Thursday, July 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you accept the conventional wisdom regarding the late Stanley Kubrick, your worst suspicions will be confirmed by his crowning achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You think Kubrick was an egomaniacal control freak? OK, maybe he was. But it’s hard to see how a modest Mr. Nice Guy could have convinced a major Hollywood studio – Metro Goldwyn Mayer, no less! -- to bankroll something this intellectually ambitious, tauntingly ambiguous and budget-bustingly expensive back in 1968. As Norman Kagan notes in The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, the director spent a year and a half shooting 205 special effects shots, “many of them possible only because of technical processes Kubrick himself invented.” Compared to this guy, even James Cameron seems like a meek under-achiever.

You say you’ve always heard Kubrick was a dour misanthrope with a sour view of humankind? Then check out the scene that signals the dawn of civilization: Man-apes learn how to kill more efficiently by reconfiguring animal bones as lethal weapons. And while you’re at it, fast-forward a bit, and contemplate the insufferable blandness of supposedly more advanced homo sapiens. Time and again, 2001 underscores the ironic contrast between the miraculous and the mundane, between the panoramic splendors of outer space and the narrow-focused behavior of smaller-than-life humans. There’s something borderline-sadistic about the way Kubrick caricatures a white-bread, charm-free scientist who gets his first glimpse at hard evidence of intelligent life on other planets. “Well,” he remarks with the empty cheer of a Kiwanis Club luncheon speaker, “I must say – you guys have certainly come up with something.”

Do you find yourself agreeing with Calder Willingham, co-screenwriter of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, who accused the director of “a near-psychotic indifference to and coldness toward the human beings” in his movies? Then consider this: HAL 9000, the soft-spoken super-computer, seems a lot more human than its flesh-and-blood traveling companions aboard a Jupiter-bound spacecraft. It’s so affecting, even tragic, when an astronaut (another personality-challenged human, played by Keir Dullea) disables HAL, you’re almost willing to forgive the digital paranoid for causing the deaths of every other crew member. Indeed, with the arguable exception of Tom Cruise’s obsessive seeker in Eyes Wide Shut, Hal is the closest thing to a genuinely charismatic and sympathetic character in any movie Kubrick made after Spartacus (1960).

Despite the absence of a significant human protagonist to generate a rooting interest, 2001 was a huge commercial success during its first theatrical run. (And not just because many chemically-enhanced viewers repeatedly savored it as a widescreen head trip.) More than four decades later, it is widely viewed as a masterpiece, even by some critics who expressed serious misgivings in their initial reviews. That it was, and continues to be, one of the past century’s most influential films is beyond dispute. And it is so firmly affixed in our collective pop-culture consciousness that even people who have never actually seen 2001 get the joke when someone makes a wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusion to the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra (perhaps the most inspired musical choice ever made by a filmmaker) or the arrival of those imposing black Monoliths that encourage human beings to transcend themselves.

Trouble is, much of 2001 hasn’t aged very well. The mystifying climax of what one critic described as the film’s “shaggy God story” (concocted by Kubrick and visionary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke) seems more than ever like a precocious sophomore’s idea of deep-dish philosophizing. (It doesn’t help that, when Dullea awakens after a dazzling sound-and-light show, he finds himself trapped inside what looks like the spectacularly garish luxury suite of a Las Vegas hotel.) Worse, Kubrick’s intricately and interminably detailed depiction of extra-terrestrial travel – meant to convey shock and awe at the miracle of space flight -- now seems, compared to more recent displays of high-tech wizardry, almost quaint.

Of course, some things – titles, for instance -- never go out of date. And just as 1984 continues to serve as shorthand for a dystopian vision of technologically-enhanced totalitarianism, 2001 retains its mythic resonance – an optimistic prediction of first contact with other, presumably wiser, life forms -- long after people stopped scribbling that cluster of numbers in checkbooks. Instead of inspiring awe, however, the film itself now is more likely to evoke a kind of wistful melancholy that Kubrick never intended. It’s sad, but true: These days, we simply don’t view interstellar exploration with the same wonder-fueled enthusiasm shared by Kubrick and millions of others back in 1968.

To be sure, there’s the occasional media frenzy about images beamed from Mars by unmanned spacecraft. And there’s always a ready audience for every new chapter of the Star Wars franchise. But with each passing year, it’s increasingly more difficult to imagine that anything short of a real-world appearance by a beckoning Monolith would re-ignite our intergalactic wanderlust. All you have to do is read news accounts of petty Congressional squabbling over NASA funding, and you’ll realize that, never mind what the calendar might tell you, we’re still a long, long way from the bold new age of discovery we were promised all those years ago.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

A textbook example of a hand-tooled star vehicle that forever labels the star in its driver’s seat, Smokey and the Bandit also is noteworthy for being the movie most often credited – or, perhaps more precisely, blamed – for kicking off an action-comedy subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.

Two lesser sequels and at least one long-running TV series (The Dukes of Hazzard) can be traced directly to this broadly played hodgepodge of high-speed driving, lowbrow humor and spectacular car crashes. But wait, there’s more: Smokey and the Bandit, the debut feature of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, also inspired literally dozens of other pedal-to-the-metal extravaganzas – mostly redneck melodramas and cornpone comedies, along with Needham’s own in-jokey Cannonball Run movies -- throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Decades later, its very title still serves as shorthand for a particular type of undemanding crowd-pleaser with smart-alecky heroes, dim-bulb authority figures and more high-octane action than a month of NASCAR events.

The thin plot is a serviceable excuse for stringing together scenes of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress.

Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).

Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.

Even moviegoers not yet born when Smokey and the Bandit first screeched into theaters reflexively think of the hard-driving, trash-talking trucker whenever they hear Reynolds’ name. Part of that can be explained by the virtually nonstop exposure of Needham’s movie on cable and home video. But it’s instructive to consider Reynolds’ own role in erasing the lines between actor and character, man and mythos.

In the wake of his becoming an “overnight success” after years of journeymen work in television and movies, Reynolds embraced typecasting – and tongue-in-cheeky self-promotion – with unseemly fervor. For the better part of a decade, he chronically reprised his Bandit shtick – winking insouciance, naughty-boy sarcasm, zero-cool self-assurance – in motion pictures and TV talk shows. It was funny, for a while, and then it wasn’t. Trouble is, by the time it stopped being funny, the image was firmly affixed in the public’s collective pop-culture consciousness. So much so, in fact, that even after demonstrating his versatility in a wide range of character roles -- most memorably, as the prideful porn-film director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) – Reynolds appears destined to always be remembered best for one indelibly defining character.

On the other hand, there are far less pleasant ways for an actor to ensure his immortality. When asked about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after playing the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.

“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’

“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”

Of course, if the audience loves a character (and, better still, the actor playing that character) the character can get away with practically anything, even coming off as a bona fide egomaniac. Midway through Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds recalled, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who (Bandit) was, what he was all about.”

The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Serpico (1973)

Much has been made of the fresh ideas, revolutionary approaches and film-school-grad fervor – in short, the youth – of filmmakers at the vanguard of the 1970s New Hollywood era. Indeed, when Michael Pye and Lynda Myles wrote their contemporaneous account of the New Hollywood era, they chose as their title The Movie Brats – a then-trendy term used to describe auteurs such as, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, all representing “the first film school graduates and movie buffs to gain real power in the industry” during the 1960s and ‘70s.

But while it is undeniable that film brats prospered throughout the New Hollywood era – the first period in Hollywood history when significant numbers of movies were made by people who learned their craft through academic study of other movies – stage-trained directors, TV-trained craftsmen (including several with roots in live dramas of the 1950s) and sundry other grizzled veterans also enjoyed a heyday, and many were inspired to do some of their best work during the 1970s.

Chief among the relative graybeards who made impressive additions to their resumes even as the younger bucks grabbed most of the press coverage: Sam Peckinaph, who was 46 when his Straw Dogs (1971) was released; Robert Altman, already 50 when his Nashville (1975) premiered; Don Siegel, who unleashed Dirty Harry (1971) when he was 59; and John Huston, who delivered Fat City (1972) at age 66, and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) at 69.

