spontaneous physical/emotional response (it needn't last more than a moment), independent of aesthetic qualifiers, that engages my heart, spirit, or imagination in a way that overrides the cerebral, taking me to a place where I’m “experiencing” a film more than just watching it.

In Goodbye, Columbus, my goosebump moment occurs less than two minutes into the film, when this rapturous vision called an Ali MacGraw dives into a sun-dappled pool of water and becomes, in slow-motion and before my eyes, the ethereally exact visual representation of what “love at first sight” feels like. This almost Freudian commingling of woman, water, and weightlessness (infinitely enhanced by the very 60s sound of The Association on the soundtrack) is right up there with Barbarella’s zero-gravity striptease as one of the most erotically-charged title sequences I've ever seen.
Nymph Errant
Of course, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Ms. MacGraw that spring of ‘69. My infatuation fell somewhere behind Richard Benjamin’s onscreen character; Paramount production head Robert Evans (who would wed MacGraw later that same year); and what seemed at the time to be the entire population, male and female, of North America. Goodbye, Columbus was the film debut of both of its leads and several supporting characters, but it was former fashion model Ali MacGraw who emerged the instant superstar of the 70s. Revisiting this film 43 years later, it's still easy to understand why.
Richard Benjamin as Neil Klugman
Ali MacGraw as Brenda Patimkin
Jack Klugman as Ben Patimkin
Nan Martin as Mrs. Patimkin
Michael Meyers as Ron Patimkin
Lori Schelle as Julie Patimkin
 One of the better entries in the glut of coming-of-age films that flooded the screens throughout the 60s and early 70s, Goodbye, Columbus (adapted from Phillip Roth’s 1959 bestselling debut novella), is a seriocomic look at Jewish identity, class-conflict, and changing sexual mores through the prism of a heated summer romance between Bronx poor-boy Neil Klugman (Benjamin), and nouveau riche Westchester goddess, Brenda Patimkin  (MacGraw).
Controversial on release due to sexual explicitness and what was perceived by some to be an offensive depiction of Jewish culture; today (in light of four decades of Woody Allen’s patented brand of ethnic self-loathing and the current trend for masking racial insensitivity behind attitudes of anti-PC nonconformity) Goodbye, Columbus feels really rather restrained and surprisingly gentle-natured. So much so that the once R-rated film was re-rated PG for DVD (and contrary to some internet rumors, the PG-rated DVD version is not a censored version of the 1969 theatrical release. I saw the film in its original release and the DVD is identical).
Perhaps because it trod a trail similar to that blazed by The Graduate two years earlier, or because its satirical take on Jewish identity and class assimilation is too personal or insubstantial for it to have gained cult status,  but somehow over the years, Goodbye, Columbus, a huge hit at the time, has kind of faded from public memory. Puzzling, because the film is smart, insightful, funny as hell, and contains the best screen performances of several members of its cast.

