Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: The Long Goodbye (1973)

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Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye was not on my original watch list for this marathon for a couple of reasons – I’d already seen it years ago in a college film criticism class, I already had a bunch of Altman films on the list and I wanted to diversify a little bit, and I didn’t particularly like it the first time around and wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit it, even though I suspected I would appreciate it a lot more if I did. But after I named Altman my favorite director of the marathon so far, Rot and David both recommended I give this film another look, and then it happened to be playing at a local rep cinema, and I figured it was a sign that it was time to rewatch Altman’s nearly revisionist version of Raymond Chandler’s 1940s crime novel. And I’m so glad I did.

I wrote recently about how much I love The Big Sleep, and I think my original distaste for The Long Goodbye was merely an inability to envision any other version of Philip Marlowe than Bogart’s, or any other take on Chandler than a straight-up noir detective film. But the brilliance of The Long Goodbye is precisely in how it takes the Marlowe character and the detective story and drops it into the extremely different milieu of 1970s Los Angeles, turning it into an ironic, knowing version of the very cinema that took Chandler straight in the 1940s.

Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a mumbling, ambling fellow who’s smarter than most everyone around him, but aloof enough not to bother pointing it out, except barely under his breath in a kind of on-going ironic mutter that feels more like an interior monologue than actual speech. He’s bemused at the spacey yoga-practicing girls in the apartment across the way, has little use for the police, and spends a great deal of time trying to please his cat. The cat is something of a substitute for human engagement; his general response to any human interaction is “it’s okay with me,” a detached statement of passive affability and implicit refusal to get personally involved.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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If I had to pick one thing that ties together the films of New Hollywood, despite disparate genres and directorial styles, it would be that they tend to all start with character and then build the narrative out from there, rather than starting with plot and then writing characters into it the way a lot of films do. I’d wager a guess that this is a major reason why so many 1970s films retain their power over thirty years later. Rather than starting with the idea “let’s rob a bank,” Dog Day Afternoon begins with a character, Sonny Wortzik, who robs a bank, yes, but is much more than a guy who holds up a bank.

Granted, this isn’t any old bank robbery, either – it quickly turned into a hostage situation with a media circus and a huge crowd outside. But it started with Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) entering a sleepy bank branch on a sweltering day, nervous and jittery. Their actions are reasonably well-planned, and Sonny’s first-hand knowledge of being a bank teller helps him out, but it’s clear these men are not seasoned bank robbers and are pretty much just as terrified as the employees about to be taken hostage. By the time they get to the vault and discover that the vast majority of the cash has been picked up for transit to the bank’s headquarters, the police are already on the scene and there’s little Sonny can do but hold everyone as hostages and think of a way out.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Targets (1968)

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Slight spoilers for the end of the film.

This isn’t on the “official” film list I put together for the Easy Riders Raging Bulls marathon, but I watched it on a whim the other day and was quite taken with it, so decided to slip in a post about it anyway. Targets is the first feature from director Peter Bogdanovich, likely the most obviously cinephiliac New Hollywood filmmaker, and though his love of and dependence on cinema history is evident in just about all of his films, nowhere is it more pronounced than here.

Boris Karloff, in one of his final film roles, plays aging horror actor Byron Orlock, a cultured Brit typecast in monster movie roles just like Karloff himself was for just about his whole career. Orlock decides out of the blue to retire, much to the consternation of up-and-coming writer/director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has just written a serious role specifically for him that Michaels believes would be worthy of his talents. The fact that Michaels is dating Orlock’s assistant (who would presumably return to England with him upon his retirement) is also a factor. Meanwhile, a parallel plot thread follows Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), a clean-cut young man who seems perfectly normal except perhaps a slight obsession with guns and an indefinable sense of ennui about his home life with his wife and parents – until he calmly takes a sniper rifle up on a water tower and starts picking off targets at random on the freeway.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Nashville (1975)

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So far, Robert Altman is winning the award for my favorite filmmaker of this marathon – I almost want to say favorite discovery, which sounds weird when talking about someone of Altman’s reputation and stature, but it is true that I hadn’t seen any of his pre-90s films until now. And of all the films so far in this marathon that I hadn’t seen before, Altman’s have been consistently my favorites – Nashville only confirms and expands that.

