Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

In professional wrestling, when a performer is incredibly talented in the ring but lacks the public speaking skills necessary to succeed in the business, promotions will usually pair them with a “manager,” a hype man who can do the talking for them. Paul Heyman currently fills this role for WWE champion Brock Lesnar, who looks like an absolute beast when he wrestles, but can’t match a fraction of the gusto conveyed by Heyman’s world class shit-talking skills on the mic. Movie producer Robert Evans could use a pro wrestling manager. A hotshot maverick who helped transform the cinema landscape as a Paramount Pictures executive in the New Hollywood era, Evans has an incredible story to tell, but few of the skills necessary to tell them well. In short, he’s an unlikable blowhard, one who barrels through his own boardroom war stories as if he’s vacuuming up rails of coke. His fast-paced, monotone voice-over delivery does no favors for his objectively fascinating anecdotes, besides maybe keeping them succinct. The history of Robert Evans’s professional life is a wild tale, but it’s likely one that should have been delivered by anyone else in the world besides the asshole who lived it, who’s so rushed & incomprehensible he borders on requiring subtitles to be understood. At one time in the 1970s, Robert Evans had everything he could want in the world, but to this day he lacks the one thing he needs most: a hype man, a manager.

The documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture makes the ill-advised decision of providing a platform for Bob Evans to tell his own story, read from his autobiography, despite his goddawful mic skills. Not only does this skew the truth behind what ends up being a great story anyway; it also constantly reminds you that it could not have happened to a bigger schmuck. It’s a testament to just how unlikely & compelling Evans’s E! True Hollywood Story is on its own merits that the documentary remains intensely watchable throughout, despite the giant asshole it’s meant to mythologize constantly getting in the way. Evans was the Vice President of a NYC sportswear company before being “discovered” as an actor poolside in LA. He’ll be the first to admit that he was only a “half-assed” actor, cast entirely for his looks instead of his skills, but the few roles he landed gave his business-minded brain an unignorable hunger for the movie industry. He used the publicity generated from his unusual entry into Hollywood to maneuver his way into a position as producer for Paramount Pictures. At the time, the studio was struggling for survival as the 60s were dying out & younger audiences were desperate for the New Hollywood adrenaline that was soon to come. Evans helped drive this Hollywood revival, developing a string of smash cultural hits that revitalized his studio: Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, Harold & Maude, Paper Moon, Chinatown, etc. According to Evans, he personally had to fight to make sure every picture survived, explaining to the studio why they needed Roman Polanski to direct, how Sicilian mobster films could possibly be a hit, and so on. You’d think he was the greatest genius of all time by the way he tells it, but that didn’t prevent him at all from succumbing to the downfalls of cocaine, lawsuits, criminal cases, and having romantic partners wooed by Steve McQueen that end all tragic Hollywood stories. He’s a lot more stingy with the details on those particular anecdotes, but they do color the credibility of his all-out success stories.

I’m being very hard on Evans here, but after listening to him philosophize about “dames,” “Pollacks,” and the differences between Sicilians & Jews for 90 minutes, I couldn’t help but think of him as tacky at best, a raging asshole at worst. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a special kind of vanity project that not only glorifies its subject as The Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived, but also operates as a sort of CliffsNotes advertisement for his autobiography by the same name. I suppose Evans is somewhat charming in his old-fashioned brand of assholery. At the very least, I appreciate the abrupt, ornery way the movie concludes with a “I’m still here, you fucks!” sentiment. Directors Brett Morgan & Nanette Burstein also do an excellent job of assembling archival footage & photographs, not only of Evans hamming it up for the press, but of backstage gems like Mia Farrow dancing in her Rosemary’s Baby costuming. Digital cinematography detailing Evans’s New Hollywood mansion unfortunately has a cheap, television-grade quality to it, but otherwise the doc has a fantastic collage-in-motion effect that matches its subject’s energy nicely. I especially admire the way it assumes the audience recognizes every film & celebrity referenced onscreen and uses their imagery for artistic effect without over-explaining their cultural significance. Really, the only problem with the film is Evans himself; he really could have used a hype man as a narrator to cut down on his monotone bravado. However, the story is too good to toss aside just because it details the life of a schmuck and a blowhard.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 22: The Graduate (1967)

