Monthly Archives: November 2015

Blow Out (1981)

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*. In my notes on Blow-Up I mentioned how much I hated Pauline Kael’s review of that film. As so often with movies she disliked, the meat of that review was just an attack on anyone stupid enough to have thought it was any good. Her review of Blow Out is a good example of the way her positive reviews usually went wrong: an overeager endorsement of work an by individual she was personally invested in or was friends with. That Kael liked Blow Out and was a champion of De Palma’s is fine, but there is nothing here to praise to the extent Kael does, and anyone who sets Blow-Up and Blow Out side by side and then reads her pan of the one and effusions over the other won’t miss the prejudice (literally: she was going to hate Antonioni’s film and love De Palma’s before she saw either). Kael was a good writer and great general observer of film, but she was never a critic you could trust.
*. Critics in general were very fond of Blow Out. The public less so. Because of the dark ending? Maybe. I think it more likely that they found the ending just didn’t make a lot of sense. Personally, I find the entire last act falls apart completely.
*. Just to finish the point, here’s what I don’t like about the end of the movie: (1) Travolta’s race through the parade is a huge jump in tone and totally unbelievable (how does he not injure anyone?); (2) I’m still not sure what Lithgow’s Burke was up to. Was he a professional or a psychopath? Why kill the prostitute in the washroom when he planned to kill Karen Allen’s character just an hour later? That’s not how serial killers operate; (3) I thought all the fireworks were cheesy; (4) the final shot is shocking, but seems wildly out of character for Travolta’s Jack Terry. Was it necessary for him to exploit the murder of the woman he loved (and whom he got killed) for a grade-Z horror flick? That was the best solution to finding a decent scream he could come up with?
*. So even without the downbeat ending I’m still not convinced audiences would have left the theatre with good feelings toward Blow Out.
*. Then there’s all the insider stuff. Critics and reviewers take more pleasure in film references than the general public, for obvious reasons. So all the usual nods to Hitchcock, with a plot borrowed from Antonioni’s Blow-Up, scored points with the cinephiles. As does the fact that it’s a movie about making movies. But this failed to impress the multitude, and understandably so. What difference would it make to them?

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*. It was probably too much to ask that a movie about a sound technician would have the strength of its own conception and stick with audio (though Coppola did this successfully in The Conversation). Here the sound recording has to be supplemented by Karp’s film, which is what provides the smoking gun (by way of a muzzle flash).
*. I didn’t buy for a moment that Terry would be able to reconstruct an entire film just by using the stills cut and blown up from a magazine article. That was a huge stretch.
*. Is that nit-picking? Maybe, but there was a lot of that going on in this film and it bothered me that a movie that was so much about professionalism and trade mastery had such moments. To take a different example, why does Lithgow’s Burke need to steal an ice pick from the fish market? Couldn’t he, shouldn’t he, have brought his own? Why run the risk of being caught shoplifting? That may seem like a minor quibble but I don’t think it is.
*. In keeping with being a movie about movie-making, a movie made out of other movies, De Palma seems intent on drawing attention to his own artifice. Could anyone live in an apartment as red as Manny Karp’s? It’s something out of a comic book. I have nothing against overhead shots and split-focus diopter and split-screen effecs, but you can have too much of a good thing. And then there are the performances . . .

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*. What can you say about Karen Allen and Dennis Franz in this movie? You could say that they’re just flat-out terrible, but I suspect De Palma didn’t want them to be believable. Like the weird shots and garish colours (dig the wallpaper in the motel room!), they are meant to be gawked at, seen as unnatural.
*. So perhaps Allen and Franz aren’t failing. They aren’t bad but just drawn that way. We might blame the film’s two big influences: Antonioni and Hitchcock. The former thought actors were just part of the image, almost a kind of stage dressing, and the latter thought in much the same terms. Hitchcock didn’t want his stars to “act” at all but just be blanks. He would create their performances through the context of his visual storytelling. Maybe De Palma was thinking in the same terms. I don’t know.
*. From Blow-Up to Blow Out also marks the transition from philosophy to journalism, and (to borrow some terms from Kael) from art to trash. Our hero no longer seems to have any aspirations, however frustrated, toward creating art but is employed by a sleazy exploitation-film studio. He is also completely untroubled by, or even aware of, questions of epistemology. Recording is believing: the truth is out there and he got it on tape. Instead of doubting the evidence of his senses or his ability to believe, we enter the world of the political conspiracy. We don’t question the information or our interpretation of it but rather ask who controls it, who manipulates it in order to confuse us. These are very different world views. The sorts of doubts that Thomas stumbles over are no concern of Jack Terry.
*. But is De Palma even that interested in the conspiracy here? He says he was inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the Zapruder film, but that just seems to have been the story’s Jamesian “germ.” Despite having all of the trappings, Blow Out has none of the feel of the great cycle of ’70s American conspiracy thrillers. It’s not a movie that’s about paranoia or politics. Instead, it limits itself to being a movie about movie-making, and the fatal barrier between the real world and the edge of the frame.

