Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"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, they will most certainly 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 1930s. 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, nostalgic horror film.
Karen Black as Faye Greener
Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes, I know...)
William Atherton as Tod Hackett
Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener
Geraldine Page as Big Sister
 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. Look at the faces of the so-called journalists and paparazzi behind TMZ, and you'll see precisely 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.

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
Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Ennis House, built in 1924  
"We were looking at the pool, and somebody, Jerry Appis, I think, said it needed a dead horse
on the bottom, so Alice got one. Don't you think it looks cute?" 
Interior of the Wright house: Glamorous, cold, empty

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 with her performance. 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.
She would be comical if she were not so pathetic. The delusional Faye Greener can't distinguish false posturing from genuine 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 a more widely seen movie, his repressed and lumbering Homer would be the one eclipsing the cartoon doofus. In a movie 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 idle longing, his nervous, tension-filled hands betraying a repressed frustration. And when the camera moves in for a close-up, the light barely catching a tear falling down his cheek...
...the effect is devastating.

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.
Watching, looking, and voyeurism are running motifs in The Day of the Locust. Everyone seems to be looking outward for something they lack within.

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   2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


For my money, 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 into 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!
Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace
Albert Finney as Mark Wallace
Eleanor Bron as Cathy Manchester 
William Daniels as Howard Manchester
Jacqueline Bisset as Jackie
 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!

It's the much-needed antithesis to those false Doris Day /Rock Hudson romantic comedies I grew up on. Finney & Hepburn are introduced by this exchange on encountering a young bride and groom:
Joanna: "They don't look very happy."
Mark: "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'sface 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:
Mark: "I just wish you'd stop sniping."
Joanna: "I haven't said a word!"
Mark: "Just because you wear a silencer doesn't mean you're not a sniper."

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... an absolute marvel of a performance. I've never seen her like it before or since.
Faced with the challenge of conveying 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 wardrobe people, make-up artists, or cinematographer Christopher Challis (Evil Under the Sun, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but Hepburn's internal transformation is what holds the film together. Making Joanna Wallace one of her most fully realized film characterizations.
Finney suffers from a character arc that's 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.
But, for me, the electric chemistry between Finney & Hepburn makes up for that slight lack.
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.

Hepburn's beauty, of course. And her CLOTHES! Has there ever been a classier cinema clotheshorse?
Rugby dress with plastic visor
Suffering  like a movie star 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! Whenever I see her in this scene, I think, "What a knockout!"

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 toward a mechanized roadside warning. Of course, Hepburn materializes from behind the sign, and I can barely see the ensuing exchange through the tears welling up in my eyes:
Mark: "What happened to your slick friend in the Alfa Romeo?"
Joanna: "I told him I was in love with you and 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 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:
Mark: "Bitch."
Joanna: "Bastard."

Premiered May 24, 1967, at the Bruin Theater in Westwood.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009