Even casual film historians know that the 1970s was the decade with the most creative freedom afforded to the director. Just as studios were beginning to become just pieces of larger corporate empires and the blockbuster became the only goal, filmmakers were given unprecedented access to seeing out their visions. No director took advantage of the era as unusually as Robert Altman managed to. After exploding as a brand name director with his huge hit MASH in ’70 he spent the decade exploring a plethora of film quirks, with such notable titles as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split, as well as a number of oddities and misfires, ending the decade with the utterly unwatchable sci-fi bomb Quintet. But Altman’s greatest masterpiece (with apologies to MASH and The Player) came in the middle of the decade: Nashville, a film that truly stands alone as one of those films that could never be repeated (and still proves very challenging to even write about) and, in the end, is the most Altman-y film Altman ever made.
Clocking in at 159 minutes, Nashville is a sorta satire, but also a real tribute to country music. The film takes place during a political rally for the Replacement Party presidential candidate that coincides with a number of musicians coming to town to record and play at the rally. With over twenty main characters coming and going, it’s almost impossible to keep up with on a first viewing. The standout story lines start with Lily Tomlin as Linnea (outstanding in her first film), a gospel singer and mother to a pair of deaf kids, and her husband (Ned Beatty), a political operative for a campaign operator (Michael Murphy) who is putting together a fundraiser at Opryland. Meanwhile, country legend Haven Hamilton (the always entertaining Henry Gibson) is sought after by both the politicians, after he records a tribute to the bicentennial (“we must be doing something right, to last 200 years”) and a fish-outta-water British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) who has an affair with his son. Another country music star, the very damaged Barbara Jean (Ronee Sue Blakley, who then was known more as a singer, but proves herself as an actress wonderfully here) seems to be having a nervous breakdown and is followed by a lurking uniformed Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn). Up-and-coming singer Tom (Keith Carradine) has all the women chasing him, including a spaced out groupie (Shelly Duvall), but he appears to make a real connection with married mother Linnea. And that's just a taste of the story lines, which also includes a motley crew of characters giving fully lived-in performances, including Keenan Wynn, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, Barbara Harris, Bert Remsen, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum, Allen Garfield and cameos by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves. It’s almost like a hee haw version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.Continue Reading
Network has cemented its place as one of the finest and most enduring examples of American cinema. A satirical look into the media industry and its effect on the human condition, a film that unflinchingly makes points and claims that, in 1976, may have seemed like comedic exaggeration, yet today are accepted norms. Prophetic and eloquent, a film whose undying relevance seems to resonate with growing intensity as time moves on...
"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV." This is the narrated introduction to the film. Beale, played by Peter Finch, has recently learned of his imminent firing from the station and announces his plan to commit suicide in a future broadcast, live on television. This creates a huge uproar at the corporate level and, soon after Frank Hackett, the Executive Senior Vice President of the network, appears (played by Robert Duvall) to fire Beale on the spot.Continue Reading
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
When it’s all said and done Jack Nicholson has probably had the most iconic film career of all time. He may have more important films and performances under his belt than any other American actor, including such film giants as Bogart or James Stewart. He helped to define the late '60s and '70s with roles in Easy Rider, Chinatown, and Five Easy Pieces. He’s worked with a diverse group of directors including Kubrick, Antonioni, Kazan, Ken Russell, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn (though the outcome was some of his least successful films of the era). Nicholson has continued through the decades since with relevant work in films like Reds, Terms Of Endearment, The Departed, Prizzi’s Honor, and About Schmidt, as well as the blockbuster, Batman. Even with such a giant filmography, one film still defines him and remains his most signature performance, Randle P. McMurphy in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Producer Michael Douglas originally bought the rights to beatnik-turned-LSD-guru Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel as a vehicle for his father Kirk, who starred in a New York stage adaptation. As the years passed with the film not getting made, eventually Kirk was deemed too old and unbankable. In stepped Nicholson and Czechoslovakia-born director Milos Forman known for his two Czech new-wave flicks, Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, as well as for his ultra-hip American debut, Taking Off. Like so many films before it (from Charlie Chaplin to Midnight Cowboy) it often takes a foreigner to appreciate and understand the American spirit.Continue Reading
Back in the day, if there was one historical injustice that could get any red blooded film-geek or cinaphile extremely agitated, it was the fact that Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar. Of course in 2006, he finally did win for the overrated The Departed, putting that controversy to bed. But before that, film-geeks would foam at the mouth, especially knowing that the Godly director had lost twice to actors making their directing debuts.
In 1990, Goodfellas was robbed by Kevin Costner's goody-goody Western Dances With Wolves. And ten years earlier Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.Continue Reading
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper has always played the person who unsettled me the most in a movie. There was something about the naturalness behind his screwy, brutish characters that made me feel as though the role was more personal therapy than acting. But I must say that I've always been captivated by his roles, and I try to see as many as possible because they do have such a strange effect on me. That being said, I've yet to see Easy Rider, which he directed, nor was I even aware that he directed it and several others, including this film. Many of the details in Out of the Blue seemed familiar; the womanizing husband, as seen in several Cassavetes films; the youngsters from broken homes, like in The Outsiders; the robotic, forced, and sometimes unnatural dialogue in David Lynch films. This familiarity turned me off at first, and I must admit that the overall feel of the movie didn't grab me the way I thought it would. What ultimately kept me focused and quite pleased was Dennis Hopper and his young co-star Linda Manz.