EPSON MFP image

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Graduate (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Nichols stays on top of his material. He never pauses to make sure we’re getting the point. He never explains for the slow-witted. He never apologizes. His only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes. Otherwise, The Graduate is a success and Benjamin’s acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

The Graduate, released in 1967, contains no flower children, no hippies, no dope, no rock music, no political manifestos and no danger. It is a movie about a tiresome bore and his well-meaning parents. The only character in the movie who is alive–who can see through situations, understand motives, and dare to seek her own happiness–is Mrs. Robinson. Seen today, The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter. […] When the movie was first released, I wrote of the ‘instantly forgettable’ songs by Simon and Garfunkel. History has proven me wrong. They are not forgettable. But what are they telling us? The liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack (‘The Sound of Music’ plays on Muzak at one crucial point). The S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe. They even accommodate the action, halting their lyrics and providing guitar chords to underline key moments. This is Benjamin’s music; Mrs. Robinson, alone with her vodka, would twist the radio dial looking for the Beatles or Chuck Berry.” – from his 1997 review at the time of the film’s 30th Anniversary

EPSON MFP image

The reputation of the New Hollywood staple The Graduate has changed drastically over the years as our culture has evolved slightly in its gender politics, while the film has obviously remained static as its own. I assumed when reading Ebert’s inclusion of the title among the most exciting films of his early career as a critic that this might be the first lesson in this series where we’d have drastically different takes on a film’s merits (as opposed to my minor quibbles with his emphatic takes on stuff like Apocalypse Now and Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Indeed, Ebert’s 1967 review of The Graduate is the exact glowing, enthusiastic celebration of the film’s minor rebellions I expected. It’s a reading that experiences the film’s central conflict through the eyes of its protagonist, Benjamin (a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman). On my most recent rewatch of The Graduate I didn’t sympathize with Benjamin at all, but rather with his infamous seductress Mrs. Robinson (the smokily poised Anne Bancroft), a character the film often tosses aside & vilifies despite her having the moral high ground. Ebert, in his admirable life-long pursuit of humility & empathy, had of course reached this conclusion decades before I did, when he revisited this landmark work for its restoration in 1997. In his second review he kicks himself for not recognizing how much of a heartless ass Benjamin had been to the tragic Mrs. Robinson. It’s a revelation that might only come with age & maturity, both for the individual viewer and for the audience as a culture.

The Graduate opens by heavily leaning into Benjamin’s personal crisis of early 20s ennui. Freshly finished with his college degree & unsure of how best to utilize his overabundance of idle time, Benjamin is turned off by every opportunity offered by his parents & their colleagues. When viewed as a young audience, this refusal to play along can feel like an existential dedication to anti-establishment principles, a sort of small scale protest through deliberate inaction. As an adult, watching Benjamin float around a pool & pound cheap beer looks like a lazy, bratty waste of unearned privilege. In the midst of this directionless drift, Benjamin is seduced unapologetically by the much older wife of his dad’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Bored, ignored, and underappreciated, Mrs. Robinson is similarly idle in her untapped potential, but it’s a life imposed on her rather than a deliberate choice. She sleeps with Benjamin, whom she watched grow up, over a summer-long affair in an attempt to shake the cobwebs, enacting agency in her own search for pleasure in a way she’s often not allowed. The film’s central conflict, besides Ben’s annoyed desire to be treated like an adult instead of a sex toy, arrises when his parents & her husband pressure the directionless bum to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter (the beautiful, big-eyed Katherine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson forbids him to sleep with her daughter, Ben is offended that she doesn’t think he’s good enough for her progeny, only serviceable as an older woman’s plaything. His brattiness spirals out from there, causing the two former lovers to inflict vicious harm upon one another as often as they can, ending with Ben stealing his mistress’s daughter away from the altar at a marriage much less . . . complicated in its central dynamics.