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The Conversation (1974)

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*. The Conversation is a great little movie that has as one of its themes the business of interpretation. The plot basically hinges on surveillance expert Harry Caul’s misinterpretation of some words spoken during a conversation recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square. That so much depends upon this misinterpretation is a flaw, as is the cheat Coppola performs in giving us two versions of the line in question, but that’s by the way. (According to Walter Murch it also came about by way of an accident: a line reading by Frederic Forrest that didn’t work but which was adopted later when preview audiences had trouble figuring out what was going on.)
*. That it’s a movie concerned with interpretation has seemed to encourage a lot of free-ranging interpretation among viewers. Apparently there are many people who believe that much of it is a fantasy of Harry’s, so that not all of the action “really” happens. I have to admit this never occurred to me. Yes, the plot involves a number of improbabilities (would the killers have really spent so much effort tidying up the hotel room only to stuff the toilet full of bloody rags?), but I had never thought to explain them away by saying they were the products of Harry’s imagination.

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*. Another point that viewers have obsessed over is the question of where the bugging device is hidden at the end. The most popular location is Harry’s saxophone, or the saxophone strap hanging around his neck, though it’s also been suggested that it’s concealed in his glasses, among other places.
*. Coppola has confessed that he doesn’t know where the bug was, or even if there was a bug. I think it’s a false question. By that, I mean it’s a real question the movie leaves unanswered but that an answer wouldn’t tell you anything important. But this is just the kind of movie that makes you want to ask questions about it anyway.
*. The inspiration was Antonioni’s Blow-Up, changing that film’s photographer in the park into a sound man. Which is a curious point, given that aural cues aren’t as easy to work with as photos or film. And yet De Palma would make his Blow-Up movie, Blow Out, about a sound man too.
*. Coppola identified with Caul, as I think Antonioni also did with the David Hemmings character. This is the age of the artist as technician and tinkerer, his studio a shop or lab. There is something postmodern about it, with the act of creation being a mechanical process, involving talent to be sure, but detached and almost inhuman. Harry isn’t interested in humanity. For Hemmings (as, to some extent, for Antonioni), the figures in his photos are just objects, reality something to be adjusted and manipulated. One has an uneasy sense of prophecy in this, a foretaste of the coming revenge of the nerds. Nerds, we might also note, who are all also into treating the lives of other people as material.

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*. Why is Harry’s studio located in such a massive empty warehouse? I hardly think that’s a safe place to store all his advanced equipment. But apparently American Zoetrope was located in a similar building because the warehouses in that area were all abandoned and hence cheap. Now they’ve been taken over by dot-com offices.
*. For what it’s worth, Coppola says that Harry probably owns the warehouse, as well as owning the entire apartment building he lives in too. That’s certainly not the impression I got, but we can take it for what it may be worth.
*. Coppola pronounces the word “mime” as “meem” in his DVD commentary. I’ve never heard anyone say it that way before.
*. Do the man and woman talking in the park (Mark and Ann) know that their conversation is being recorded? I think they may want it as part of their plan. Though ultimately I think it’s fruitless thinking too much about this
*. Harry Caul. His last name is so bizarre it must have significance, and indeed it does. But apparently Coppola, who dictated the screenplay, had intended naming him “Call.” A transcription led to the happy accident of a change. But either way, Call or Caul, I find the name one of the few jarring, overly “obvious” notes in the film.
*. Why is Harry out in the park in the opening sequence? He doesn’t have any recording equipment on him, so why bother risking it? Shouldn’t he be in the van all the time directing things?
*. The character of Harry Caul is one of the most remarkable things about The Conversation. He’s the sole protagonist, someone that Coppola saw something of himself in, and I think the audience has to relate to him at least on some level or else the movie doesn’t work. But it’s so hard. He’s sneaky and he lies. He’s physically unprepossessing, and is bald and has a moustache. We’re more familiar with the type now, but in the ’70s a nerd with a rebarbative personality was something new. We don’t like him. Nobody does. He has no friends but only uses other people. He doesn’t even have a basic pet like a fish to keep him company. He pays for a lover and even she dumps him!
*. Nora Sayre: “The scenes where two different women fawn on Mr. Hackman are unconvincing, since they have to behave as though this grubby, uptight man were irresistible.” Yes, but . . . Teri Garr’s Amy is obviously being paid, and it’s a nod to Harry’s obtuseness that he doesn’t realize that Meredith is playing him.
*. You leave Harry alone with a telescope in the room (this is Martin Stett’s office) and he’s going to look through it. He’s just that kind of guy. So how are we to take his protests that for him surveillance is just a job and that he has no feelings about any of his cases, that he doesn’t “know anything about human nature or curiosity.” Is this self-defensive, part of his reaction to the disastrous outcome of the teamsters case? Is he really just about the pay? Or does he enjoy it? Why does he spy on his girlfriend? Wouldn’t someone with voyeuristic tendencies naturally be drawn to a career in surveillance? As Walter Murch says in his commentary, people who are into surveillance do this under any circumstances “because they’re attracted to this kind of life.” And voyeurs aren’t nice people. They’re creeps.

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*. So is Meredith working for Moran, or Stett? Or is Moran employed by Stett? This is kind of vague, probably because it wasn’t part of the original screenplay but was put together later according to Murch.
*. Perhaps even more than the plot is borrowed from Antonioni. Coppola really shows off a flare for architectural compositions emphasizing loneliness — loneliness in an urban landscape that is barren and generic. Aside from Union Square, would you even know where you were? Has San Francisco ever looked less like San Francisco than in this movie? There’s no attempt made to evoke a sense of place, despite Coppola’s Zoetrope studio being based in San Fran at the time. Harry’s San Francisco is like the man: anonymous, without character.

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*. The overflowing toilet. It’s an uncanny image of domestic terror, later picked up for The Amityville Horror. I said above that it doesn’t make any sense that the killers would have cleaned up the room so well and then just tried to flush the bloody rags. I know there have been serial killers that stupid — it’s how Dennis Nilsen and Joachim Kroll were both caught — but we expect Mark and Ann to be a bit brighter.

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*. Toilets, however, are rather like the garbage chutes in apartment buildings for most people. Down the waste goes and we don’t really know or care what happens to it. The toilet is akin to the confessional Harry attends, a closet wherein we absolve ourselves of our sins with a flush. The idea came from Walter Murch, who remembered trying to dispose of porno mags down the toilet as a kid to hide them from his parents. But sin reared its ugly head, “regurgitating guilt” in Murch’s nice phrase.
*. Who would’ve thought all-American hero Harrison Ford could play someone so slimy and sinister? Did he miss his calling?
*. Neither Coppola nor Murch mention Touch of Evil in their commentary, and though it may not have been any direct influence I think they must have been thinking of the end of that film with its tightly-edited surveillance sequence when doing the Union Square scenario here.
*. I’d always wondered about the back-and-forth pan at the end of the film, what the point of it was. Murch suggests it was meant to imitate the oscillation of a surveillance camera, which is something I hadn’t thought of. The camera is often placed in a static position throughout the movie, letting characters drift away and come back to it, which was also meant (according to Coppola) to suggest surveillance. It’s an effect that works really well. It doesn’t give a sense of mechanical observation but of mechanical voyeurism, an obsessive fixity of gaze.

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*. Aside from Harry’s last name, I found the artistic gambits subtle and revealing. The motif of transparency, for example, only really registers on repeated viewings, and yet it’s everywhere (Harry’s raincoat, the plastic sheet in his studio, the drapes he struggles to get through to get onto the balcony and the glass partition between his room’s balcony and that of the one next door). This is how I like my artistic statements to be made: under the radar of great entertainment.
*. On a technical level, it’s a hard film to find fault with. And yet, perhaps because we have such a hard time relating to Harry it’s not a movie that has ever been very popular, outside of technicians (Coppola himself considers it his favourite). It doesn’t have the depth of Antonioni, though today it can be seen as having a greater relevance to the way we live, and the way we watch.

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Blow-Up (1966)

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*. Just by way of introduction: (1) I love Antonioni; (2) I was blown away by Blow-Up the first time I saw it; (3) that was approximately thirty years ago; (4) I haven’t returned to it for a long time; (5) I’m not quite as impressed now, and yet . . .
*. It’s still interesting and admirable in lots of ways, and undeniably important, but I don’t like it as much as I remember. As a movie about the world of fashion at a very fashionable time and in a very fashionable place (that is, London in the swinging ’60s), some of it has dated to the point of seeming grotesque. Will we ever wear clothes like that again — not just the outfits worn by the models, but what the “birds” and David Hemmings wear?
*. Also, even though it seems knee-jerk and philistine to say it, some of it is dull, in a way that the silent longeurs in Antonioni’s earlier films never are.
*. Then there’s another point bearing on my feeling of let down that was raised by Andrew Sarris in his contemporary review. Sarris was upset that other reviewers were giving “the show completely away” by including spoilers in their reviews. He advised: “If you have not yet seen Blow-Up see it immediately before you hear or read anything more about it. I speak from personal experience when I say it is better to let the movie catch you completely unawares. One of its greatest virtues is surprise, and the last thing you want is to know the plot and theme in advance.”
*. This took me a bit by surprise. Blow-Up isn’t a movie with a twist ending like Les Diaboliques, for example. And yet I think Sarris is right in saying that “one of its greatest virtues is surprise.” There was something about it that took me unawares thirty years ago and that doesn’t today. That doesn’t make the film’s meaning trite or overly familiar, but rather (I think) says something about how it works by frustrating legitimate expectations.

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*. By the way, I’m going to refer to it as Blow-Up in these notes. I don’t know why the title is sometimes rendered as Blowup and sometimes as Blow-Up. On screen it appears as all one word without the hyphen so I think that’s how it should be written. But it seems wrong like that. On a related point, I don’t think any of the main characters are named in the film, though there is a convention of calling Hemmings’s character Thomas, Redgrave’s Patricia, and Miles’s Jane.
*. Don’t think that the source will help you with the names. The movie was “inspired” by Julio Cortázar’s story “Las babas del diablo” (“The Devil’s Spit”) (which was itself inspired by a Sergio Larrain photograph). Cortázar’s story is an interesting thematic match for the film, being about the process of storytelling and the indeterminacy introduced by different media, but it’s a far more abstract and intellectual exercise, with no clear meaning.
*. It was only Antonioni’s second film in colour, and his first in English, but there’s still no mistaking his work. Three points stand out: the sense of composition, the objectification of characters, and the enigmatic plot and dialogue.

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*. As with all of Antonioni’s films, there’s an architectural, staged feel to the composition. Most often this relates to buildings and interiors. Note how much use he gets out of that giant wooden crossbeam in Hemming’s loft, or the frequent use he makes of a “natural” split-screen effect — that is, one that doesn’t create an illusion of deep focus through something like a split-focus diopter — in several shots (I’ve included some screen shots above of what I’m talking about, and which probably gave De Palma, who loves this kind of thing, an extra nudge toward Blow Out). But even in the park there’s a feeling that everything is placed and stationed just so. Watching Hemmings move between the two trees in stalking mode immediately recalls the similar use of two trees as a kind of statuary in the park at the end of La Notte.

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*. Objectification comes with the territory of being a fashion photographer, but it’s not just the mannequin-models who are like this. The audience listening to The Yardbirds are zombies, and for some reason the antique shop is filled with busts. Antonioni thought of all his actors as just part of the image, almost a kind of stage dressing, and explained himself to Peter Bowles while filming Blow-Up: “When you work with other directors you give them your performance and they film it. Not with me, Peter. You see I have chosen you for how you look. I have chosen all your clothes. If I move my camera six inches, I would ask you to do that line in a different way.”
*. Keeping that in mind, I find suggestive how in one scene Thomas’s stance while taking pictures mirrors that of Verushka’s pose in the studio. They are both physical forms being arranged by Antonioni.

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*. Finally there is the enigmatic plot and vague dialogue. Apparently (at least according to Ronan O’Casey, who plays the man who gets shot in the park) Antonioni’s original plan was to show more of what was going on between Redgrave and her victim but budget problems forced him to make cuts. That may be, but I doubt Antonioni wanted to explain more than he did. As he also said to Bowles, when cutting one of his lines, “If I leave the speech in, everyone will know what the film is about, but if I take the speech out, everyone will say it is about this, it is about that, it is about the other. It will be controversial.”