Nashville is one of Altman’s most renowned films, and often cited for its use of a vast interlocking ensemble cast (something of an Altman trademark), yet even with that reputation in my head when I sat down to watch it, Nashville still managed to exceed my expectations. The setting is the lead-up to a political rally for the fictitious Replacement Party in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Meanwhile, various musicians and singers weave in and out of recording studios, live shows, traffic jams, parties, personal breakdowns, career disappointments, and affairs.

The balance that Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury find among all the different characters, giving each enough time and back story to make us feel we know them, yet never letting any single character become more central than any other, is nothing short of astounding. By using an extremely simple overall plot (three days of vignettes loosely tied together by the recurring political campaigning, though even that isn’t as central as I expected it to be) and letting the story flow from the characters, Nashville manages to avoid the pitfalls that many ensemble films fall into – especially that of an overly complicated plot preventing us from feeling connected to the multitude of characters.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

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My history with the Godfather trilogy isn’t that of your typical movie buff…and by that I mean I’m not a ginormous fan of The Godfather. The first time I saw it several years ago I really wasn’t a fan – I disliked Marlon Brando’s mumbling, I thought it was overlong with not much interesting happening, I didn’t like how it ended, I just…didn’t get it. I rewatched it a few months ago and appreciated it a lot more – I like the ending now, for example, and I can handle the pacing better, though I’m still not really a big fan of Brando (not just in this film, I’m not a Brando fan in general), and I still don’t particularly care for the way the Italy-set section plays out. But I can definitely understand now why people do like it, and I’m prepared to give it props for the many, many things it does beautifully. Anyway, from what I’d heard I was hoping to like The Godfather Part II a bit better. And I did, quite a bit better.

While The Godfather focuses on the changing of the guard from Vito Corleone to his son Michael and how Michael deals with becoming the leader of a family business he’d once hoped to escape, The Godfather Part II has a two-pronged story – alternating segments tell the story of Vito Corleone’s emigration to America as a boy and how he became a Mafia boss, and the continuing story of Michael as he tries to manage the family in the years after his father’s death. Perhaps predictably, given my ambivalent feelings towards the first film, I still found myself a little uninterested in Michael’s problems, but every single scene in the Vito story had me totally rapt.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Mean Streets (1973)

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Mean Streets was another rewatch for me, this time because I was really distractible the first time I saw it, and I wanted to give it another chance to make an impression on me. And it did. It really, really did.

You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.

MeanStreets_4.jpgHarvey Keitel is Charlie, a junior member of the New York mafia, in charge of shaking down local business for protection money. But Charlie, though he’s good at his job and enjoys a good reputation among his peers, isn’t personally invested in moving up in the organization’s power structure, and would rather take a more legit position overseeing a restaurant (one seized from the struggling owner in the mafia’s version of foreclosure). Meanwhile, he’s handling the careless Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), who is always in debt and doing very little to pay off those debts except getting Charlie to convince his creditors to back off. Plus, he’s secretly dating Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), a relationship that would be frowned upon by his superiors.

All three of these characters are kind of outsiders in the family/organization; Johnny Boy because he’s basically a feckless bum, unable to make good in any way and in fact ends up causing a great deal of trouble to everyone, and Charlie and Teresa because they both ultimately want to escape the life, get out of the organization. The tension among the three of them as well as between them and the others in power is as electric as any of Scorsese’s later films, and has an added touch of raw vitality. If The Godfather is the epic story of the upper levels of mob leadership, Mean Streets is the microcosm of how it plays out on the streets.

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Finite Focus: The End of an Era (The Last Picture Show)

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Spoilers for The Last Picture Show

Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.

Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of Jack Nicholson. There are a handful of his movies I like a lot, but it’s often in spite of his involvement rather than because of it. A unstated side effect of this marathon was supposed to be for me to gain a better appreciation for him. So far, it isn’t working very well. I’ve actually started watching Five Easy Pieces before, and didn’t finish it (I’ve forgotten why, but probably some combination of being distracted and lack of interest). This time I did finish it, and I can find a good bit to like about it, but I still don’t “get it” the way I was hoping.

Nicholson is Bobby Dupea, an oil-rig worker who lives with his shrill but well-meaning girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), in between killing time bowling with buddies and picking up other girls to break up the monotony of his life. As the film goes on, we discover bit by bit that Bobby wasn’t born a working-class stiff – rather, he comes from a well-to-do family of musicians and artists, who he turned his back on years earlier, feeling pressured and trapped by their expectations of him. When his sister contacts him to let him know of their father’s declining health, he travels back home to visit with Rayette in tow, creating a tense juxtaposition when she and his family meet.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Short Takes Vol. 1

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Clearly I’m getting behind on the New Hollywood marathon; I’ve actually been watching a good bit, but not finding the right things to say to write about them. So I’m just going to lump together some short thoughts on the films that didn’t inspire me to write a whole post about, or films that others reviewed or are planning to review.

The Graduate

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This is one of the few films on this marathon’s master list that I’ve seen before, but I wanted to rewatch it because I was pretty sure I had missed something the first time around. That first time, I was just barely eighteen and was sure that college would sort out any remaining lack of certainty I had about my future career and life. Four years later, it hadn’t, and I found myself, like Benjamin Braddock, unsure what to do after graduation and drifting a bit, trying to find something to latch onto. I think when I first saw it, I had difficulty understanding Benjamin’s indecision and willingness to just float along after graduating, basically falling into an affair with Mrs. Robinson (the wife of his father’s business partner) because he didn’t have much else better to do. This time, it all worked and fit together much better for me.

The inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel songs was perfect, and made me think about how influential The Graduate, with its detached main character, soundtrack, and mood, has been on films since – especially Indiewood quirky coming-of-age stories. Half of R3 will strangle me for saying this, but there seems a strong connection to Garden State (though even I would agree that The Graduate is a stronger film). My only beef is that the Berkeley sequence, when Benjamin goes to try to win Elaine, loses some interest and waffles a bit too much. On the other hand, the very last shot that’s often berated (by some) is exactly right.

M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller after the jump.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Based on my superficial knowledge of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice before watching it, I expected a swinger sex farce, taking advantage of the loosening mores and relaxed content restrictions of the late ’60s to portray two pairs of married friends who indulge in becoming something more. But it ended up being a lot more than that, to my pleased surprise.

bobcarol-retreat.jpgBob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) attend a self-discovery retreat, initially because Bob intends to make a film about it, but after a revelatory and emotional group counseling session, they become believers and want to share their new-found enlightenment with their best friends Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon). But Ted and Alice aren’t quite ready for their friends’ touchy-feely gospel and being told that they should live in total openness and truth makes them more uncomfortable than anything. Here I expected the film to side with Bob and Carol unequivocally and paint Ted and Alice as hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch. But actually, the film is more balanced and thoughtful than that.

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Easy Riders… : McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that didn’t grab me straight away – it’s muddy soundtrack (Altman was working ahead of the recording technology available at the time) and lack of obvious narrative took a bit of getting used to. Maybe it had been too long since I’d watched an Altman film though as once I settled into it and afterward let myself digest what I’d experienced the film more than grew on me. There are no bold stylistic flourishes (visually at least) and no gripping storyline, but it’s a film that you soak up and live in for two hours. The film’s setting, the town of Presbyterian Church, was constructed from scratch for the film (up in Canada), with period detail adhered to as often as possible, down to substituting nails for wooden pegs (according to a vintage documentary on my DVD). This, added to Altman’s trademark overlapping, largely improvised dialogue create a world within the picture that truly feels like a living, breathing place and it’s a place you don’t want to leave when the film reaches it’s bleak finale.

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