If there’s any room for me to disagree with Ebert’s ultimate assessment of The Graduate, which has widely become the critical consensus, it’s in the intent of that final scene, the disrupted wedding. In his 1997 reassessment, Ebert was confused that he had ever celebrated the film’s conclusion, writing “As Benjamin and Elaine escaped in that bus at the end of The Graduate, I cheered, the first time I saw the movie. What was I thinking of? What did the scene celebrate? ‘Doing your own thing,’ I suppose.” My only question about that confusion is whether or not director Mike Nichols ever intended for that scene to be played as celebratory in the first place. As soon as the excitement of escaping the wedding settles & the new fugitive couple settle in the back of the bus to the oft-repeated soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” The Graduate loops back to the young brat ennui that opens its narrative. The characters are stone-faced, visibly scared about what they’re going to do with themselves. This is exactly why Mrs. Robinson has a point about Ben’s unworthiness to court her daughter (despite the obvious gross-out factor of having slept with her first). It’s possible to argue that, as the adult, she was wrong for pressuring a young man into sleeping with her despite his initial unease. However, she does say to Ben, “If you won’t sleep with me this time, you could call me whenever you want.” Mrs. Robinson vulnerably offers her body to Benjamin for a shared pleasure, a proposition he eventually accepts of his own free will. After a prolonged affair, she learns how directionless & selfishly cruel the overgrown child truly is, which means she’s a pretty great judge of whether or not he’s prepared to be a good suitor for her only child (not that their own shared sex life isn’t enough to shut that down outright). The worst thing Mrs. Robinson does to prevent that doomed coupling is claiming that Benjamin had raped her, which is a lie fittingly portrayed like a cruel betrayal. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s any more cruel than Ben describing the affair with Mrs. Robinson to her face as “the sickest, most perverse thing that’s ever happened” to him. I’m also not convinced that the movie wasn’t aware of that cruelty on both sides, despite it taking most audiences a few decades to catch up to the full implications of its thematic minefield.

The Graduate is far from the masterpiece of auteurist anti-establishment storytelling it was initially misunderstood to be, but it’s still a well-made, memorable film. Its Simon & Garfunkel-soundtracked ennui commands an intentionally minor look & tone that suggests maybe a life played by the rules isn’t the most ideal path for personal fulfillment. When you’re young it’s tempting to seek that lesson in Benjamin’s directionless, impulsive narrative, but if you can learn to empathize with Mrs. Robinson’s tragically unfulfilled character instead, the film is a whole lot more satisfying. I like to think that aspect of The Graduate was its initial intent, but it’s easy to see why Ebert & so many others would disagree, especially since as a collective audience misread the film’s central romantic dynamic so boneheadedly wrong for such a long time.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)

three star

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Hellfighters (1968)

-Brandon Ledet

Mickey One (1965)

EPSON MFP image

three star

“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”

Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.

In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.

Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.

Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 21: Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

EPSON MFP image

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Bonnie & Clyde (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”

What Ebert had to say in his review:Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life. […] Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor and unforgiving detail what one society had come to.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

EPSON MFP image

A lot of people tend to think of critics, especially the higher profile examples, as self-important blowhards, but, just like with all generalizations, that’s often not the case. Roger Ebert, for example, made a point to be a populist at the cinema, a contrast to stuffy, self-important counterpoints like his colleague & good friend Gene Siskel. As much as Ebert loved to talk about himself in reporting his experiences at the cinema, he often took on an air of self-deprecation that would diffuse any claims that he was a pompous blowhard. One of his most often repeated claims to humility was his contention that his success as a writer was mostly due to the blind luck opportunity presented by becoming a film critic during one of cinema’s most exciting & creatively rewarding eras, a period known now as New Hollywood. I’d argue that Roger was an immensely talented writer who would’ve found a high-profile outlet for his work no matter when or where he was working, but it’s at least somewhat true that he benefited from happening to come into his own during the era of fresh names like Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, De Palma, and Bogdanovich. Ebert was on the ground floor with a lot of auteurs we still consider The Greats & the rise of New Hollywood was extremely fortuitous for his career. And it was an industry upheaval that many credit starting with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde.