Arnold Shulman’s deservedly Oscar-nominated screenplay for Goodbye, Columbus is a slavishly faithful adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel (a library paperback copy of which I would take with me to Junior High School with the intention of poring over the “dirty parts” with my friends during lunch period. I eventually got around to actually reading the novel and loved it). I've seen many films about romances between rich girls and boys from the wrong side of the tracks, but in being set against the backdrop of middle-class Jewish-American assimilation, the sometimes over-broad ethnic comedy of Roth’s social satire is mitigated by a great deal of poignancy.
In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Jack Klugman (who's really terrific) gives voice to the film's tagline: "Every father's daughter is a virgin," and expresses the elder perspective of the 60s Generation Gap issue.
Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin are no Romeo & Juliet, but they’re certainly a young couple who start out on a romance with several strikes against them. I’ve always thought the sexual aspect of their relationship figured so prominently in the film because Neil and Brenda’s courtship is fueled by a great deal of sexual chemistry, but at the same time a considerable amount of suppressed hostility. Neil, refined, college-educated, almost passive-aggressive in his aimlessness, contrasts dramatically with the go-getter Country Club types Brenda usually dates. Neil’s humble Bronx background may mirror that of Brenda’s crass but sweet father (Jack Klugman), but his lack of ambition and passivity represents everything her upwardly-mobile family (they've only recently struck it rich through Mr. Patimkin’s plumbing-fixture business) is trying to leave behind them.
One look at the acrimonious relationship Brenda shares with her mother (Nan Martin) is enough to confirm suspicions that perhaps Brenda’s attraction to Neil, a man so obviously unsuitable (ostensibly to her parents, but also, one senses, even to her in the final analysis) feels less like true love than a subconscious act of rebellion against her mother.
Neil’s attitude towards Brenda is not much better. Like one of those guys who courts the prettiest, sexiest girl in school only to spend a lifetime berating her for cashing in on her looks; Neil purports to be in love with the rich, spoiled, daddy’s girl, but rarely lets a moment pass where he isn't teasing her about who she is. Whether it be her nose job, contact lenses, the shallowness of her friends, or the empty values of her parents, there’s a thinly veiled aggression to his jibes that makes you wonder if perhaps he’s not drawn to her out of some barely acknowledged desire to punish American Jews who seek to deny their Jewishness.
Of course I love that Goodbye, Columbus has a scene where our couple sneaks into a moviehouse playing my all-time favorite film, Rosemary's Baby. At another time in the film they repeat the ritual at a theater featuring of The Odd Couple. No surprise, both Rosemary's Baby and The Odd Couple are shameless plugs for Paramount films- the producers of Goodbye, Columbus.
This is why I've always had a thing for Goodbye, Columbus and why I’m surprised its reputation never remained in step with other seminal films of the 60s. It’s a romantic comedy, yes; a coming of age film, certainly; but it’s also a provocative look at class-conflict and a thoughtful exploration of a very real issue facing ethnic groups during the social upheavals of the 60s: If, after years of struggle, the “American Dream” is at last working for your historically disenfranchised parents, what duty do you have to support them, or is it your obligation to be true to your youthful nature and rebel?
The historical exclusion of  minority groups from country clubs, colleges, and athletics is satirically contrasted with Goodbye, Columbus' wealthy, assimilated Jewish-Americans portrayed as athletics-obsessed members of their own exclusive country clubs and the preppiest of prep school undergrads.
This was certainly an issue for me as an African-American youth. My parents (staunch assimilationists) were realizing the American Dream just at the cusp of the Black Power movement. By the mid-70s we had moved into a tony, predominantly-white, upper middle-class suburb and realized all the benefits my grandparents had fought so hard for. Was it my place to confront my parents with arguments chastising their materialism and speeches about "The Simple Life", when they had struggled and fought so hard to overcome these very things? And in the pursuit of assimilation into the larger culture, what unique values of character and authenticity are lost or compromised? Goodbye, Columbus has been labeled superficial by many critics, but I have always seen at its core a terrifically thorny social issue entertainingly addressed.

In her 1991 memoir Moving Pictures, Ali MacGraw makes no bones about her limitations as an actress, and this is of course true (although she’s extremely good in 1980’s Just Tell me What You Want). But being limited isn't the same as being bad. MacGraw may not have range, but she has presence, star-quality, and under the guidance of a particularly strong director — as she seems to have here with Larry Peerce — she can be a very effective actress. She's beautiful to be sure, but the character of Brenda is supposed to convey a sharp intelligence and sense of self-possession that suggests to Neil that she  herself seeks an alternative to the stultified life her parents want for her. MacGraw captures this quality extremely well. Perhaps it’s because she’s playing a typed role, but I like Ali MacGraw’s performance in Goodbye, Columbus more than any other in her career.
As Brenda's gentle-natured, jock brother, Ron (here, with jockstrap in hand, lost in bittersweet reverie listening to a recording of his glory days as star basketball player at Ohio State - the source of the film's title) newcomer Michael Meyers makes a scene-stealing impression. Richard Benjamin, who would build a career playing variations on this character in several films throughout the 70s, is a solid lead and near-flawless master of the deadpan take.
I don’t want to give the impression that Goodbye, Columbus a deeply serious drama. It’s really an at times hilarious comedy of manners that offers more than the usual food-for-thought for the typical 60s coming-of-age film. Some characters may seem a tad broadly drawn, but (more's the pity) I can’t say that there’s a single individual or type in this film that I haven’t actually encountered at some time in my life. Many within my own family!
More befitting appetite suppression than stimulation, this line of reasoning has nevertheless remained popular with American parents for generations.
This wedding scene drew a lot of criticism for being over-the-top and more burlesque than authentic. Well, those people clearly haven't attended enough weddings. In fact, the behavior displayed here at the wedding buffet table is tragically similar to what happened in real life at the reception following my father's funeral.
I’m aware that many of the things I’m fondest of in Goodbye, Columbus (the music score by Charles Fox, the montages, the class-distinction humor, the appeal of Ali MacGraw) are the very things that don’t resonate very strongly with audiences today. Still, there is much in the uniformly fine performances and witty screenplay that makes me categorize Goodbye, Columbus as something of a neglected classic. If the film has any flaws, perhaps its biggest (and ultimately costliest) is in laying on the ethnic humor so heavily that some of the more thoughtful, perceptive points of Roth's novel are lost or at the very least, blunted.
Neil Klugman, a kind of reverse Gatsby, is ambivalent about his feelings towards wealth and the kind of life Brenda leads. He responds to and identifies with an African-American youth who comes daily to the library to stare at the pictures in a book of  prints by Paul Gauguin depicting the colorful dreamscapes of Tahiti. Benjamin and the young actor (Anthony McGowan) share a kind of heartbreaking chemistry in these scenes, and they make me cry every time.
I've already written in this blog about You’re A Big Boy Now and The Graduate as being two of my favorite 60s coming-of-age films, but as much as I enjoy and admire those films, Goodbye, Columbus is not only the funniest, but most emotionally satisfying overall. If one cares to look beyond the occasionally overstressed humor, it's a movie that really has a lot on its mind and a lot to say. Also, I can't ignore the fact that it's the only film of the three to have given me my “goosebump moment.”
Filmed almost exclusively in two-shot during their romance, Brenda and Neil's eventual estrangement is dramatized in a scene where they're denied the sharing of the same frame. They at last realize that they are from two different worlds.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

