Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fine, They're Awesome

The Golden Age, as a concept, pisses me off, even as my wild-eyed-acolyte approach to art would seem to point me in exactly that romantic direction (Midnight in Paris spoke perfectly to my beleaguered little heart). As a proud Millennial, I get especially agitated by the baby boomers’ casual domination of American pop culture, particularly over questions of when that pop culture hit its peak. As this excellent-as-usual Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic points out, Golden Ages in pop music tend to settle during the teenage years of any given generation; cinema tends to hook its claws in a few years later, when twentysomethings have the disposable income to support independent theaters and (more importantly) act all pretentious about it. Yet American cinema, even the scratched-lens underground variety, carries an almost innately populist streak; no matter how much of the best of Europe and Asia we absorb, our national culture always seems to spiral back toward the native Everyman eventually.

Those transitional periods, however, can be the most fascinating of all, which is why the 1970s are widely agreed upon as the peak of modern (as in, postwar) American filmmaking. All the weird, wild ideas we stole from the French New Wave collided head-on with our national weakness for the meat-and-potatoes pleasures of simple genre storytelling, resulting in an unprecedented wave of creativity and financial success that obliterated boundaries between high and low art to the point where by the '90s, Quentin Tarantino was able to build a terribly '70s-nostalgic career around pretending those barriers had never existed. (Of course, the aforementioned Nouvelle Vague had borrowed a lot of its groundbreaking framework from American popcorn flicks in the first place; anyone who chews out the French for their supposedly elitist snobbery should remember that blunt, direct American artists from Hemingway to Dinosaur Jr. have found ecstatic welcome in Paris. Everyone is fascinated by the unfamiliar.) Much as I disdain such era-bound veneration, and as much as I insist that modern Hollywood has produced
at least as many masterpieces as the glory days (post forthcoming, and see also here), I certainly admit that there was something in the air that decade. Still, we shouldn't allow such vibrant, tactile movies to be mummified for the sake of the all-knowing canon; these flicks were designed to cut through the cobwebs moldering on Hollywood's sacred cows, and we should engage with them as still-living works. Here are ten attempts at doing so:

1. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, 1975)

For all the automatic respect that its name commands, I still have found difficulty convincing people that
Jaws, more than just a great popcorn flick or a fun Saturday night, is one of the definitive masterpieces of American cinema. Indeed, I have the same problem selling Steven Spielberg, not as a master craftsman or beyond-savvy industrialist (though he is certainly both), but as a emotional and philosophical visionary on par with his idol Stanley Kubrick. A.I. Artificial Intelligence made that case clear to those with eyes and hearts wide open, but his first masterpiece cements Spielberg's credentials at a more intimate level, using a cut-off island as an excuse to zoom in on the thoughts, triumphs and fears of the characters he loves so obviously and unabashedly. Jaws opens on a bunch of drunk twentysomethings on a beach, but then one of them gets pulled under shrieking, and the day is left to the middle-aged career man Chief Brody, left alone to negotiate between a bitterly entrenched older generation and a blissfully unaware younger one. All around him, old men and children run and laugh and swim, but he cannot tear his gaze from the water, eyes flicking from a dog with a stick to a couple splashing around to a kid diving in back to...a stick, floating alone in the water. It's indelible images like these that make Jaws so often feel more like Eisenstein than The Poseidon Adventure, but Spielberg isn't after any intellectual point here: he is simply horribly in tune with the fear and tension animating half of his movie's frames, and thankfully equally in the groove with the other half. The latter includes a rare oasis of calm aboard the Orca, as the three main characters swap scars and war stories (though the Chief has none of his own and can only stand back, awkwardly smiling, again caught between generations). Robert Shaw's psychopathic Quint recounts a lethal shark attack on the sinking U.S.S. Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the Hiroshima nuke. "We delivered the bomb," he finishes, and they sit in silence, caught between past and future bloodletting, postwar America dead and gone, an uncertain tomorrow waiting in the waves.

2. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, Paramount Pictures, 1978)

The films of Terrence Malick (five in forty years; his work is the finest testament I know to the art of taking your time) push the powers of descriptive language to their breaking point. Although I've taken more than one shot at capturing his greatest masterpiece to date, The New World (see here and also here), his earlier high-water mark Days of Heaven leaves me with the worst of cliches: you really just have to see the thing, witness the unbound glory of its creation, fall into its hypnotic rhythms, get lost in its tangled grace. I understand why it took Malick twenty years to follow it up: what can stand up to a film that brings to your knees? The vast, tidal emotions (hope, awe, regret, despair) that Malick brings to life are rarely tethered to events or even characters, seeming instead to float along a slow-moving river, fly ecstatically through the open blue skies above a chugging train, hum through a beguiling sea of corn. Like all of Malick's films, the story at Days of Heaven's center is about both the purblind folly and human inevitability of escapism, the eternal desire to start over and the impossibility of ever really doing so. A young couple abandons the city after an act of willful, explosive violence, only to find a more slow-burning version of the same out in the country; they pretend they're siblings, but quiet fires of rage and jealousy overturn both lie and truth. We see all this through Linda Manz's eyes, giving perhaps the all-time great child performance on screen: tough and unsentimental, she's also painfully naive and oddly uncurious about the maelstrom of events swirling around her. So much of the story seems incomplete or viewed from a distance, but the final shot of her wandering alone down a traintrack would seem to confirm that the film is half-memory and half-dream; like The New World, it's a poetic tribute to a dead world, shot through with regret and a deep, aching love. Nature observes our roiling discontents with a quiet, rueful amusement, caught up as it is in its own unknowable conflicts. As with the philosophical soldiers in The Thin Red Line and the spiritually questioning family in The Tree of Life, all we can do is try to balance nature and grace the best we can.

3. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, Paramount Pictures, 1974)

While most of Roman Polanski's films fit familiar categories (horror, mystery, period piece), they never sit as comfortably as those labels would suggest. Chinatown especially hits the genre beats with almost embarrassing perfection; it's clear that Polanski can juggle the basic precepts of framing and lighting, suspense and catharsis, in his sleep. It's what troubles that sleep that transforms also-rans into masterpieces: the hint of ugliness beneath the excitement, emptiness inside the intrigue, real injustice behind manufactured drama. It's too easy to refract Polanski's biography through his movies (a near-universal sin among reviews of his brilliant The Pianist), but suffice to say that the man knows a thing or two about unhappy endings, and Chinatown's capper ranks among the grimmest in cinematic history. What makes that famous curtain fall so cutting and unforgettable is the perfectly crafted free-fall that precedes it: a noir story told in bright daylight, with its savage mysteries appropriately hidden in plain sight. For all that Polanski makes able use of the genre's vividly-drawn archetypes, identity loss is his abiding motif, found not only in the infamous "sister, daughter" scene but also in the property bought with dead peoples' names, the business cards Jake steals, the villain he repeatedly meets in photos before encountering him in person, and the girl whose future will undoubtedly be a sad mirror of her dead mother's. Her monstrous father/grandfather covers her eyes, and I think of Jake cracking the case by finding those glasses at the bottom of a pond; we can see or not see, but it doesn't seem to make much of a difference. Polanski's invocation of shady land deals and theft of public water fits right into a paranoid, disillusioned American decade, but Polanski sets his fable in the 1930s for a reason; like The Parallax View (see below), Chinatown is ultimately more concerned with timeless, subjective evil than epochal, objective corruption. The movie's own Water-gate is an empty signifier, like the title itself, the only thing that ever seems to break Jake's smartass smile. It's a token of doom, eternal and unbeatable: the movie's full of sunlight, but the hero slouches off at the end, not into the sunset, but into pitch black.

4. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, United Artists, 1977)

Woody Allen's made a well-earned comeback with the aforementioned Midnight in Paris, just in time to see the romantic comedy, the modern incarnation of which he practically invented, fall completely to pieces. Even naming the titles of the seemingly endless reams of meet-cute garbage makes me gag, and anyway, none of them deserve to be in the same sentence with Annie Hall. See, there, I'm getting all Golden Agey myself; but then, Annie Hall is all about nostalgia, preserving harried, silly, frenetic, beautiful moments in amber and then jumbling them all up, emblazoning Woody's impossibly creative OCD even as time passes him by (Woody on rock music: "Did it achieve total heavy-osity?"). Annie Hall begins with Woody's famous direct address, regaling the audience with his famous depressing jokes about life, but then his shoulders slump and he admits the real source of his creative drive: "Annie and I broke up. " The movie that follows finds him gradually, painstakingly, giving up that white-knuckled grip, and if he can never quite loosen up (who'd want him to?), at least he gets a better sense of what makes him happy. That includes: losing a lobster behind the fridge, near-death-by-horrendous-driving, screwing in a red lightbulb to spice things up in bed, talking about art, obsessing about art, obsessing about sex, obsessing about the Kennedy assassination, obsessing, above all, about death, even as he surrounds himself with many good reasons not to fear the reaper. (He also, of course, loves mocking California. It is easy, bless your astrology-fed hearts.) Perhaps my favorite of this shower of moments comes early on, when Woody breaks off insisting that Annie never stop singing to ask for a first kiss, so they can get it out of the way and digest their food better. It's to his credit as an artist and a human that such twittery registers not as sociopathic, but as unutterably sweet (as well as hilarious): Woody bends proper chronology only in dogged pursuit of some painful dream of honesty. Yet it's that singing that stops the movie in its tracks, in sheer, naked awe of Diane Keaton, lovely and lovable, letting loose all her unbearable honesty. This, after that classic Thanksgiving-narcolepsy story that absolutely refuses to go anywhere: how could a dedicated time-meddler not fall in love with a woman who can stop time dead?