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*. A great deal of the film is silent, which increases the sense of ambiguity. But even when people talk they only add to the mystery. What does Verushka mean when she says she is in Paris? What does Sarah Miles mean when she asks Hemmings if he will help her, and tells him she doesn’t know what to do? The matter is dropped immediately, with no explanation. And what does Hemmings mean when he tells Ron at the end that he saw “nothing” in the park? Has he just given up at that point, or is he making a distinction between what he saw earlier and what he took a picture of? “Nothing” can be interpreted in various ways; for example, as a complete absence or as something that we define as nothing.
*. The structure also recalls Antonioni’s previous films, in particular ending the movie with a “morning after the party” coda (as happened in L’Avventura and La Notte). The perfect moment to ask yourself “What happened? How much do I remember and what does it mean?”

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*. God did I ever hate Pauline Kael’s essay on this film. She just never lets up on haranguing how other critics, reviewers, and audiences in general are so stupid for not liking the things she likes.
*. On the other hand, I love Roger Ebert’s take. Not because I think he’s necessarily right in his interpretation of what the movie is about, but because it strikes me as an insightful reading. In brief, his conclusion is that Hemmings only comes to life when he is professionally engaged in a challenging and meaningful task like re-composing the scene in the park. This takes him out of his usual daily round of ennui, the point being that “we are happy when we are doing what we do well, and unhappy seeking pleasure elsewhere.” This isn’t what I thought of when I first saw the movie, but it’s an important point that is both generally true and I think basic to what Antonioni is saying.
*. I also find it interesting (and this is by the way) that Ebert says in his essay (which he wrote in 1998) that “Today, you rarely hear it [Blow-Up] mentioned.” Is this true? I think it’s still a very well known movie, at least relative to other art house films of the time. And its name comes up a lot in conversations and discussions that I’ve taken part in about movies.
*. Returning to Ebert’s main point, look at the intensity and physical joy (the jumping and clicking of his heels) that Thomas shows in the park and in his studio. He is slipping into that higher state of consciousness/awareness that psychologists refer to as “flow” or “the zone”: “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” We share in his joy, but at the same time that joy is blinkered, narrow, shutting us off from the rest of the world. The zone is a solitary place. It’s no surprise Thomas is a loner, someone who always seems to be dancing with himself.
*. This is the fate of the artist. Aside from whether or not he’s witnessed a murder, Thomas has created a work of art in his photos. But his audience doesn’t “get” what he’s done.
*. It’s frustrating, but what can Thomas do? He’s in the position of someone who has had a deeply moving dream, but who only bores everyone he tries to tell about it.
*. That much said in sympathy, I was surprised by how much I disliked Thomas this time out. On the DVD commentary track Peter Brunette mentions how he finds him “kind of reprehensible” but that this is not the majority view. Isn’t it? Thomas really is awful, particularly to women.
*. It’s not just the models he treats like shit either. He’s a bully to Redgrave when they first meet in the park, and I’m particularly struck at how the antique shop owner helps him carry the propeller out to his car but he leaves her to carry it back in by herself when it won’t fit, and even yells at her when she drops it. In the restaurant, just watching an attractive woman walk by leads him to say that he’s fed up with the “bloody bitches.” What a jerk. He also says he’d like to have more money so he can be “free.” Presumably of shooting fashion spreads. And this comes just after he’s ordered a meal he isn’t going to eat. Get over yourself!

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*. Ahead of its time? In lots of ways, not least of all in being a film for the DVD generation. Today’s cinephiles engage in close readings of film that were previously available only to a few. They notice little things, and Blow-Up is a very careful movie, one that is in part about this very type of Zapruder-like analysis.
*. And so there are magic moments: literally disappearing acts. Thomas vanishing from view at the end is only the most obvious. Where does Vanessa Redgrave disappear to when Hemmings sees her on the street? Where? Ebert mentions going through the film frame by frame and not seeing it and I did the same, with similar results. She’s just there one moment and not the next.
*. Her first appearance is another such moment. She’s on the screen for less than a second, along with the older man, on the edge of the frame as Thomas is running out to take pictures of the pigeons. But at that point she’s still incidental. She’s there, momentarily, but we don’t see her because we’re not looking for her or at her. That’s how all magic tricks work.
*. I think it’s a great ending that nicely addresses the theme of truth vs. perception vs. reality. But I wish Antonioni had found better mimes. They get the tempo of a tennis game all wrong. But I guess we’re just supposed to take them as only a pair of college students having some fun and not professionals.
*. What’s it all about? Well, the above mentioned melange of truth, perception, and reality. But more than that it’s about how we feel (or don’t feel) about love and sex and death. I can’t help thinking of the end of Gimme Shelter, with Mick and the boys looking at the film of someone getting killed right in front of them. And as I said in my notes on that film, the question it poses is how do we feel about that? How does Mick feel? How do the Maysles brothers feel? We can’t be sure. And how does Thomas feel about being an inadvertent, innocent witness to murder? What does he feel when he looks at those pictures? Concern? Curiosity? Anything? When Ron asks him at the end what he saw in the park he answers “Nothing.” He doesn’t care any more. But did he ever?