Looking back in a modern context, it might not be instantly recognizable why Bonnie & Clyde was such a big deal. After the oppressive censorship of the long-running Hays Code, however, the film’s unapologetic sex & violence was downright revolutionary, tapping into the youthful rebellion that would soon swell into a fever pitch in the form of race riots & hippie counterculture. An oddly loving account of the real-life bank robbers of its namesake, the film gleefully indulges in portraying beautiful people behaving badly, signaling the return of the antihero to American cinemas, something that had been largely missing since the heyday of noir. As with most New Hollywood fare, and keeping in line with its real-life source material, Bonnie & Clyde doesn’t provide a happy ending for its band of ramshackle misfits. However, it does seem to celebrate its Hollywood-beautiful characters played by in-their-prime Faye Dunaway & Warren Beatty as they goof off, shoot people in the face, go to the movies, and steal from The Man. There’s an undeniable sense of fun in the film’s violence & chaos that may be lost or dulled in this post-Tarantino world we’re living in, but was striking enough in 1967 to spark a filmmaking revolution.

One thing that certainly hasn’t faded with time is the triumphant feeling of getting one over on the evil of predatory banks. This summer’s surprise critical hit Hell or High Water alone proves that audiences are still hungry for this time of revenge-on-the-system thriller. Bonnie & Clyde is much lighter & narratively slighter than that film, however (and to its benefit, in my opinion), as the story of its characters’ demise is historically predetermined. There’s some grappled-with issues & consequences like Bonnie’s familial guilt & Clyde’s apparent asexuality, as well as a rising tension when The Barrow Gang expands its ranks (and, thus, dilutes its profits), but for the most part the story is remarkably straightforward & light on its feet. I imagine the reason the film resonated with young folks of its time was less to do with its dramatic deft & more tied to its depictions of beautiful people eating burgers, sharing Cokes, robbing banks, murdering comps, and making out in the getaway car to a frantic banjo soundtrack. You know, typical teen stuff. In retrospect, the film’s shenanigans might not play as especially radical, but in the context of its time it’s a total game-changer that shaped the course of cinema for the decades of anti-hero narratives that followed.

This most recent watch was my second viewing of Bonnie & Clyde. Not much changed for me in the revisitation, other than knowing where the story & tone were going freed me to focus a little more on the strength of its performances. Beatty & Dunaway are radiant in their lead roles and they find great counterparts in smaller roles filled by actors like Gene Hackman & Michael J. Pollard. It’s near impossible to discuss the film at this particular moment in time, however, without at least mentioning the debut performance of the recently departed, irreplaceable talent Gene Wilder. Even in his screen presence’s infancy Wilder has an incredibly intense nervousness & mania that’s just barely contained by its falsely calm surface. If you’re looking for a title to return to in mourning the one-of-a-kind actor and have already exhausted obvious titles like Willy Wonka & Young Frankenstein, there’s enough promise & energy in his bit role as a temporary hostage in Bonnie & Clyde to justify a look, however brief. Wilder’s youth is just one seed of rebellious cinema to come lurking in Bonnie & Clyde’s arsenal. The film is well deserving of its status as a New Hollywood instigator & an act of cinematic defiance. Roger Ebert was indeed lucky to start his career as a critic on such creatively fertile ground.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: The Graduate (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blow Out (1981)

EPSON MFP image

Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month James made Britnee & Brandon watch Blow Out (1981).

James: Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out is our May Movie of the Month and I’m pretty stoked to revisit this hidden gem from one of my all-time favorite directors. Based on the 1966 film Blow Up about a fashion photographer who accidentally films a murder, Blow Out tweaks that premise, focusing on Jack Terry, a sound engineer for B horror movies, who gets entangled in a conspiracy after capturing the audio of a fatal car crash that kills a presidential candidate.

Putting his stylistic chops on full display, De Palma doesn’t pull any punches. Split screens, long tracking shots, dizzying angles; Hitchcock would be proud. It’s mind boggling that even with a star studded cast (including John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz) and gushing reviews from critics, Blow Out was a box office flop when it premiered in 1981. That’s a shame because everyone gives great performances, especially Lithgow as a cold blooded psychopath (what else) and Travolta as the sound engineer always looking for “the perfect scream”. Thankfully, Blow Out has gained popularity through the years and earned a reputation as a quintessential De Palma. I think it’s his best film.

