Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#505: Five Easy Pieces

Directed by: BOB RAFELSON
1970, TSPDT Rank #369

Five Easy Pieces is a simple, yet extremely powerful film. It seems that it must have been quite groundbreaking when it was released, being a character study with an open-ended plotline and poetic visuals of bleakly beautiful American landscapes. This was a new kind of film that was emerging in American cinema at the time, so this film and its fascinating leading man (Jack Nicholson) must have made quite an impression on people who happened to go out and see it in 1970. I remember seeing parts of it on TV when I was about 11 or 12, and it definitely made an impression on me. Despite the fact that I didn't really understand what was going on in the film at that age, certain images (the brother in the neck brace, the mute father with the piercing gaze) and scenes (particularly the final shot) were burned in my memory, and flooded into my mind whenever I heard about this film later on. Seeing the film now, I found it just as vivid and haunting - only with the shattering impact of understanding. With a film like this one that has so many powerful moments and well-drawn characters, understanding the context and the "big picture" isn't entirely necessary in many respects, but with the extra layer the experience can be just that much more meaningful and effective. And that was certainly the case for me as I revisited this film from the perspective of experience.

Five Easy Pieces is one of the most potent portraits of restlessness, yearning, and disaffection that I've seen. But these feelings are mainly present in Jack Nicholson's main character, Bobby Dupea. The true brilliance of this film is in the richness of the whole - the structure, the flow, the superbly-acted supporting characters, the cinematography, and most importantly how it shows the effects Bobby's actions have on the people around him. He is a misfit wherever he goes - even in his own home. He tells his estranged father that he moves around to prevent the situations he finds himself in from getting worse. He sabotages nearly every relationship in his life because he can't come to terms with his place in it. This is a rare example of a film in which the effects of the main character's actions toward those around him are as deeply felt as his own "inner feelings", and this results in an experience which evokes many complex emotions yet provokes none. Once you've taken in the details, and sat through the progression of the story, there are still no easy answers. You can feel that the film could continue for countless miles in any direction and still be just as rich and engrossing. It's the type of film that Robert Altman strived to make, and that I feel is the best that narrative cinema has to offer. Not a self-contained storyline, but an open-ended snapshot which adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. While I continue to find endless pleasure in things like horror films and Hollywood melodrama (and think that there is a great deal of artistic potential in that type of material) - it's films like Five Easy Pieces that truly keep my interest and appreciation for film alive and well.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

#504: The Thing

1982, TSPDT Rank #424

This might be another film that has been built up too much for me over the years, but having finally seen this remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, I am very underwhelmed. I was particularly excited about seeing John Carpenter's remake - partially because it had been recommended to me in response to a claim I made that David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly was one of the few examples of a horror remake which expanded and improved upon the original, and also because I hadn't seen any of Carpenter's work besides Halloween (another famous horror film I'm not that crazy about). However, the original was much more effective as far as I'm concerned. The special effects work here is impressive, but impressive special effects never make or break a movie for me. In fact, I think that the effects were too over-the-top, and prevented the film from building the momentum it needed. The elements of paranoia which are often mentioned as one of the film's main attritubutes are present, but are moreso overstated rather than deeply felt - such as in a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even the original Thing from Another World. Overall, the film seemed dull and lacking in tension what it had in gruesome special effects, pyrotechnics, and overt paranoia. My favorite aspect of the film was how it seemed that the Americans were dealing with the Thing in almost exactly the same fashion as the Norwegians did at their camp, judging from the remains of the Norwegian camp shown at the beginning of the film. This early scene is very telling of the apocalyptic destruction to come, and probably made more of an impact for me than any other single moment in the film. But I can't think of much else that really interested me - although I will give full disclosure that I would probably be considered a horror snob by most people. Still, I feel that The Thing most likely deserves its reputation as a horror classic even if it didn't make much of an impact on me personally. There are better horror films out there in a similar vein, but The Thing does have a certain blunt impact and visually striking quality which have certainly made an impression on many since its release, and will most likely continue to do so for years to come.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

#503: The Tarnished Angels

Directed by: DOUGLAS SIRK
1957, TSPDT Rank #951

Jean-Luc Godard famously proposed that "all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun". Substitute an airplane in place of a gun and you've got The Tarnished Angels. My one and only previous encounter with the king of classic Hollywood melodrama, Douglas Sirk, was his 1959 remake of Imitation of Life featuring Lana Turner - which I saw a few years ago along with the original. The Tarnished Angels is the first of Sirk's famous collaborations with Rock Hudson that I've seen - although it was the last to be made. It's an adaptation of the William Faulkner novel, Pylon, and Faulkner was known to have held this film in higher regard than any other screen adaptation of his work. The plot is quintessential melodrama, with high-strung emotions and characters with troubled, off-key relationships - along with a slight Southern gothic feel, being set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. A highlight is a passionate, drunken kiss between Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone being abruptly interrupted by a raucous group of revelers led by a man wearing a skull mask and laughing insanely. The film is taut and engrossing for the most part - although it veers toward the saccharine near the end, it is anchored by a few strong closing scenes, including a potent and impassioned speech by Rock Hudson which sums up the plotline's strange emotional impact. Overall, a unique and artfully-rendered execution of material that might seem run-of-the-mill and dull in another director's hands.