In the movie we find Cebe (Linda Manz), a 15-year old girl who's searching for someone to look up to. Her father (Dennis Hopper) is at the tail end of a 5-year stretch in prison after accidentally driving his semi into a school bus full of children. Her mother (Sharon Farrell) is a heroin addict who tries to find security and a good time with different men. Cebe aspires to be a punk rocker and often recites phrases and philosophies made popular by Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. She also enjoys listening to and dressing up like Elvis. Her attachment to their music is a catalyst for the film, and because they're dead and gone, she tries to find direction and excitement in local punk bands. Her aggression, and that of her small group of friends, is what often saves her from the perverts and lowlifes in her town.Continue Reading
Panic in Needle Park
This is a film that speaks without fringe: no fancy lighting, no overblown plot, no music cues, not even a satisfying conclusion. It is a dark and human depiction of real characters, in a very real situation.
Panic in Needle Park is a story of two people who fall in love in the triangular intersection of Broadway and 72nd St. in New York City’s “Needle Park” – also known today as Sherman Square. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted the screenplay from James Mill’s novel Panic in Needle Park. In Al Pacino’s second film appearance, he portrays a small-time hustler and drug addict named Bobby who becomes the solace and lover of homeless girl Helen, played by Kitty Winn. The two young lovers become involved in the downward spiral of heroin and betrayal. Heroin invades their passion for each other, yet it becomes their drive to stay together.Continue Reading
Along with The Sting, Paper Moon, made a few years earlier, may be the quintessential Depression-era conman film. But while The Sting, though terrific, was more of a gimmicky star vehicle, Paper Moon has even more heart than con. In the best role of his career, Ryan O’Neal (once upon a time he was actually a superstar) stars opposite his real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal. At just eight-years-old, she gives one of the most acclaimed child performances ever. Director Peter Bogdanovich was working at the peak of his powers, fresh off the brilliant The Last Picture Show and the popular What’s Up, Doc? He vividly recreates the flat, lonely landscapes of 1930s Kansas; shooting in beautiful black & white, the period detail is as good as any modern film has ever done.
Paper Moon is based on the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown (Kings Go Forth), with the screenplay by Alvin Sargent, whose massive screenwriting career ranges from Ordinary People to the recent Spider-Man sequels. Moses Pray (Ryan) is a two-bit conman. He thinks he can make a buck when, after the funeral of a one-time lover, he agrees to accompany the woman’s eight-year-old orphaned daughter, Addie (Tatum), to the train station where she will be shipped off to a distant family. She realizes that he has scammed her out of her inheritance money, so to pay him back the two end up joining up on a cross-country con job. At first they’re at odds but eventually Mos...
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Country music fans will get a bang out of this well-acted 1972 feature, an unfairly neglected picture (happily just issued on DVD) with a terrific high-energy performance at its heart.
Rip Torn stars as Maury Dann, a second-rate country singer whose life is playing out like one of his songs. The film follows Maury over the course of a couple of days, as he, his band, his devoted driver (Cliff Emmich), his manager-fixer (Michael C. Gwynne), and his blowsy girlfriend (Ahna Capri) travel from a low-rent honky-tonk gig to a marquee show in Nashville. Along the way, Maury gobbles speed (and shares some with his mother!), guzzles whiskey, screws anything that moves, picks up a dimestore clerk turned neophyte groupie (Elayne Heilveil), and generally rampages over everyone in his path.Continue Reading
If I had a dime for every time I had to defend this brilliant film, I’d be a millionaire. The film is set in the red-light district of the early 1900s in Storyville, New Orleans—a time when prostitution was beginning to be looked upon as foul by the community. Brooke Shields plays Violet, one of three children who are being raised in the brothel in which her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) works and resides. The house also serves as a sort of hotel for passing travelers and is stumbled upon by a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine). At first, he is only interested in the women in order to study how they live and to capture their beauty and charismatic wonder with his camera. But when the 12-year old Violet begins her initiation to join the ranks of the women there, he becomes trapped in a battle with his conscience to both stop the girl from having a future in the house and to hold off his desire to keep her for himself. As for Violet, she is, after all, only a child and offers no aid in helping Bellocq make the right decision. She plays on his affection as one would expect a vain, spoiled, and fatherless girl to do. The resolution that comes to these characters does so without any sort of satisfactory closure. You’ll still be thinking about the future of people like this long after you’ve finished the film.
Now, let’s get past the controversy quickly before continuing. Yes, Brooke Shields is a 12-year old portraying a child prostitute who is artistically nude in some shots, though never performing a sexual act on screen. To most, this would be considered child pornography. But let us remember this is Louis Malle we’re talking about—a brilliant director who has a gift for delivering complex coming-of-age films as honestly and true to life as one can in cinema. Let us also remember that this film was made in the '70s when artistic expression without limitations was soon to come to an end, especially in America. Lastly, for a person in this time period, the social requirements for whom you could marry and sleep with was as far removed from today’s standards as you could imagine. With that said, I believe there is a lot more than what meets the eye with this film. I believe that it is still relevant and important in our society, and is perhaps a visual image that pairs well with songs like "House of the Rising Sun."Continue Reading