HAIR 1979

Not having been a huge fan of the original stage production of Hair (Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot’s legendary “American Tribal Love - Rock Musical”), I think I’m one of the few to find Milos Forman’s screen adaptationwhich deviates significantly from the source material in that it actually has a plotto be a flawed but vastly superior improvement upon the original. The music was always great, but only the movie version got me to care about who was doing the singing.
Evolved from the free-form, counterculture, guerrilla theater experience taking place on college campuses across the country in the late 60s, Hair debuted on Broadway to great acclaim and much brouhaha in 1968 (nudity, swearing, hippies…on Broadway?) almost a year after 1967s so-called "Summer of Love" signaled both the pinnacle and simultaneous pop-cultural co-opting of the hippie/flower-child movement. Yet, much like A Chorus Line, Hair, when viewed today, is one of those Broadways shows whose reputation as a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon may be a little hard to fully comprehend.
As a 10 year-old living in San Francisco’s Haight St. district in 1968, I was too young to have been a participant in the whole Flower Power scene, but when it came to bearing witness to all the social and political changes afoot, I have to say I had the best seat in the house. Even then it was odd to think of one's neighborhood as the hub of a "movement" the entire nation was talking about. Mostly I remember the poster stores, the head-shops, the buttons with slogans, the streets full of panhandling hippies, and vibrant color everywhere...especially in the clothing. (Sartorially speaking, the hippie movement hit my older sister pretty hard. Once recognizable by her Catholic School uniform; virtually overnight sandals, love-beads, headbands, tie-dyed tops and tinted granny-glasses became her standard mode of dress. It was like a Timothy Leary reversal of The Stepford Wives.)
Ren Woods (SparkleXanadu) sings the hell out of "Aquarius" in the film's marvelously visual opening sequence.
Never fully the blissed-out, flowers & freedom era depicted by the nostalgia-prone, I recall the late 60s as a time undeniably colorful and charged with a kind of “winds of change” electricity (each day brought something new in fashion, language, ideologies, music), yet also a time seriously untethered and terrifying. I’ll always remember how confounding it was to be surrounded by so much talk of peace and love while the TV filled my head with nightmare images of Vietnam, the Zodiac Killer, assassinations, riots, and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. I suspect the hopeful message proffered by Hair's anti-war themes struck a chord with a disheartened America favoring the promise of a Utopian “Age of Aquarius” over what seemed to be the existing dark specter of Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction.”  
Treat Williams as George Berger
John Savage as Claude Hooper Bukowski
Beverly D'Angelo as Shelia Franklin
Annie Golden as Jeannie Ryan
Dorsey Wright as Layfayette (Hud) Johnson
Don Dacus as Woof Daschund
Had Hair been granted a film adaptation back in the late 60s or early 70s - when Hollywood awkwardly courted the youth market by green-lighting any and every druggy, nonsensical, counter-culture script that came along (Skidoo; Head; Alex in Wonderland; Angel, Angel,Down We Go); there’s a good chance the show’s somewhat meandering free-form structure would have reached the screen intact. Mercifully for me, the passage of ten years and one flop 1977 revival contributed to the perception of Hair as a timepiece too dated for unaltered big-screen transitioning. This precipitated the enlistment of playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren) to fashion an honest-to-God storyline around Hair’s marvelous score of songs, and, in lieu of the then-requisite bearded twenty-something fresh out of film school to helm the project; we have Oscar-winning director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), a man who was actually making films about 60s youths in the 60s. The climate for a Hair was certainly right, what with the proliferation of films being released dealing with the 60s and the Vietnam War: Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979).
If one goes into Milos Forman’s Hair with any expectation that the film will be a faithful adaptation of the Broadway show, watching the movie is likely to be a disappointing experience. The order of the songs has been rearranged, their intent altered, and many of songs are sung by totally different characters. I think the best and most rewarding way to view the film is to look at is as a completely different animal; an artistic expression unique unto itself. Where the play invited us “outsiders” into the world of the hippie tribe onstage, getting to know them through vignettes and pantomimes draped over a thin schematic structure; Foreman’s film maintains the perspective of the outsider and tells the story of Claude Hooper Bukowski (Savage), a naïve Oklahoma farm boy let loose in Manhattan for two days prior to his induction into the army. Depicted as an innocent adrift in a strange land, Claude is taken under the wing of a small band of hippies (their unofficial leader, Berger [Williams] first seen burning his draft card) and introduced to drugs, the girl of his dreams, and, most likely, the most fun he’s ever had.