5. Carrie (Brian de Palma, United Artists, 1976)

The notorious style of Brian de Palma was born in that moment in the original Willy Wonka, when the titular joker is calmly watching Augustus Gloop slide slowly up that giant pipe. "The suspense is terrible," Wonka murmurs while munching on his surroundings. "I hope it lasts." Yet no one could say that De Palma is detached from his giddy, overripe orchestrations: nothing succeeds like excess, and De Palma has spent his gloriously filthy career stuffing his sleazy would-be B-movies full of as many stylistic tricks as they can possibly hold. Carrie's dizzying pans, exquisite sound design, brutal shocks, and yes, almost unbearably extended moments of suspense all attest to a master filmmaker at work, but one who cannot bear to step back from his dizzying edifices. He just hopes it lasts. De Palma's innumerable critics have thereby trotted out the "all style, no substance" charge with each successive release. Many of his obsessive cult-fans have fired back that he quite properly doesn't know the difference between the two, but even that is missing the mark, feeding into what Eric Hynes calls out here (as part of an excellent De Palma symposium from the good folks at Reverse Shot) as the "I can't help being me" school of spoon-fed auterism. De Palma certainly does know the difference, and in those cases where the producer-provided "substance" isn't worthy of the title (The Untouchables, Mission to Mars), he goes for broke on the style, salvaging watchability at the least. So it's all the more remarkable that Carrie, which could've easily been a cult classic alone (not that there's anything wrong with that), practically vibrates with empathy. The gym-shower opening is classic surface De Palma, all dreamy atmospherics, crazily athletic camera maneuvers, and (of course) a taste of softcore, but when that blood begins to flow down the titular heroine's thigh, it's disturbing but poetic, mesmerizing but painful, ultimately empowering Carrie even as the scene hovers on the edge of exploitation. So goes the film: De Palma never strays far from his instinctive cruelty, but as with his equally wrenching Blow Out, nor does he flinch from the pitiless aftermath of those cruelties. The material (wacky religious mom, pre-sorority bitches, a dreamy date to the prom) is tawdry, but the emotions quake and surge and burn through the screen. That gotcha ending is a prank, to be sure, but De Palma's dreams linger on long after we jolt awake.

6. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, Columbia Pictures, 1976)

As Hugo, coming in the wake of such cinephilic orgies as The Aviator and Shutter Island, made perfectly clear, Martin Scorsese is utterly lost down the rabbit hole of his own nostalgia. To be fair, it was a generally backwards-glancing year in cinema (The Artist, Super 8, Film Socialisme, Midnight in Paris), but returning to Taxi Driver reminds me exactly how hypnotic and restlessly gorgeous Scorsese's work once was. It's all crawling subjectivity and claustrophobic inner space, a bitter and violent reaction to the cold disappointments of the Outside. Unlike your average Polanski protagonist, Travis Bickle is perfectly capable of stepping outside his apartment, but it's only to create his own mobile shell in his neon-bright taxi. "Mobile" is the key word: like Mean Streets before it and Goodfellas after it, Taxi Driver is always on the move, prowling around every shady corner in "drop dead" era NYC, picking heartrendingly lovely faces out of the crowd, brushing its fingertips against salvation before giving in and returning to the porno theater. Bernard Herrmann's score lends the film a feverish, hallucinatory aura, luring you in with lonesome horns before hitting you with a fiendish, clattering rhythm, as if gritty reality is rapidly melting into the fantasies, desires, and failures that Travis so painstakingly records in his diary. Like the rain-washed lights glimpsed through Travis' windshield, Taxi Driver composes a pointillist portrait of New York, gathering scraps and fragments from every poet, pusher and politician that needs a cab. Yet the picture is confused and heartbreakingly incomplete: like so many of the damaged protagonists of these '70s classics, Travis never learns much. He fitfully tries on various styles, attitudes, and people, unwilling to face the inner emptiness that he can never "organazize." Scorsese obviously has sympathy for this possessed weirdo, but he feels no obligation to stick to his protagonist's point of view: witness the rightfully famous "unmotivated" shot that finds Michael Chapman's camera drifting away from the pathetic sight of Travis being rejected, focusing its sights instead on an empty corridor. This New York is full of such empty spaces, taunting and defining its "walking contradiction" of a hero. Again, this was a rearview-mirror kind of year for the movies, but as Taxi Driver's piercingly ambiguous ending indicates, there's some power left in the ghosts hovering just over your shoulder.