What really blew me away re-watching Blow Out was how strongly the film holds up as a homage to the medium of film itself. It is a movie about making movies. As Jack puts together the audio and video of the fatal wreck, we are viewing the process of film making itself, the melding of sight and sound.

Brandon, do you feel like I do about Blow Out being a “movie about making movies”? Do you think this is why De Palma chose to focus on a movie sound engineer instead of a fashion photographer?

Brandon: I did find that approach interesting here, because normally films will interact with their own medium by showing members of a theater audience. This is even true in horror films, such as the monsters-break-the-fourth-wall classics Demons & The Ring or the throwaway gag in Gremlins where an entire theatrical audience is made of unruly, cackling monsters. There’s a little bit of audience-acknowledgement in the opening minutes of Blow Out, which features a few men in a screening room enjoying a hilariously tawdry, violent slasher movie. It adds whole other layer of specificity that the men are actually working on the film they’re watching, specifically on its sound effects. As James just noted, it’s not interacting with film as a medium from a consumer’s point of view, but rather from an active participant’s. Of course, the movie maker’s perspective isn’t entirely unique either, but the sound engineer angle has a very precise specificity to it, since most films about filmmakers would approach the story from the perspective of a writer or a director. It gets even more specific from there, given that these are men that only make cheap slasher flicks. At one point a character asks Jack if he works on “big” movies and he responds, “No. Just bad ones.”

That specificity turns out to be a very important distinction, especially the sound engineer detail. As James points out, Travolta’s protagonist, Jack, spends most of Blow Out’s run time attempting to construct a film version of a car crash he witnessed. Although film is a mostly visual medium, it’s Jack’s work with sound that dominates this process. He obsesses over the audio recording of the crash that he captured, using it as a cornerstone in his reconstruction of the crime scene. Yes, Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Britnee, how do you think De Palma’s focus on sound in Blow Out shaped the film as a final product? Did its sound obsession have a big effect on you as a viewer, as opposed to how you normally watch movies?

Britnee: De Palma’s focus on sound really makes Blow Out a standout film and turns what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill thriller into a milestone in cinema. Of course, there are many other elements that make this film unique, but I think its obsession with sound is really what differentiated it from others. I have watched quite a few movies in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across or heard of a film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of sound in movies. Prior to viewing Blow Out, I never gave much thought to any of the sounds that occur during a movie, and now that I’ve seen the film, it’s all that I think about. In the final scene of Blow Out, Jack uses the screams from Sally’s murder for the bad movie he’s working on (his “perfect scream”), and I found this to be very unsettling. When I now hear a scream in a movie, I can’t help but think of the possibility of it being from an actual murder. What if there are psychotic sound technicians that go around killing people for authentic screams? It’s just something to think about.

The film’s camerawork is definitely something that stood out to me as well. Many of the angles were creative and voyeuristic with similarities to those in Blood and Black Lace, but there were a few that were way over the top, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The one that stands out the most to me is the merry-go-round shot that occurs in the scene where Jack is searching through his studio like a mad man looking for the missing tape. The camera must have spun around 100 times without stopping. It was like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl but not in a good way. Other than his theme park inspired camerashots, there were many others that were very innovative and enjoyable.

James, what are your feelings about De Palma’s imaginative cinematography? Were some of the shots a little absurd? Were they necessary for the film’s success?

James: A self-professed De Palma devotee, I love his unique approach to cinematography but I can understand how some viewers might scratch their heads at his more show-offy, “I went to film school” shots in Blow Out. Like the long tracking shot at the beginning of his1998 film Snake Eyes, many of these grandiose shots aren’t necessary, definitely a little absurd, but totally awesome. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have ejoyed Blow Out nearly as much if it didn’t included close up of owls and dizzying trips around Jack’s office. It reminds me of previous Movie of the Month directors like Mario Bava and Ken Russell who seem to take a similar delight in playing with their audience’s perspective

On a different note, I have to bring up the ending to Blow Out. As I addressed in my first question, Blow Out did not perform well in the bow office, and I wonder if the film’s bleak ending was the reason. With Jon Lithgow in full on psychopath mode and the Fourth of July festivities in full swing, we assume that that Jack will reach the girl in time but De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and the backrop of patriotism and freedom takes on a more ominous tone. Is this punishment for Jack’s participation in exploitation films? Is it a statement on American politics?