Forman and Weller fashion a very entertaining and ultimately moving film out of what could have been just a timepiece jukebox musical. The film maintains the play's irreverent tone and captures rather well the generation gap conflicts and authority figure clashes that exemplified the era, but (and this is a big plus for me) never resorts to the kind of ageist oversimplification of that whole "don't trust anyone over 30" sensibility. Forman's Hair has an originality that far surpasses most adapted screen musicals and a powerfully rendered final act that gets to me each and every time.
I Got Life
Berger (Williams) disrupts a dinner party to the consternation of all but an admiring Charlotte Rae (seated, dressed in pink).

The experience of seeing a film based on a musical you’re very familiar with can be like going over a check list. You find yourself subconsciously keeping tally of how the film measures up to what you are already know. Hair destroys all of that from the first frame. It’s one of the most ceaselessly surprising musical adaptations I’ve ever seen. Whether structurally, musically, or visually, Hair consistently goes in directions different from where you think it’s headed. Just as things seem as if they will remain rooted in realism (the film makes great use of Manhattan locations), up pops a surreal or stylized sequence that totally blows you away. And the effect is exhilarating and exciting. All of a sudden the old feels brand new and you’re actually listening and watching, not comparing.
In one of Hair's more charming examples of an unexpected twist; an anticipated violent confrontation between loitering hippies and mounted police turns into a challenge dance routine.

In populating his cast with relative newcomers to film (Savage, Williams, D’Angelo) and those making their screen debut (Dacus, Golden, Cheryl Barnes) Milos Forman succeeds in bringing a kind of ragged freshness to the film that’s perfect for the material. The more experienced do most of the heavy lifting, although newcomer Annie Golden is surprisingly good and a standout in her scenes. John Savage, fresh from The Deer Hunter, sidesteps the obvious clichés and makes his more reactive character into someone a great deal more dimensional than I would have expected possible. Treat Williams, saddled with an unfortunate wig, does the impossible by making an otherwise insufferably smug character into someone sympathetic and likeable. I think perhaps I’m fondest though of Beverly D’Angelo who is always such an offbeat and fascinating comedienne. I always wondered how Robert Altman ever passed her up. She seemed tailor-made for his ensemble pieces.
Making her film debut, Cheryl Barnes walked away with unanimous raves for her searing rendition of "Easy to Be Hard." 
Of all the numerous delights and surprises in Hair, the film’s one true inspired stroke of genius was in getting Twyla Tharp to do the choreography. An unassailable talent and legend in the world of dance, I’ve never cared for her work either before or since; but here, with her loose-limbed, eccentric, wholly stylized flailings evocatively capturing the look (and, more importantly, the feel) of the era…her work is beyond perfect. Nothing else would have worked. Not jazz, not literal recreations of dances of the era. Tharp's choreography (and whomever was responsible for the clever staging and some of the witty visual concepts) are ideally suited.
Ellen Foley(above center) sings the virtues of "Black Boys" while below, Charlayne Woodard and Nell Carter (center) give equal time to "White Boys." The surprise twist given this number is hilariously ingenious and thoroughly audacious.

Melba Moore and Ronnie Dyson (members of the original Broadway cast of Hair) perform "3-5-0-0" at an anti-war demonstration staged in front of the Washington Monument.
Frequently, musicals have trouble sustaining their momentum through the third act, but Hair is one of the few movie musicals that come to mind that lack any downtime. It's extremely well paced and never lags for me. Even after multiple viewings. For every sequence of note I've mentioned, there are about three others that I don't have room to go into. Suffice it to say that the "Hare Krishna" number is one of those "worth the price of admission" sequences, and that it's more fun to discover the myriad actor cameos and conceptual surprises on your own.  

The highest compliment I can pay Milos Forman's adaptation of Hair is that he has succeeded in excising virtually everything I never cared for in the play (chiefly its morally superior proselytizing and romanticizing of the young) and created a film of considerable heart and maturity. More even-handed than the theatrical production, I find in Forman's version of Hair a film that sees the past with a clarity born of distance. Sentimental, yes. Idealistic, yes. But the one thing it isn't is nostalgic. I like how it looks at the 60s, holds both hippies and the Establishment to task, yet still finds it to be an era of optimism and hope.

Nell Carter - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson