October 25, 2010

#52: Taxi Driver

1976 was a banner year for American cinema. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is the fourth (count 'em, four!) film on the list from that year, all of which were nominated for Best Picture (All the President's Men at #77, Network at #64, and Rocky at #57), and each of them is totally distinctive from the others. When I look back 35 years from now I wonder if there will have been a year with so many classics in it in my lifetime. Could very well be, but without distance you can't know what they are. Yet.

Company: alone again, like Mr. Bickle.

Cuisine: crackers with red pepper and feta hummus. Yum.

"Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."

I would classify Taxi Driver (which I originally typed as Taxi Drivel -- ha!) as a mood piece. Although its story is compelling and its performances are exciting, it's truly a director's piece, dripping with style. I first saw it in college and I remember that sexy Bernard Herrmann theme so well -- this was the last score he did before his death, but you can hear his voice so clearly, connecting you to his chilling work in countless Hitchcock films. We hear the theme first during the first shot of the taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke, perhaps as a metaphor for Travis Bickle (Oscar nominee Robert DeNiro), appearing through the cloud of "filth and scum" he sees polluting his city.

Bickle is a Vietnam vet, unable to sleep and looking for work, finally landing a job with long hours as a taxi driver (hey title). I couldn't help but wonder if Bickle is an extension of DeNiro's character from The Deer Hunter -- perhaps this is a continuation of that story. Nevertheless, he wanders through New York, quietly intersecting lives. "All the animals come out at night," but he feels powerless to do anything about it. He's back from a meaningless war only to continue his existential struggle with his futility. That is, until...

... he spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young woman working for an up-and-coming presidential candidate. Maybe, just maybe, he can make a connection, find a mate, a partner. Or maybe she's just va-va-voom.

In a bizarre seduction, he accuses her of being lonely and suggests that they go somewhere. I wonder what makes her tick, what makes her say yes, but the 'why' is not really important. What's important is that she gives it a chance and he blows it. Of course, we're not really surprised -- that guy? no -- but it fuels his fire, cements his theory that the city is overrun with self-loathing and corruption, that she's cold and distant, "just like the others."

What do people who are powerless do? Well, they do something drastic -- and why? Any number of reasons, but a huge one is the need to feel alive, the need to have accomplished something. Bickle gets in shape, buys and attaches to his body various weaponry, and hatches a plan.

"Here is someone who would stand up against the shit."

I've always liked Robert DeNiro but why I like him never occurred to me until this film. I recently read that a great actor can paint several different shades on a character, that a great performance evokes several simultaneous emotions at once. DeNiro plays Bickle as a loser who finally stands up, but does he ever ask us to be sorry for him, or to even like him? We're enticed by Travis' charisma and his integrity, yes, but do we ever really like him?

Maybe not until he encounters the heart of the film, a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (14-year-old Oscar nominee Jodie Foster). It's clear to Travis: here's someone who needs saving, who needs my help. He can't change the world but he can right this one wrong, can't he? Contrary to his first thoughts about her, she doesn't really want or need saving. Twelve years old and she's already accepted her fate in this miserable world, with no hope of climbing to something better. Travis can't take it anymore, and acts out.

"My whole life has pointed in one direction."

His assassination attempt on the presidential candidate for whom Betsy works was apparently the instigator for John Hinckley, Jr., in a similar attempt on Reagan, which Hinckley deliriously hoped would win him the love of the teenaged Foster. It's hard to watch the film now without registering that dementia that came along with it, but that happened four years after the film's release. The context at the time was similar attempts on President Ford's life in September 1975. It's a chilling look into what possesses someone to go that far, but I think the question Scorsese is proposing is: how far from reality (and from us) is Travis Bickle? Can we blame his upbringing? His post-traumatic stress disorder? His insomnia? Is it mental illness, or is he merely a product of his environment?

"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."

