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… : 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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Bonnie & Clyde: Cinematic Perfection

bonnie_and_clyde.jpg“I‘m Clyde Barrow. And this is Bonnie Parker. We rob banks.” This line comes early in Bonnie & Clyde, and though short, though obvious, it has a surprising amount to say about the film. Bonnie, impressed by Clyde’s impromptu hold-up of a general store, has agreed to accompany Clyde wherever he decides to go, and they’ve just spent the night in an abandoned farmhouse. The farm’s owner and his family have been foreclosed on, and they drive by to take a last look at the place. Clyde’s statement “we rob banks” is a direct response to the farmer’s frustration at losing his home to the bank. It’s technically untrue (they haven’t yet robbed any banks), and thus its placement becomes an attempt to tie the couple’s illegal activities to some larger purpose – a Robin Hood-type stealing from the rich (though, tellingly, without giving to the poor). That idea pops up again briefly when Clyde, mid-robbery, tells an ordinary man to keep his money, they’re only there for the bank’s money.

The line secondarily functions as part of Bonnie and Clyde’s sense of theatricality – throughout their career they constantly brag about their exploits, take breaks for photo-ops (including with law enforcement personnel), make sure everyone knows who they are, and enjoy the press they receive. The Robin Hood guise is really only part of that – it’s difficult to argue that Bonnie and Clyde truly care about anyone outside their gang and immediate family. They’re in it for fame mostly, fortune some, each other a fair amount, and very little else. Yet we’re drawn closely into their relationship and we care what happens to them, despite our knowledge that they are not good people.

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That strange-yet-effective combination of emotional investment and distance is a direct inheritance from European film movements of the early 1960s, especially as exemplified by Cahiers du cinema critics/New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni. These filmmakers were interested, to one degree or another, in a) bringing genre stories and art styles together, b) bringing their insatiable love of film itself front and center through quotation and pastiche, and c) exploring sexual and social tensions from a sympathetic but uninvolved distance. Actor/producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn had attempted to bring New Wave sensibilities to an earlier film, 1965’s Mickey One, but though interesting, that film was ultimately unsuccessful at combining European emotional distance with American brashness.

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