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Blow Out‘s ending? Why do you think De Palma chose to end the film in such an unconventional, bleak manner?

Brandon: I think the movie’s pessimistic conclusion is best understood in the context of De Palma’s status as one of the voices of New Hollywood. New Hollywood was already at least a decade old by Blow Out’s release, often cited as beginning with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, but De Palma’s aesthetic & tone was very much rooted in the movement. In addition to other genre-defining traits, notable New Hollywood films like Easy Rider, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Harold & Maude had a tendency to subvert audience’s expectations by concluding on bleak & unresolved notes. I suppose the idea was that this approach was more realistic & honest because conflicts in “real” life don’t always end on the definitive & upbeat terms that often accompanied more escapist Old Hollywood fare.

I think De Palma goes even a step further than some of his peers in this case by falsely promising a grandiose, happy conclusion. When Travolta’s protagonist Jack first rushes to save the day, he disruptively drives directly into a Liberty Day parade in a grand gesture that normally would end with him victorious & Lithgow’s antagonist in jail. Instead, he crashes & burns. Literally. The “happy ending” subversion in Blow Out is so deliberate & well-teased that it plays like a hilarious prank before it takes an even darker turn. Despite the violence & grim political intrigue of the film’s story, De Palma still found a way to let his darkly playful sense of humor shine through.

Britnee, were there any other ways you found Blow Out oddly humorous outside the slasher-movie & hero-saves-the-day fake-outs that began & closed the film? What made you laugh in-between those moments?

Britnee: There was a whole lot to laugh at between the opening and closing of the film. While Blow Out was a serious thriller, there were a good bit of ridiculous moments and scenes that got a few chuckles out of me. Particularly, the scene when Jack first meets Sally in the hospital. Sally basically has a concussion after being in a fatal car crash, but Jack is so set on dragging her out of her hospital bed and getting her to a bar. He does succeed with getting her out of the hospital while she’s still in need of medical attention, but ends up having a hard time getting her to the bar for a couple of drinks (go figure). As Brandon mentioned previously, De Palma does have a dark sense of humor, and this is a pretty good example of it. Also, I’m just now realizing that the lovers in Blow Out, Jack and Sally, just so happen to share the same name as the famous couple from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting.

Most of the other comical occurrences in the film were minor, but still pretty damn hilarious. Jack’s over-the-top dramatic facial expressions, Sally’s quirky dialogue, and Manny Karp’s dirty wife-beater really stick out in my mind as little things that were humorous in the film.

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing I think that has gotten somewhat lost in the mix here is the performance by Nancy Allen as Sally. Known to most as “That Lady from Robocop” and known to Blow Out director Brian De Palma at the time of filming Blow Out as “My Wife” (feel free to read that in the Borat vernacular if you need to), is an actress who doesn’t necessarily get a chance to shine often. She’s extremely charming here as the love-interest-who-isn’t-quite-what-she-seems noir archetype, recalling performances like Dotty in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the secretary from Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely surprising that Allen’s performance is overwhelmed by the likes of John Travolta, John Lithgow, and the impressively sleazy Dennis Franz, but I do feel like deserves more recognition for bringing a certain heart, authenticity, and (as Britnee mentioned) humor to a film that may have felt like a (exceedingly technically proficient) cold cinematic exercise without her.

Britnee: Blow Out is such an unrecognized treasure. What I liked the most about this movie were the many twists and turns that occurred from beginning to end. After the first half-hour or so, I thought that I had the film figured out; an average Joe solves a murder and gets the girl in the end. It turns out that I’m a terrible guesser.

James: Blow Out is essential De Palma and arguably his masterwork. With its mix of intrigue, nail biting suspense, and dark humor, the film transcends genres and feels as fresh as it must have in 1981. Showcasing De Palma’s formidable skill behind the camera, Blow Out is also a great homage to the process of film making from a modern master.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)
August: Brandon presents Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

-The Swampflix Crew