Sidney Lumet was 49 when he started shooting Serpico, his street-smart, documentary-style drama based on the real-life story of New York police detective Frank Serpico, in July 1973. By that time, he already had to his credit 18 feature films – including the classic courtroom melodrama 12 Angry Men (1957), the Cold War thriller Fail Safe (1964), the taboo-shattering The Pawnbroker (1965) [1] and the high-tech caper The Anderson Tapes (1971) – and many acclaimed television dramas, including a live-broadcast version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, starring Jason Robards and featuring a young Robert Redford.

To put this resume in context: In 1957, when Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, his debut feature, at age 33, Roman Polanski was a 24-year-old student at the Lodz Film School, Francis Ford Coppola was an 18-year-old drama major at Hofstra University – and Steven Spielberg was 11 years old.

Unlike many, if not most, of his younger colleagues who prospered during the New Hollywood era [2], Lumet refrained from embracing the concept of director as auteur. “I don't know what the big geshrei is about, the big noise,” he told American Film magazine in 1982. “[A]ll the auteur theory did was make what had been natural self-conscious." Even as recently as 1995, when he published his memoir Making Pictures, Lumet disdained what he describes as the “pretentious” notion that any movie is shaped entirely by the artistic sensibility of a single individual:

[I]n the late fifties, walking the Champs Elysees, I saw in neon a sign over a theater: Douze Hommes en Colere – un Film de Sidney Lumet. 12 Angry Men was now in its second year. Fortunately for my psyche and my career, I’ve never believed it was un Film de Sidney Lumet. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t false modesty. I’m the guy who says “Print,” and that’s what determines what goes up on that screen… But how much in charge am I? Is the movie un Film de Sidney Lumet? I’m dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast, who the leading man is in love with. I’m dependent on the talents and idiosyncrasies, the moods and egos, the politics and personalities, of more than a hundred different people. And that’s just in the making of the movie. At this point, I won’t even begin to discuss the studio, financing, distribution, marketing, and so on.

And yet, as early as 1973, Lumet already had distinguished himself as a director with a unique flair for gritty urban drama, developing a style of brutally straightforward realism (as opposed to naturalism) that would in Serpico begin to evolve into what Richard Combs would describe in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary as “an embryonic epic form – a modern mosaic in which socioeconomic observations are assembled, not into a message, but into a deterministic trap which the hero willfully enters.” Serpico -- not unlike The Anderson Tapes -- pivots on a protagonist who follows his obsessions to a point near death, in a manner not always admirable or even entirely understandable. The formal dislocations caused by Lumet’s deliberately episodic, documentary-flavored approach results in what Roud calls a “prismatic representation” of Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino, the reluctant heir apparent of The Godfather) as a flawed hero viewed from a multitude of different perspectives within the same film. [3]
It should be noted, however, that Lumet’s artistic temperament, and his feel for urban drama of moral complexity, were not the only reasons why he was assigned to direct Serpico when Paramount production chief Robert Evans green-lit the Dino Di Laurentiis production in 1973. Like the other  “journeymen directors” Peter Biskind mentions respectfully – without examining exhaustively – in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Lumet already was known “not only for the quality of his projects, but also for the speed with which he films, the dexterity with which he handles both cast and crew, and his aptitude for location work,” all qualities that would suit him particularly well on a project with 106 speaking parts and scores of extras, that would start filming in early July 1973 with 100-plus shooting locations, and was due in theaters at December of the same year. [4]

While working at that breakneck pace, surmounting daunting logistical problems on a daily basis, Lumet somehow managed to make a movie that, decades later, remains among the enduringly influential [5] and highly regarded New Hollywood films released by Paramount during the Robert Evans regime. And in doing so, he captured and reflected the zeitgeist of a turbulent time as vividly as any movie released by any studio during the ‘70s.[6]

Crimes of the Time

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico tells the true-life story of Frank Serpico, the decorated New York City police detective who blew the whistle on the bribery and corruption that was rampant among his fellow cops in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. (In his book Making Movies, Lumet describes the film as “a portrait of a real rebel with a cause.”)

Working from a screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, who based their script on the non-fiction best-seller by Peter Mass, Lumet offers a largely admiring yet not always flattering portrait of the man described by Mass as “the first police officer not only in the history of the New York Police Department, but in the history of any police department in the whole United States, to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systematic cop corruption-payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.”

