Saturday, August 05, 2017

OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU: THE SHADOW CINEMA OF THE AMERICAN '70s



“All the films in this book share an air of disreputability… I have tried to avoid using the word art about the movies in this book, not just because I didn’t want to inflate my claims for them, but because the word is used far too often to shut down discussion rather than open it up. If something has been acclaimed as art, it’s not just beyond criticism but often seen as above the mere mortals for whom its presumably been made. It’s a sealed artifact that offers no way in. It is as much a lie to claim we can be moved only by what has been given the imprimatur of art as it would be to deny that there are, in these scruffy movies, the very things we expect from art: avenues into human emotion and psychology, or into the character and texture of the time the films were made, or avenues into the context of our own time.”  -- Charles Taylor, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s

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The esteemed and influential film critic Pauline Kael once wrote that great films are rarely perfect films, a statement that seems, at least to these ears, to be close to inarguable. It’s the inconsistency and ego and countless concessions to the practical reality of filmmaking-- in other words, the human touch-- that accounts for the warts and wobbles contained within even the best films from any era. And in an age when perfection seems measured by the level of slickness and empty spectacle attainable through saturated levels of computer-generated intervention, the opposite is most certainly also true.

Kael’s statement, and her estimable spirit as a critic whose work prioritized the detailed evocation of what was on screen—the emotion (hers and the film’s), the contradictions, the sense of life, or lack thereof-- as essential elements in assessing and conveying the experience of a given work, hews close to the heart of film and social critic Charles Taylor’s new collection of essays, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s. (Taylor notes that the book’s title references the preferred release pattern of the time for genre pictures—horror pictures, biker sagas, moonshine melodramas, and even phony documentaries like In Search of Noah’s Ark and Chariots of the Gods?—a mid-week jump on the weekend markets and a quick getaway out of town before anyone detected the stench. But where I grew up in Southern Oregon, the “Opens Wednesday” pattern held for whatever the quality of the release and only began to move toward the now-standard Friday release date in the wake of Star Wars and the move toward the new era of empty blockbusters that would take hold by the end of the decade.)

For Taylor, and much of his audience, the period charted from 1970 to 1977 represents the last sustained period of great filmmaking in American movies. But Taylor’s mission here is not an empty celebration of the cheesiness of the era a la an amusing tome like The Stewardess is Flying the Plane! Nor is it to craft yet another tribute to the classics of the era which, as he correctly observes in the book’s foreword (entitled “Prevues of Coming Attractions”), have already been covered eloquently by critics lucky enough to have been writing about film at the time, to say nothing of the volumes of ones and zeroes devoted to them since the advent of Internet film writing. As Taylor writes of his collection, “The focus here is on some of the movies that slipped in to the background while those pictures dominated the foreground,” the shadow cinema created by the looming presence of those classics so often celebrated in full sunlight.


So instead of The Wild Bunch, The Godfather Part II, Chinatown or Mean Streets, Taylor leads off his volume of 13 essays (encompassing 15 separate films and a generous spillover of social context to ground his observations) with Michael Ritchie’s relatively forgotten crime gem Prime Cut (1972), followed in quick succession by vital and perceptive essays on Vanishing Point (1971), Cisco Pike (1972) and Hickey and Boggs (1972). What’s remarkable right off the top about Taylor’s arguments is how deftly he avoids crossing over the thin line separating observational appreciation and superlative-saturated overstatement in making his case for the films he’s chosen to write about. We live in an Internet era when everyone, talented writers as well as the very untalented ones, is scrambling to stake a claim for X, Y or Z (but not, perhaps, X, Y and Zee) as the latest undiscovered masterpiece—it’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself on more than one occasion, borne not from lack of enthusiasm but lack of proper control.