For all the horror that follows, especially the last twenty minutes of the film, it's important to remember that his intentions really are good. He's only trying to save a little girl. Can we demonize him for that, even if his methods are brutal? Perhaps Scorsese is drawing parallels between Bickle's failed attempt to kill Palantine (the nominee) and the murders of the men in the brothel: both were, in his mind, for the greater good. A morality tale for dark, unsettling times in America. This kind of film is not rewarded by the Academy anymore, but I'm glad to see the AFI took note.

And then there is the beautiful, nearly poetic epilogue, which I won't spoil here... but it provides a great opportunity for interpretation. If Scorsese is making a point about morality here, I think he leaves it open-ended enough that we can't blame him for judging Travis Bickle. The film doesn't justify violence, it tries to explain it. And aren't we all just trying to understand why these sort of things happen?

Not really a film to enjoy, but one to admire -- although I think Scorsese went onto create some truly enjoyable and admirable cinema (Goodfellas and Raging Bull are on the list, but I'd count The Departed as another).

One more to go and then I'm halfway done with the list! Woohoo! And it's a beautiful one, although my memories of it are not great so we'll see how this viewing of it changes my mind. A musical to perk me up: West Side Story is the halfway marker, folks.

October 22, 2010

#53: The Deer Hunter

Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam war epic The Deer Hunter centers on a love triangle of loneliness and despair, which of course made for appropriate viewing on what was surely one of the last warm days of the fall. A certain amount of dread hung over everything as I watched, for the second time, this haunting film.

Company: alone. Almost watched it with Kecia one night but that fell through. We may not have had the patience for it, as we ended up giving in to trashy TV and junk food.

Cuisine: a charbroiled vermicelli noodle salad with chicken and steamed potstickers with ginger sauce from a delicious Vietnamese place near me called Jasmine Deli, and a Mountain Dew for stamina

The Deer Hunter opens with classical guitar, which brings an audience member to a such a specific emotional state of mind, doesn't it? It's fitting for the opening setting, a small steel-working town in rural Pennsylvania which we always seem to see at dusk, as though the town never fully awakens. But the steel mill is roaring inside, and when the whistle blows, the men of the town (well, at least the ones we meet) retire to the bar to prepare for two rites of passage: marriage, as Steven (John Savage) prepares for his wedding, and military service, as he and his two buddies, Michael (Oscar nominee Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Oscar winner Christopher Walken), prepare mentally for their trek to Vietnam.

The wedding and the events leading up to it compromise the first of three acts in the film, succinctly divided into pre-, during- and post-war chapters. I love the above shot of the wedding party, framed by the banner above the stage that claims all of its members to be "serving God and country proudly." It's subtle foreshadowing of what's to come.

I remember thinking when I first saw this movie in college that it felt too long. I've always maintained that a story needs to use its time allotted to tell its story, and be no longer. Some three hour films feel justified, but each act of The Deer Hunter feels overlong. The wedding segment suffers from too little action -- the action there is occurs quickly and without much fuss, and the rest seems to follow the wedding dance. I think there's a sense of longing to hold onto the moment, of not wanting to let it slip away before it's so quickly taken away...

... which is so beautifully exhibited in the next morning's rowdy storming of the bar after the fellas hunt them some deer (the line that claims "a deer has to be taken with one shot... I try to tell people that and they don't listen" comes back to haunt and resonate later) and one among them plays a dirge at a piano. It makes everyone stop, and just listen. The audience just listens too, and then with a smash-cut to a Vietnam village being mindlessly pummeled to a pulp, the second act begins.

We follow our boys from home to what seems to be several months into their service in a remote area in Vietnam, where they are luckily reunited right before being taken prisoner by enemy forces and forced to play Russian roulette in a crude riverside prison. Michael wakes up in the beginning of this sequence, as though everything in the seventy minutes prior to it was a dream... and for him, it may as well have been. This act is overly long too, but we forgive it: the whole point of Russian roulette is that it's unbearable to watch and it grows more and more unbearable as time goes on. It's a slow descent into madness for these characters, and while I understand the choice to make the scene god-awful long was meant to bring us into their madness, I still think that the audience gets the full scope of its horror long before the sequence is done, and the boys escape.