The movie, which begins with Serpico’s near-fatal shooting by drug dealers while two fellow officer refrain from rushing to his aid, is for the most part a long flashback, depicting events that lead to the title character’s 1971 testimony before the Knapp Commission appointed by New York mayor John V. Lindsay. [7]

The concluding scenes pointedly refrain from giving the audience the emotional balm of an uplifting sense of triumph. In fact, the final scene announces that a bitter and disillusioned Frank Serpico left the police force and moved to Switzerland on June 15, 1972.

By dramatizing Frank Serpico’s story in such a manner, as a tale of corruption so intense and conspiracies so vast as to seem almost beyond the ability of just and honorable men to comprehend, confront and combat, Lumet and his screenwriters tapped into the worst suspicions and darkest assumptions of a moviegoing public battered on an almost daily basis by revelations and reverberations stemming from the ongoing Watergate scandal.

Serpico had its premiere in New York on Dec. 5, 1973, scarcely five weeks after a besieged President Richard Nixon, desperate to reverse his plummeting poll numbers, ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” two weeks after President Nixon felt compelled to inform an assemblage of 400 Associated Press managing editors that he was “not a crook” [8] – and one day before White House chief of staff Alexander Haig testified in federal court that maybe, just maybe, some “sinister force” was responsible for the 18 ¼-minute gap in a subpoenaed tape of Oval Office conversations.

But it wasn’t only Watergate that had poisoned minds and increased paranoia on both sides, left and right, of the political divide by the time Serpico was unspooling at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. Lumet’s movie arrived near the end of U.S. involvement in of the Vietnam War, a conflict that had divided the country like none since Civil War of more than a century earlier. In his 2000 book How We Got Here: The 70's, historian David Frum claims: “Americans did not lose their faith in institutions because of the Watergate scandal; Watergate became a scandal because Americans were losing their faith in institutions [author’s italics].”

Serpico arrived at a time – during the revelations of Watergate and the winding down of Vietnam, in the wake of a decade rocked by assassinations, scandals and civil unrest -- when American moviegoers seemed atypically willing to accept, even embrace, movies with endings that were at best ambiguous -- and at worst, bleakly downbeat.

[1] The Pawnbroker (1965), a harrowing drama about a Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger) who continues to be haunted by memories of his death camp experiences even after relocating to New York, very nearly was denied a Production Code seal because of a scene in which a prostitute fleetingly bares her breasts to the title character in the hope of obtaining money for her desperate boyfriend.

[2] A period during which Lumet also enjoyed critical and commercial success with Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976).

[3] Lumet would take a similar approach to rendering the morally tarnished police-officer protagonists of Prince of the City (1981) and Q&A (1990).

[4] In order to complete Serpico in “an insanely short amount of time,” Lumet said in an interview taped for the 2002 DVD edition of the film, he and editor Dede Allen worked out a system of cutting the movie during actual production: “I finished a scene, and 48 hours later it was ready to turn over to the sound department.”

[5] Christopher Orr of The New Republic, Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly are just three of the critics who noted the influence of Serpico (and other ‘70s crime dramas) on Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007).

[6] Remarkably, Lumet completed the filming, originally scheduled to last 11 weeks, in 10 weeks and one day.

[7] The movie emphasizes that when his own superiors refused to listen to Serpico’s charges of dishonesty in the force – and even counseled him to accept the way things were, or possibly wind up “in the river” – Serpico tried to alert the mayor to the problem of police corruption, but was rebuffed through an intermediary, allegedly because of the mayor’s concerns about the need to sustain high morale among NYPD officers who might be needed to sustain a thin blue line of defense during “a long hot summer” rife with potential for rioting. Only after Serpico co-operated with a New York Times expose on police corruption did the mayor appoint the Knapp Commission investigators (Lumet, 1973).

[8] “When President Nixon pronounced that sentence,” writes historian David Frum, the Chief Executive “pointed the gun at his own temple at pulled the trigger. It might have been wiser, in fact, for him to go on television and proclaim – yes, I am a crook. With Americans as cynical as they then were, they might well have refused to believe him.” Frum goes on to note that an ABC News poll conducted within days of the “I am not a crook” comment found that 59 percent of Americans did not believe “much of what the president says these days.”