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*. Of course not caring is central to Antonioni. Nobody cares much what happens to Anna in L’Avventura either, or at least they learn to quickly get over it. If meaning is based on a social agreement, so is caring. If someone is killed in a park and nobody “sees” it, did it really happen? If someone is murdered and nobody cares, is it (not in a legal, but a moral sense) murder?
*. This ties in to a question that I think everyone asks when they first see the film: how does the body lie there out in the open in a public park in the middle of London all day, on a weekend, and not get noticed? Somebody must have seen it but just as obviously nobody cared. It’s a philosophical dramatization (if that means anything) of the bystander effect: the body in the park is Somebody Else’s Problem (a type of camouflage invented by Douglas Adams). By ignoring reality it can be made to disappear and we can all go back to being distracted by the emptiest forms of mindless entertainment. Fashion. Drugs. A tennis game played without a ball.

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Murder à la Mod (1968)

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*. For the longest time this was known as the “unseen” Murder à la Mod. On the cover of the Something Weird DVD release it’s even referred to as a “lost” film. Then it came out as a supplement to the Criterion release of Blow Out and finally reached a wider audience.
*. I’m glad it’s back. It’s certainly not a great movie (the acting, for one thing, is dreadful) but it’s a very clever puzzle piece and a lot of fun.
*. What was the “mode” at the time? Exploitation meets art house, Europe comes to America. It was all the rage, and it resulted in a tremendous burst of creativity.
*. Of course it’s natural to see a movie like this, even if for the first time, in a rear-view mirror. You see it as apprentice work from Brian De Palma. You judge it in light of what came after. And what came after was a more polished cover of Hitchock, a direction clearly signalled here.
*. We begin with the mixture of voyeurism and violence, sadism and sex that De Palma adopted wholesale from Hitch. Another source, almost as important, being invoked is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. That blurring of the line between real and fake violence is central, and in the character of Chris I think we’re getting a clear nod to Powell’s film. Time and again perspective seems to get flipped, asking us which side of the camera we’re on.

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*. It’s terror as striptease: when is that bra coming off? when is the girl going to get killed? when do we get to experience a climax?
*. What I like most about the film is its look. There are so many interestingly composed/lit/photographed shots. That walk through the cemetery, alternating through several different points of view, would have told you that this was a filmmaker who was going places.

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*. Were garter belts really that common in the 1960s, or is De Palma indulging himself?
*. I began by mentioning how this movie only came back into wider circulation through being included as a bonus feature in the Criterion release of Blow Out. While recognizing its limitations, I actually enjoy it more. This raises the question of how much De Palma ever developed as a filmmaker. With more resources he was able to work with better talent, but I think he had a hard ceiling that he hit quickly and which he spent his most productive years pressed up against. In a way, this movie was a tease, leading us to believe that there might have been something more on the way.

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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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*. In the beginning there was Easy Rider. Then, two years later, came Vanishing Point and this movie.
*. What sets Two-Lane Blacktop apart is its reticence and general lack of pretensions, the absence of any shaggy symbolism or expression of a larger meaning. Yes there are nods to freedom and the myth of the American West, but where these are central and essential to Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, here they are simply waved at. Freedom, Kris Kristofferson warbles, is just another word for having nothing left to lose. That is, it means nothing. And while the heroes here drive past horses and through the new West, we never feel that they’re modern-day cowboys. Most essays and reviews of the film try to make the connection, in part because Monte Hellman came here from directing Westerns and in part because of the Easy Rider connection, but I don’t see it.
*. Ernest Mathijs: “Blacktop does not hand out themes or messages, it does not instruct or recruit its viewers into anything, nothing is gained and nothing is produced. It embraces nothingness as the ultimate freedom.” I think even this goes too far. There is no nihilistic sublime in the film. But then, I’m not sure how anyone would recognize such a construct.

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*. Instead of a spiritual quest or philosophical musings about the meaning of freedom what we have is a paean to the car as machine: a list of technical specifications and a greasy workspace. As such, it’s a movie for people who are more interested in cars than I am. Which is to say, people who have any interest at all in cars.
*. Not only are the Driver and the Mechanic not on a quest, it’s left unclear just what they are doing or where they are going. Presumably, like GTO, they are just bouncing back and forth from coast to coast like a rubber ball. They have no purpose. For them, it’s a bug’s life: you learn to fly, fuck, then die.