7. Eraserhead (David Lynch, Libra Films, 1977)

With apologies to the great John Waters, David Lynch's instant-classic debut here stands in for all the decade's many weird, wonderful statements in cult cinema. It remains timeless, in large part because for all of Lynch's goofy, surreal humor, it feels less like an extended prank than any cult film I know: Eraserhead is seriously spooky, less because of its grotesqueries than its blank spaces and stubborn mysteries. Its shabby tenements and desolate cityscapes seem practically vibrant when compared to its petty, hysterical residents (that stubborn elevator near the beginning seems more alive than the entire X family), and dreams that begin as harmless escapism take some seriously disturbing turns, until perspective itself gets blurred. As Lynch would all but explicitly ask in Mulholland Drive, if film is a dream, who's the dreamer? The obvious answer would be the director himself, but Eraserhead still feels like a bravely intuitive, unconscious work, containing entire universes at 89 minutes. Like any worthwhile cult icon, the film gladly loses itself down rabbit holes, building up bizarro set pieces with such alacrity that it's easy (and fun) to lose track of the slowly unfolding whole: the lady in the radiator, the sex scene that dissolves into ectoplasmic milk, the most awkward and surreal meet-the-parents dinner ever conceived...all good fun! Yet there's an almost unconscious feel of tragedy to the entire spectacle, of diseases incurable and petty lives stretching on to nothingness. The apocalypse that may or may not consume the whole sick world at the end comes as a relief, but without the misanthropic grandstanding of the likes of Melancholia. Instead, Eraserhead refracts the slow, stubborn decay of the industrial Philadelphia neighborhoods Lynch haunted in the mid-1970s through a giddy array of fantasies, non sequiturs, and brain-searingly strange images. The soundtrack, too, conveys the ghosts of a black-steel world, all oppressive hums and sudden shrieks. Lynch lived in this environment for years, often homeless, painstakingly crafting a brainchild as horrifying and mesmerizing as the film's infamous mutant-baby. The director must have gotten tired, and slipped into a few daydreams of his own; like any great artist, he had the sense to give his mind's trippiest folds tangible life.

8. Nashville (Robert Altman, Paramount Pictures, 1975)

Sound, sound: Nashville hits you in the ears first and foremost. The country music is secondary to the industrial hum in the background, the endlessly overlapping conversations, the burbles and murmurs and roars that add up to a complete picture, leaving the story and visuals to happily flop all over the place. Post-Watergate ennui suffuses the whole project, but no one theme or character can exert control over this oblong collage of a film; it's not even clear that Altman's in charge here. The workhorse director had turned counterculture in recent years (most notably with McCabe & Mrs. Miller), but like Woody Allen, he never quite got comfortable with the revolution, and by the mid-70s, he had a cannier idea than most of where the whole parade was headed. So he gave it one last spectacle, one last closing show--in country music city, no less! (Boomer culture in general would seem to agree: witness The Last Waltz.) Vehicles chime and wheeze, curling their slow, confused way through the city's bizarre architectural hybrids, caught somewhere between the antebellum South and modern Hollywood. Appropriately, Altman's playing around the edges of sound and performance isn't a Godardian bridge-burning (or even a De Palma-style colossal prank) so much as an intuitive, improvisatory channeling of the disparate energies at hand, collaboration as a rage against a dying light. By the end, Nashville is less a story to listen to than a library to browse, peeking around corners, catching shards of conversation and glimpses of bodies in motion. Of course, this aura of lived-in reality is necessarily a fake: Altman's multitrack recording (mixed down to four-track magnetic recording) was a remarkably intricate, not to mention expensive, piece of engineering for a independent film, foreshadowing the obsessive sound design that would soon consume all of Hollywood. (I need only mention Star Wars, and a dozen iconic sounds fill your ears.) Nashville is ultimately an act of journalism, and like all the best journalism, it eventually gets out of its subject's way, basking in all the messy glory. If we must have a Great American Film, let it be this.