But with one notable exception, a passionate argument for the virtues of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the Peckinpah film that more than any other divides the director’s acolytes and fuels the derision of his detractors, that isn’t the game Taylor is playing. He isn’t interested in trying to convince the reader that, say, Coffy (1973) or Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) are necessarily great American films, as great American films are typically defined, or categorized, or sealed off as art from any dissenting opinions of them as such. Rather, what interests him is the blood, fury, electricity and even mournful  resignation that can be found coursing through many of these movies. Among the many results is perhaps the most illuminating chapter on not only Pam Grier (“One of those rare performers, like Ava Gardner or Angelina Jolie,” Taylor writes in the essay’s opening paragraph, “who seem to command the camera, and the adoration of the viewer, by natural right”) but the social phenomenon of the “Blaxploitation” film in general that I’ve ever read; or the thrilling chapter on director Irvin Kirschner’s Laura Mars that deftly connects the movie’s world of high fashion and low sleaze with the concurrent urban decay of mid-‘70s New York City-- “Fear City” as it had been described—evoked so viscerally by the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” and the whole of their masterful Some Girls album. (I don’t even like Eyes of Laura Mars that much, and yet after reading Taylor’s superb argument I was practically salivating to get hands, and my eyes, on it.)

Taylor’s writing in Opening Wednesday is tasty, sharp, provocative, open-eyed and often thrilling—this is the sort of volume that, at the end of each new consideration, will compel you to put the book down and immediately seek out the movie you’ve just finished reading about, wherever you can find it. But you won’t, because the impulse to continue, to see for yourself the way Taylor digests these second-tier, sometimes disreputable, often simply ignored but undeniably vital American works, is irresistible. And if you’re like me, you will start keeping a list of titles to submit that Taylor, if there’s any justice left in the world, might include in his next volume. (My own list might include something like John Flynn’s The Outfit, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, and the one movie I really wish Taylor had found room for in this book, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls-- it was Taylor's own writing on the film in 2004 that really opened up my receptors to the true worth of that film, which I maintain is one of, if not the best movie Verhoeven has made to date.)


Another fine film writer, Justin Chang, chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was on hand to talk with Taylor onstage Friday night after a screening of Prime Cut, the introductory evening in a series of films based on the book curated by Taylor through the UCLA Film and Television Archive which will run through August 26 at the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Hammer Museum in Westwood. After the screening, Taylor engaged with Prime Cut’s status as a political satire, both as a product of its time-- the film’s Midwestern setting is used to illustrate with chilling clarity, and without pushing the most obvious buttons of condescension, the disparity between Nixon’s silent majority and the reality of the world surrounding that insulated community—and as an unnerving echo from that time into our current disorientation and division during the trials and tribulations of Trump. He also talked passionately about Kael, railing against the sexism inherent in the oft-leveled charges against her as an intimidating tyrant who demanded blind allegiance from her friends and admirers and who would not tolerate variance from the opinions and arguments she set down in print. (“There are currently lots of men writing about all the same movies who all have the same general opinions,” he argued to Chang, “yet no one ever says the sort of things about them that have been said about Pauline Kael or other female film critics.”) 

Finally, when Chang asked if there is currently even such a thing as a “shadow cinema” in an age when even the blockbusters which rule the multiplexes enjoy ever-shrinking theatrical windows on their way to perpetuity as streaming product on Netflix and Amazon, Taylor provided titles like Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011) and Scott Stewart’s sublimely unnerving Dark Skies (2013), both of which he also talks about briefly in Opening Wednesday, as more recent examples of movies that have gotten lost in the stampede toward billion-dollar global profits and the holy grail (or is it golden calf?) of Hollywood-- the establishment of the franchise “universe.”


Taylor, as engaging a speaker as he is an impassioned writer, will appear again with critic Kim Morgan on Saturday, August 5, to introduce and then discuss Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. (He’ll also be signing books starting at 6:30 pm before the screening, as he did Friday night.) After that, the critic will continue his swing through Los Angeles with appearances at a couple of great Los Angeles bookstores—yes, we still have those places around these parts, ones that don’t have the initials “B&N” even. Critic Amy Nicholson will interview Taylor on Tuesday, August 8, 7:30 p.m. at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Then, on Friday, August 11, West Hollywood’s Book Soup hosts Taylor when he will be interviewed by author and critic Steve Erickson (Zeroville, Shadowbahn) at 7:30 p.m. It is this writer’s considered opinion that Taylor, in whatever venue, should not be missed.

As for the film series based on Charles Taylor’s book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You, I thought it would be best to leave you with a smidgen of Taylor himself on each of the movies scheduled to play at the Billy Wilder in August. Tickets for each program can be purchased by clicking on each title, and each program is highly recommended by me. Here’s why.