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*. They’re not even interested in racing, except as a way to get enough cash to get them further down the road. The movie sets up what we think will be a narrative ribbon running to Washington D.C. (a challenge that’s only struck a third of the way in), but right from the start it’s clear nobody cares about getting there first, or even if they get there at all. GTO seems to just want some company, or an audience. What the Driver and Mechanic want is anybody’s guess. God knows they aren’t saying, and you’d have a hard time reading anything from their utterly blank faces.

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*. I wonder if there’s ever been a movie where the two leads did so little acting. Of course James Taylor and Dennis Wilson weren’t actors (this would remain their only film) and I imagine Hellman specifically told them not to bother trying. The result is total immobility in stereo.
*. Not that this matters. The cars are more important characters, even getting listed with the cast in the end credits. And the movie is more about Warren Oates’s GTO than it is the Driver and the Mechanic anyway. GTO embodies the storytelling impulse as well as the human factor (Hellman identified with him as a teller of tall tales). We can sort of understand when the Driver blankly tells GTO that he doesn’t want to hear any of his stories because they’re not his problem, but at the same time we know that this means something important is missing in him. What does he care about, aside from driving his car?
*. Put another way, every time we see GTO we wonder what he’s thinking. There’s something going on there, some buried sense of failure and insecurity expressing itself in grandiose fictions and Machiavellian calculations. He’s a con man conning himself.
*. Meanwhile, do we ever feel curious about what the Driver and the Mechanic are thinking? Even the Girl finds both of them boring. The movie just dies when we’re left alone with them.

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*. The Driver and Mechanic are curiously modern symbols of alienation. They’re not hippies, or stoners. They’re gearheads, mentally absorbed in the intricacies of their machine. There’s something both very practical and very limited about this.
*. The big problem with this movie, at least relative to Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, is that the two leads have none of the charisma and likeability of Wyatt and Billy, or Koswalski. Personally, I don’t like them at all. I wouldn’t want to speak to them if I met them (though I’m sure the feeling would be reciprocated). Nor would I want to have anything to do with the Girl, who lost me in her panhandling scene.
*. That these people are so unlikeable is no crime, but what is a crime is that they’re not unlikeable in any sort of interesting way. They come across as self-absorbed and not particularly nice (Wilson’s only expression is a slight, self-satisfied smirk, the Driver can be brutally rude, and the Girl is just a sponge). For a road picture, where the audience is forced into a car with such people and taken along for a ride with them, this counts as a major flaw.

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*. Another problem with the Driver and Mechanic being so blank is it makes a mush out of the supposed conflict between them and the Girl. She is never a disruptive erotic force. Even at the end, where the Driver seems momentarily determined to get her back, I never had the sense that he really gave a damn about her, and he finally seems content to let her leave. For the Mechanic she is only a one-night stand. The impression I had was that she was aware of this indifference and didn’t see any point riding with them any longer. As she complains, nobody was talking about her rear end!

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*. But then there’s GTO. A great actor in a great part. Kent Jones: “There’s not another character like Oates’s in all of American cinema.” I agree (and immediately disagree with the comparisons Jones goes on to make with Frederic March’s character in The Best Years of Our Lives and Bogart in Dark Passage, which make no sense to me). GTO is sui generis: a character without any authentic character of his own. He’s a voice, a monologue, a routine, his mouth running even faster than his souped-up car. You’d never trust him, but you can’t help admiring his flights of self-creation, his rhetorical resiliency, the way he’s never at a loss for words. Not only is he the storyteller, he’s the dreamer, and the sunny optimism of his imagined flights to Florida or Arizona or Chicago or New York balances the dead-faced, silent, nihilism of the Driver and Mechanic.
*. The ending is ambiguous, but I see it as being essentially the same as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. Our hero races down the road only to liquefy into the asphalt, like a reverse of those cowboys (or Lawrence of Arabia) rising out of desert heat waves. There’s a more mechanical cast here, with the illusion of the film being stuck and melting down in the projector, but the meaning is the same as Wyatt’s bike and Kowalski’s Challenger bursting into flames. It’s the end of the line, and even if it weren’t there would just be more of the same old highway ahead of them.