9. The Parallax View (Alan Pakula, Paramount Pictures, 1974)

This is it: no way out. There is art that dances around the edges of the abyss, hinting at darkness while assuring the audience that the nightmare can be outfought--or at least outrun. Then there is art that strips away every frill and pretension and dives right into the heart of horror, staring directly into the void, waiting for it to stare back. The Parallax View is one of these; all the evanescent, free-floating unease of Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Eraserhead streamlined and jet-fueled in a one-way rocket descent into the paranoid heart of hell. Hyperbolic, you say? Then consider yourself lucky to have never witnessed Parallax's harrowing centerpiece, a subliminal slideshow that melts words (LOVE, GOD, COUNTRY, ENEMY) and images (rural farmhouses, cooling pies, Fidel Castro, lynchings) into a sublime, shattering death of the ego. Director Alan Pakula's savage technique is ostensibly aimed at good ol' boy protagonist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty, who else?) whose attempt to infiltrate a shady assassin syndicate goes horribly wrong, but as with Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow the previous year, this time-stopping montage equally attacks the audience, leaving us quivering just past the edge of consciousness. I had considered slotting A Clockwork Orange in somewhere on this list, until I realized that The Parallax View's primal scene--hell, the movie as a whole--cuts far deeper than any Ludovico treatment ever could. So put down your dog-eared copy of Watchmen and get into this whispered refusal to save society from itself, 'cause Rorschach tests are, in their own way, comforting--they grant us some power, even subjective and abstract, over our surroundings. The final moments of The Parallax View grant us no such primacy: the grimly anonymous Commission delivers its official endorsement of see-no-evil society, and vanishes into the air. The Parallax View is the middle child of Pakula's Political Paranoia trilogy (bookended by Klute and All the President's Men), but Watergate proves to be just one snapshot in the director's all-consuming montage. The most telling word that pops up in that aforementioned horrowshow is ME--it's the identity itself, more than the body politic, that Pakula is after, and as the repeated shots of comic-sized Thor indicate, fantasy may always be the self's only refuge from a world out to eat it alive.

10. Halloween (John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, 1978)

But, y'know, I don't want to end on that note. It may seem perverse to turn to a film like Halloween for comfort. This is, after all, unquestionably one of the scariest films ever made, a 90-minute trap snapping shut whose seismic impact on horror filmmaking is outstripped only by the eternal Psycho. Indeed, Carpenter is very aware of whose shadow he's standing in: Halloween protagonist Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Psycho starlet Janet Leigh, she of the shower and the shrieking strings. That's the level at which Halloween feels like comfort food to me--less a scare machine than a supreme act of craftsmanship, a simultaneously bold and reverent continuation of the cinematic tradition. Like his subsequent horror classics The Fog and The Thing (as with Carpenter's more verb-centric Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York, these titles have no higher ambition than to describe), Halloween is full of such shivery visual delights that fear is constantly supplemented by awe. A light snapping on through a window pane, a sinister tracking shot gliding along a schoolyard fence, a ghostly, bespectacled sheet floating through a all these shots (from master cinematographer Dean Cundey, of Jurassic Park fame) indicate, Halloween concerns itself endlessly with barriers and distance, uneasy moments of loneliness and the raw horror of invasion. The sociological concepts so many were eager to unearth still seem beside the point. Where a modern popcorn standard like The Dark Knight bends over backwards to shoehorn some social relevance into its inherently cartoonish villain, John Carpenter keeps his focus on his nightmare's rough, loping movements and obsessive stares, mirrored in the audience's eyes crawling over each sharp-angled, beautifully lit set, waiting for the next cut (whether in film or skin). Carpenter is one of film's great visual navigators, and Halloween is a piece of cartographic poetry, a visual love letter to the suburbs. Yet these tranquil open spaces inevitably begin to close in, and the imperiled teenagers are caught, in a bedroom, in a fogged-up car, and finally in a closet, as a new generation's psycho cuts his way through every last barrier. Carpenter's auterism is always tempered by the familiarity of his generic material, but he can't resist his baroque touches: Halloween's soundtrack is as classic as the film's visuals, eerie and hypnotic and unforgettable. Of course, Carpenter wrote it himself.

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