Prime Cut (1972): “Was there ever a movie tough guy as contained as Lee Marvin? Long and slim, though with a cruel, meaty mouth, Marvin submerged all the threat within himself. You could see that in the way he chose implied menace over bluster, in the way he hid the snarl of his voice inside a purr… Action heroes could be cold (Clint Eastwood) or stoic (Charles Bronson) or cool (Steve McQueen). Marvin was something else, an action star who refined threat in to something approaching elegance. In Prime Cut he acts as if he’s privy to a joke no one else is in on. That’s what makes him a perfect choice for a movie that submerges its satire in action-movie mechanics. It may also have been what guaranteed that the audiences in tune with the movie’s satirical vision would stay away, while the ones targeted by it might be drawn in.”


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974; Saturday, August 5): “What links Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to the other films in this book, its disreputability, is what allowed critics to dismiss it… The movie stints on none of the grime and sweat and stench of the scramble for the title character’s head any more than John Huston stinted on the grime and sweat and stench of the scramble for gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a movie that’s the spiritual forerunner of this one… This is a movie about people who, like the aging outlaws of The Wild Bunch, are defeated before they begin. It would be easy to try and turn the fortunes of Alfredo Garcia into a story of the triumphant emergence of a masterpiece by mentioning that its reputation has begun—begun—to undergo a reversal. Even a hint of triumph, though, seems all wrong for a movie haunted by the line “Nobody loses all the time,” a movie where the only triumph is the triumph of integrity, the kind that gets you killed.”


Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; Saturday, August 12): “In Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop we’re in a small-town North Carolina service station at what appears to be about 6:00 a.m. on a rainy Sunday morning. Maybe it’s Saturday. The characters themselves aren’t sure. These hot-rodders have pulled into the station to attend to a busted carburetor and it’s just as well the place is closed. The mood of this drizzling dawn seeps into everything. Pretty soon they’ve drifted away from the task at hand to nip on a bottle, doze, wander the town. One or two people are visible on the street but something in the still, quiet air makes it feel like nothing’s about to change. Saturday mornings in town give the promise of the bustle to come. Sunday never shakes off its sleepiness. Whatever day it is, in Two-Lane Blacktop it’s always the rainy Sunday morning that you just can’t shake.”


Vanishing Point  (1971; Saturday, August 12): “Vanishing Point is a hot-rod movie as tone poem, a picture about speed as a Zen state, for both the hero and the audience. Vanishing Point wants to get us off on pure movement, but that movement, shown in long shots accompanied by the rev of the Challenger’s engine, stretches out time instead of feeding our adrenaline. That is a very odd thing for a picture that must have been sold to Twentieth Century-Fox as an exploitation movie that would lure in not just the gearheads and action fans but the counterculture moviegoers who had turned out for Easy Rider... That the movie wasn’t what anyone would imagine from that description may explain why Fox, which had no faith in it, released Vanishing Point via the neighborhood and drive-in route—and why it must have confounded Fox when it became a hit. And It is confounding. There’s no doubting the movie’s cool, but nobody expects a drive-in movie to be meditative, or for audiences to get excited about a meditative movie.”


Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974; both Monday, August 14): “The confidence of Grier’s heroines doesn’t preclude them from showing fear. On the contrary, bruised and sweating and giving rein to the electric current of anger just below her skin, she’s a palpably human revenge machine. During the most horrific acts she’s called on to perform—holding a sawed-off rifle on a dealer as she forces him to inject a hot shot, going after a redneck’s eye with a hook improvised from wire hangers—there’s an element of disgust mingled with rage that gives Grier’s actions a jolt beyond standard exploitation-movie excess.”


Eyes of Laura Mars (1978; Friday, August 18) “‘Shattered’ moves with the sloppy propulsion of someone who’s been through all New York City can throw at you. Jagger’s vocal is a bruised shpritz, a prancing version of New Yorkers’ time-honored practice of bitching about just how bad the city has gotten. The adrenaline-crash chorus behind him is sung in the cretinous voices of zombies rising from the Manhattan streets. And still at the end of the song Jagger is demanding more. Like many a transplant before him, he is still greedy for the city’s energy, for its filth, for its scuzziness. And for Jagger, being a New Yorker means boasting that you can take it. 

