July 20, 2010

#62: American Graffiti

"One, two, three a-clock, four a-clock rock..."

Movies like American Graffiti, George Lucas' 1973 ode to his teenage years, are a dime a dozen now. God, what did movies about the waning days of high school look like before this one? And would we have Dazed and Confused, Can't Hardly Wait, Superbad, etc.? Maybe not. Much of the story, set in 1962 in Modesto, CA, is based on Lucas' own experiences and does a superb job transporting us to a very specific era, cruising 10th Street in a T-Bird.

Company: alone, home from a road trip and kind of exhausted

Cuisine: Double Stuf Oreos and Sprite Zero. I am the champion.

First off, on a warm August night, we're introduced to a bunch of dude-bro friends, including Curt (a 26-year-old Richard Dreyfuss, only a couple years away from winning his Oscar in 1977), a disillusioned graduate, debating whether or not he'll leave for college the next day; Steve (a young Ron Howard, then Ronny Howard, still babyfaced and looking like Mad Magazine), also ready to head to college but unsure whether he should dump his girlfriend in favor of college playtime; and "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith, in a role that was first offered to Bob Balaban ... makes perfect sense), a dweeb without a chance at romance, entrusted with a fancy car for the evening. These all sound like prototypes now but I'm not really sure there was a precedent for a movie like this. On this list? The Last Picture Show for sure, which I preferred for its melancholy and sexual energy. But American Graffiti has a lot going for it.

Like that Bogdanovich picture from two years earlier and Easy Rider, Graffiti was one of the first films to avoid a traditional film score in favor of a running soundtrack of popular music (directly pre-Brit invasion), which supposedly caused many studios to turn down producing it before Universal picked it up. Lucky them: its shoestring budget and little-known stars didn't stop the movie from earning buckets, probably because of its appeal toward a younger crowd. I didn't find the story all that interesting (I've seen it before, in all those movies mentioned), but the performances and relationships merit mention.

Richard Dreyfuss has such an easy, warm presence onscreen -- I haven't seen much of his earlier work but it made me think of the grace and calm he brought to Mr. Holland's Opus 22 years later -- and he's only 26! He already seems mature far beyond his years, and gives Curt (the sensitive one of the bunch) a drive and a passion for life. We wouldn't care so much about the blonde in the Thunderbird if we didn't care about Curt, and we do.

"The Toad" is lucky enough to come upon a bombshell/weirdo who's kinda into weirdos (ain't that the way?) in Debbie (Oscar nominee Candy Clark ... not sure about that nomination, she was fine but just that), and the two spend the night being weird, trying to get adults to buy liquor for them, losing the car, getting lost, etc. In the end, she "had a really great time." This doesn't actually happen in real life, but that's what movies are for. :)

"It doesn't make sense to leave home to look for home."

And Ron Howard is conflicted and a little heartbreaking as Steve, a popular student whose equally popular girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) reprimands him quietly while the two spotlight-dance at the hop. Again, you've seen this scene before; you just haven't seen it in its (maybe) first incarnation. Both actors handle this awkward relationship so gracefully.

Ow ow!

Lucas has a steady hand on all of this, and directs the film as a series of vignettes, cutting in and out of these stories as they progress through the night. I'll admit I haven't seen the Star Wars trilogy straight through, so I don't know much about his directing style, but he has an able hand here, balancing all the stories and keeping the film moving along toward its inevitable conclusions (including one that involves a supah-young Harrison Ford).

Maybe the most tender and touching relationship is that of John (Paul Le Mat), the stud cruising 10th who inadvertently picks up a girl much too young for him (Mackenzie Phillips). Their relationship is strained and uncomfortable: he's repulsed by her, mostly because she's like a little sister to him; she's clearly smitten with the guy but makes up for his rebuttal by acting the part in full. There's such a sad sense of longing here, that maybe it would work out in another universe where she's older or he's younger, that they're right for each other in different times. I could see a whole movie happening about this relationship, and it's the one I kept hoping to see come back. Their final scene before he drops her off is so touching. That's what will stick with me.

There's something about summer in the 70s nostalgia that really gets me. Blame it on Dog Day Afternoon. Or maybe Nashville (coming up on this list). Whatever. It's a thing. I'll examine it some day and diablogue about it.

Next up: one I know so little about I don't even know who's in it. Sullivan's Travels (not to be confused with that of Gulliver) is coming shortly.

July 12, 2010

#63: Cabaret

"What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play."

Like any good musical-loving guy, I have already seen Bob Fosse's Cabaret, the 1972 film adaptation of the beloved 1966 Kander-and-Ebb musical, but I didn't remember loving it that first time. I've seen it staged only one, a brillion years ago, but my roommate (who played Sally Bowles not too long ago) said that any stage version I see will be wildly different from the film. Fosse and the screenwriter Jay Allen took liberties here and there, and consulted the original Charles Isherwood stories upon which the musical is based, as material to expound upon while working on the film, which ended up with eight Oscars (historically, not for Picture, but Director, Actress and Supporting Actor, among others).