Variously they are rescued, but we first follow Michael home from war, where he awaits a warm welcome and hopes to be reunited with Steven, Nick, and most of all Nick's fiance Linda (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, her first of many!), whom he harbors a secret crush on. He spies on her humble home, and the welcome wagon that awaits him, but waits it out until everyone's gone home and then approaches so he can be alone with her.

The truly human element of the story is the Michael-Nick-Linda love triangle, and we owe a lot of that to Streep's otherwise negligible role, a role she was hesitant to take, as it proved to be, in her words, "the girl between two guys." But Streep wrote much of her own dialogue for the character, and brings an ownership to it that the men lack. DeNiro is wonderful here but Streep owns the moment above, in which she first sees and embraces him, chanting "Michael oh Michael oh Michael" as though she'd been waiting for so long to say it, but in an instant she realizes what she's done and who exactly she's embracing and she recoils for just an instant, long enough to step back a moment and study him, quickly apologizing and moving on with the scene. It's brilliant acting on her part. It's fascinating to see such a performer underused the way Streep is here, but no one knew what lied in store for her. This was 1978, babies.

Enough of my Streep gloating (she's not in that many movies on this list, so I have to faun over her while I can!)

In this third act, the one that unites the homefront in Act I with the warfront in Act II, we see the aftermath of what's happened to our boys. Michael is welcomed home enthusiastically, but admits to Linda that he feels "a lot of distance," that he feels "far away." Has a soldier's post-war trauma ever been so succinctly phrased? The man can't move on until he reconnects with Steven, whose loss of limb has put him in a home, and Nick, whom Michael heads back into the mouth of the beast to find and bring home for Linda. Linda feels her own sense of isolation: without Nick, she's an engaged woman recently moved out of her abusive father's home, a small-town girl working in a grocery store who just wants someone to hold her, and someone to hold, at the end of the day. Moral: war isolates us, peace unites us. Ain't that the truth? When you've seen so much death and despair as these guys did, as our guys did, how can you come back and feel love, connection, hope?

Michael's deciding moment to find his friend is quite moving, and when he finds Nick playing roulette in Vietnam, the dichotomy becomes clear: he's lost all hope of human connection, and Linda can't live without it.

The Deer Hunter doesn't leave us with answers about the war, only a deep sense of loss of our country's innocence. Perhaps that's what the final moment is about: everyone gathered around the table, spontaneously singing a round of God Bless America. I don't know that I think it's necessarily contrived, but I could certainly do without it -- wouldn't the film end more powerfully with silence, or is the point that there is hope somewhere? Or perhaps they sing because there's nothing left to do? If the song is used ironically, well ... that I can leave behind. But the meaning isn't clear to me, and I wish it was.

A powerful film regardless of its length, but one I'm willing to leave behind for many years.

Next up: more DeNiro, this time with 100% more Jodie Foster, in Taxi Driver.

October 9, 2010

#54: MASH

"Suicide is painless / it brings on many changes / and I can take or leave it if I please..."

Shame me if you like, but my knowledge of MASH was nil to null before this, unless you count the childhood game wherein you learned by random forces of fate your future spouse, dwelling, occupation and how many children you'd have. I was born a couple years after the historical TV show, a spinoff of this film, went off the air, and had never seen this early Robert Altman effort. I learned in reading about the film that Altman had a difficult time working with the actors -- keep in mind, his signature improvisational style and actor clusterfloats were not common knowledge to anyone yet (not really until Nashville five years later) so he couldn't exactly get away with anything. It shows. A little, but it shows.

Company: solo, after an evening performance

Cuisine: Svedka & diet Coke, and nearly half of that bag of animal crackers. It was a dollar at Target! C'mon!

We open in 1951 on helicopters lifting injured soldiers in Korea to M*A*S*H (the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), scored by a somber tune called "Suicide is Painless." It's bold, I'll give it that. But then the film starts, and in what would become Altman's way, conversations overlap and the story ambles forward, not always letting us know it's sure of where it's going. I've seen several of his films and would call myself an Altman fan, but the results here don't gel the way the style does in later films like The Player or Gosford Park. I didn't really find myself empathizing for or following one character (to be honest, I couldn't tell you either of the character's names pictured above without IMDBing them). I know I shouldn't look for a plot, but it's a habit!

"You're not hungry, are you?" "Ravenous ... for you, Margaret."

Not until Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major Houlihan (Oscar nominee Sally Kellerman) get down and dirty (and broadcast to the entire camp), and Houlihan earns the nickname "Hot Lips" for her sexual outburst "Kiss my hot lips!" (a great moment), did I really get invested in what was happening. I may have missed an outline of the power structure at M*A*S*H, but once Burns and Hot Lips are embarrassed, it doesn't matter much anymore anyhow. The general attitude is that they're all there because they were drafted, not because any of the medical staff feel especially or necessarily compelled to be there. And so, the rest of the film simply juxtaposes anti-war humor with surgical procedure.

"Kiss my hot lips!"

I can see the reasoning behind turning this satire into a long running series -- the camp is constantly fluctuating, and there's clearly plenty of broad humor to go around, both in lampooning military stereotypes and marginalizing the Korean War (a three-year conflict which, by the way, was examined on television for eleven seasons). The film scored a handful of Oscar nominations (and won for Screenplay) but the series is a landmark whose finale was watched by over 100 million people. Maybe it's a generational thing that I don't get?

But like the crowd gathered before yet another extraordinary embarrassment for Hot Lips, America was rapt.

And admittedly, I was too, until the last episodic sequence featuring a football game. Is it just me, or does football make for terrible cinema? Of all the sports, it seems the least dramatic to me, with the least amount of sophistication, but maybe I'm just trying to justify not enjoying the sport by claiming it's cinematically obsolete. Maybe I should stop using such big words and just watch the game! I feel like I might have made the same mistake Hot Lips makes:

Hot Lips: (after a gun shot) My God, they've shot him!
Colonel Blake: Hot Lips, you incredible nincompoop. It's the end of the quarter!

I hope someday I will have the chance to call someone an incredible nincompoop when a) I mean it and b) they deserve it.

For a movie with a structure I don't quite get yet, maybe that's as good a place as any to end it. Maybe I need to watch some of the series at some point?

More 70s cinema, only of the heavier variety, coming up. Next: The Deer Hunter.

October 5, 2010

#55: North by Northwest

Whenever I said I loved Hitchcock, I usually said I most loved North by Northwest, his 1959 mistaken-identity thriller with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. But then I went back to rent it on Netflix when it came up on this list, and there it sat with my rating of three stars. HUH? How can that be? Was I drunk? ... Could be. Did I think that scores like Bernard Herrmann's come along every day? Cause I'm here to report: they don't.

Company: Kecia, purveyor of gin; Marie, girl-on-the-go

Cuisine: seven-layer taco dip left over from Kecia's company picnic, gin and Squirt

Okay, here's what I'm going to do for this entry. I've noticed lately that the pictures I choose for these movies, chronologically placed, actually tell the story almost entirely. I've been tempted to just let the pictures speak for themselves, and then write a few words about the film. So let me just say: North by Northwest is a thriller at the most thrilling. Well cast, expertly directed and revolutionary. There. Now look at the pretty pictures! (I promise I won't do this again.)

God. Who composes shots like this anymore? No one, that's who. Although tonight I saw David Fincher's The Social Network, which could just be the Network of our generation. So maybe him? You never want to say Spielberg for the sake of sounding populist, or Lynch for the sake of sounding too eccentric, but both those guys know their business. But neither of them compare to Hitchcock. Thank God there's more of him to come on this list.

AH! Altman. Of course. Well, next up: M*A*S*H. The only film on the list with symbols. And the first of three films in a row from the 70s. I could ask for a worse decade.