The New York of Some Girls is the New York of Eyes of Laura Mars. Released just two months after the album. This Manhattan thriller is a celebration of sleaze as high chic. It mixes the sleekness of limos pulling up to the curb for an opening-night party with the smell of garbage awaiting pickup down at the corner. It’s like a swank gathering where the stylish guests have to step delicately around the corpses lying on the sidewalk on their way into the mansion. Actually, in the gala art exhibition that opens the movie, the corpses are inside.”

   
Hickey & Boggs (1972; Saturday, August 18): “Raymond Chandler had imbued even the sleazy parts of Los Angeles with a sinister allure and Philip Marlowe’s detective work with a quixotic romanticism. In Hickey & Boggs, L.A. looks on its last legs, the kind of decaying city where the Greyhound station would be the brightest spot in town. It’s a street-level view of the city, what you see driving or walking, not the view from the high-rises springing up all over town. The partners’ office is round the back of an ancient brick building next to the rear door of a shoe store that doesn’t look as if anyone ever goes in. But no one ever seems to be anywhere in this Los Angeles. This is a noir that takes place mostly in daylight, and yet, from scene to scene, it feels almost as empty as any nighttime street. All the locations are in run-down, nearly deserted parts of the city, an elephant’s graveyard of urban life. By the time the movie climaxes on a deserted stretch of beach, you barely notice the Pacific rolling in, and the sun shining on what looks like the only clean air in the movie.”


Cisco Pike (1972; Saturday, August 26) “In some ways, Cisco Pike is a West Coast cousin to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1968; released 1970), the movie in which Mick Jagger, as a reclusive, nearly forgotten rock star hiding out in a decaying London mansion, confronts an East End gangster played by James Fox. Cisco Pike doesn’t have Performance’s maddening, fragmented structure, its Borgesian illusion-and-reality games, or the sense of decay so palpable that it feels as if, to borrow a line from Dylan, the carpet, too, is crawling under you. But, like Performance, Cisco Pike is about a time and a place that’s dead and hasn’t got the good sense to fall over.”


Aloha, Bobby and Rose (1975; Saturday, August 26) “At its heart this is a movie about people who feel the pull of nostalgia before life has given them anything to feel nostalgic about… Bobby and Rose live in hopes if the ephemeral something better that may lie in their future but remains unrealized in their present. The poignancy of the movie is that as their situation gets worse, their hopes only get keener. Aloha, Bobby and Rose opens in a romantic haze with Rose listening to her mother reminisce about some dreamboat from her past. “Oh, honey,” she says, “you shoulda seen Hollywood in the ‘40s.” It’s the same line used countless times on young people being told what a mistake they made for being born when they were. But here the voice itself seems to arrive from the past, maybe tuned in from the same hazy station playing Artie Shaw & His Orchestra in the background of the scene. It wavers slightly as if emanating from the ripples and the fading that time has added to the black-and-white photos Rose’s mom is poring over in her scrapbook. Or it could be that the faraway dreaminess of her voice might just be brought on by her afternoon G & T…”

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And hey, I got my book signed!

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3 comments:

Mike Schlesinger said...

Just for the record, Wednesday openings were the norm back then, partly because smaller theatres would do split weeks (Wed-Sat, Sun-Tues). And STAR WARS itself opened on a Wednesday. The eventual switch to Friday openings was motivated by two things: The move to opening the entire country at once, which necessitated national TV buys, meaning that Thursdays became a better day for "Opens Tomorrow!", and the fact that as movies got worse, bad word-of-mouth from people seeing them on Wed. or Thurs. would depress the first weekend's numbers--suicide in an era where the long, slow build-up was no longer the way to do things.

W.B. Kelso said...

Ever notice all the shots of power poles and telephone poles along the roads Kowalski navigates in Vanishing Point? Always brought to mind the ending of Spartacus and all the crucifixions along the road to Rome. And we all know what happened to Spartacus when he finally got to Rome, right? Right.

And I really liked Prime Cut, too, but, sorry, the former farmer in me just loses it every time the combine eats the car. THAT'S NOT HOW THAT WORKS! says I between fits of laughter. Takes me out of an otherwise fantastic flick.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks for validating my largely untrustworthy memory, Mike!