Company: Kecia, diehard Minnelli enthusiast and former Sally Bowles

Cuisine: OMG. Panco-crusted baked tilapia with tzatziki sauce, and farmer's-market green beans sauteed with oil, onions, almonds and topped with feta cheese. Divine. Quite possibly the best movie meal so far. (Although to be fair, we did plan on doing this movie a while ago and did asiago-and-wild-rice bratwurst, kraut and potatoes, just to be German about it, but this meal tonight ranks higher. Delicious.)

In 2002, Chicago was compared quite a bit to Cabaret, not just for the similar style of song and dance, but also for the way it presented musical numbers in a cinematic setting. What Fosse (wisely) does here is eliminate any song not sung in the cabaret (besides the nationalistic anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which works on its own terms) in order to keep all the production numbers in front of an audience instead of a camera. There's something tricky about setting up the fourth wall on screen, but most of the songs in the show (and the only ones left here) are direct-address anyway. Not to worry: the Master of Ceremonies (Oscar winner Joel Grey) will walk you through it.

It's not too long before we're introduced to the Kit Kat Club's headliner, one Miss Sally Bowles (Oscar winner Liza Minnelli in a star-making performance), a supremely talented singer/dancer whose lack of interest in her own talent is starkly contrasted with her immobility. I thought "Mein Herr" was a choreographic highlight (it's a shame I can't embed this one) -- Fosse apparently hated his hands and his premature baldness, explaining why many of his dancers are in hats and gloves (tidbits!) -- perhaps because it's the one that is the most identifiable with Fosse's bent-knee flexed-foot jazz style. What that man did for modern dance ... ugh. Wow.

Stone cold fox!

And perhaps the only other character who has considerable weight in this story: Brian Roberts (Michael York), an Englishman studying in Germany with whom Sally becomes quickly enamored due to his pretty pretty face parts. At first, and maybe on the outside, Brian seems conservative, but he takes to Sally as well.

SALLY: Do I shock you, darling?
BRIAN: Not a bit.
SALLY: (disappointed) I don't?

If she only knew. He spurns her initial advances on the basis of his homosexuality (later discovered to be bisexuality, more accurately) but a couple of scenes later and after a beautifully rendered monologue in which Sally, with those eyes that seem to reflect the entire world, fears she's discovered the worst ("maybe he's right, maybe I'm not worth caring about, maybe I'm nothing..."), they go ahead and consummate the thing. Ain't that the way? Triumph! As a result, she sings "Maybe This Time," which was not a part of the original stage production but was actually recycled from a previous, abandoned Kander-Ebb effort called Golden Girl at Minnelli's insistence. And to good effect.

"Maybe this time I'll win."

"Maybe This Time" became one of Minnelli's signature torch songs but serves the film as a turning point for Sally's self-esteem. For me, this is somewhat of a problem: girl doesn't need a self-esteem boost, does she? She's just unhappy for some reason or another, regardless of her obvious talent (yes yes, talent alone won't make you happy, but...), but this man in her life means "it's gonna happen / happen sometime."

We see outside the world of the cabaret that Nazis are gaining power and beginning to invade this safe world. The songs in the cabaret grow more and more political after the first commentary, the delightful duet "Money," in which we are told that "money makes the world go round." I especially love the jab "if you happen to be rich," as if wealth just happens upon a person.

"Two Ladies" (deedle-deet dee-dee!) is even more biting than "Money," symbolizing the insatiable greed for carnal pleasure, specifically with two blond Aryan hussies. Fosse was such a master at finding the beautiful in the strange, the ugly and even the grotesque. By the time we get to "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" (the Emcee's dance duo with a lady gorilla), the message is so tongue-in-cheek that it actually ends with a clear anti-Semitic joke. Are the performers working their own message into their show, or are they pandering to the populist message of the day by force? I love not knowing the answer.

Triple kiss?

Meanwhile, the non-musical part of this movie is still happening. The ebb and flow of the Brian/Sally relationship is interrupted by a third party that complicates everything. Am I that invested, involved or interested? Not really, but that doesn't mean I don't want an ending out of all of it. I'm just a little more interested in what the musical numbers have to say cinematically, since I see that going on so much less in the movies.

An upside-down love affair. Spidey and Mary Jane?

Surprise pregnancy? Tough decisions? Loneliness and rejection? These plot points in a love story seem a dime a dozen, and luckily for the film, the talented performers inject purpose and chemistry of the otherwise flimsy story line. At the end, is anyone happy? We know that the Nazis have yet to do their worst, and the haunting final sequence features the Emcee ducking for cover and a silent pan of the audience, now nearly all in khaki, red and swastikas. There's not even cheery music over the credits. It's spooky.

Looking back over this entry, I see I must be more interested in the musical part of this musical (which really ends up on the screen as a movie with music more than an actual music-theater piece) because I see it so much less often. I also see that I'm a little shorter with my analysis, mostly because I wrote this whole thing and then Blogger didn't save it the first time. I promise that first draft was better than this. :)

Let's leave the cabaret, shall we, and move a couple years into the future to see George Lucas' last effort before Star Wars made his name forever synonymous with science fiction and fantasy: 1973's American Graffiti.