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Vanishing Point (1971)

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*. Why do Americans associate their cars, and driving them down the highway, with freedom? I don’t think it’s the same in Europe or Canada, and it’s odd because it’s not like freeways are, in any way, free. Is any other activity so heavily regulated and policed as driving? So is it just the illusion of independence the open road gives? A way of thumbing a collective nose at socialistic public transit and car pooling?
*. I guess it helps if the highway has no other traffic on it. In Vanishing Point Kowalski seems to have slipped through a time portal and travelled back to the Wild West. Aside from the cops chasing him there are few other people on the road. Even the communities he drives through are ghost towns.
*. Speaking of which, how likely is it that some one-horse town on the edge of nowhere has its own radio station, playing all the latest funky hits and operated by what must be the only two black guys within 100 miles? Or is station KOW just another part of the surreal landscape, not to be taken literally?

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*. D. J. Super Soul was originally supposed to be Super Spic, and played by writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. But that was deemed racist, even if it would have been slightly more credible.
*. This is a car chase movie. Not a movie with a big car chase scene in it, like The Italian Job, Bullitt, or The French Connection, but a car chase movie. Think Smokey and the Bandit or some such other nonsense. It is not a genre with many highlights, this film and Two-Lane Blacktop (released the same year) being two of the very few.
*. Is it anything more than a car chase? Well, it seems to cast its eyes just over the horizon. It’s about freedom and standing up to the Man. It’s about breaking on through to the other side.
*. Pretentious? A bit. But its stripped-down simplicity also gives it a kind of resonance that it has managed to maintain for over forty years. Indeed, it’s that simplicity that makes it as relevant as ever. Imagine Kowalski being hunted down today by GPS instead of that ridiculous big board at the California Highway Patrol. That vulvic cleft between the bulldozers through which Kowalski sees a shining light is narrowing in our own time to a sliver.

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*. Yes, I said vulvic cleft. Because that’s quite obviously what Kowalski is aiming for. And if you think the analogy goes too far, note how on the DVD commentary Richard C. Sarafian says the exploded car at the end, unable to fit between those pearly gates, takes on the appearance of “a bent penis.” Whoa! I did not see that!

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*. While I’m on the subject of male and female, one of the things that struck me when I was watching this movie recently was that the dispatch office in California is staffed entirely by women. I wondered if this was intentional and when I listened to the commentary by Sarafian he explained that he “wanted to plant the idea that once you’re in the hands of women, you’re doomed. They’re gonna get you.” Is that sexist? I’m not sure. Then there’s the appearance of Charlotte Rampling as Lady Death. At least it all has a mythic consistency.
*. Speaking of Charlotte Rampling, has she ever seemed more normal on screen than here? And how weird is that?

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*. Sarafian thought of Kowalski as a modern cowboy, his horse replaced by a car. At one point there was a scene where he hallucinates and sees a posse on horseback chasing him in his rear-view mirror, but it was cut. Good call, as the connection is already sufficiently implied.
*. The cowboy is another mythic figure, and Super Soul does his best to puff Kowalski up even further, calling him the last American hero, an electric centaur (why electric?), and the super driver of the golden West. It’s a heavy burden for one man to carry, but it works because Kowalski is so indistinct. He’s a former square (Vietnam vet, police hero) who’s now just tired of living, a broken hero who wants to go out on a last chance power drive (was Springsteen thinking of this movie when he wrote “Born to Run”?).
*. Stephanie Zacharek calls Barry Newman “soulful looking, like a Jewish Lord Byron.” That’s the romantic version. I think he looks a bit like a friendly poodle. But he does have an interesting face, which really helps in such a vague role.

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*. I don’t find the freaks and weirdos he meets along the way that interesting. Which is odd because they are freaks and weirdos. The snake cult that now has music so it doesn’t need Dean Jagger’s vipers, the villainous gay couple, the naked chick on the motorbike, Rampling’s spectre . . . they are striking and distinct, but none of them are characters or have anything interesting to say. They’re like symbolic tokens Kowalski’s picking up like chips on a poker run.
*. Some of it is very silly. Sarafian didn’t want us to think Kowalski was a heartless bad guy, so he has to show concern for the people he runs off the road. Who are all, remarkably, unhurt after their various crashes and wipeouts. This is especially odd given that nobody wears seatbelts. Is this because Kowalski doesn’t care if he lives or dies, or because no self respecting road warrior in 1971 wore a seat belt? I’ll say the latter. It would be many years before we’d regularly see people buckling up.
*. Another silly thing is how much damage his car takes. They wrecked eight Dodge Challenges in shooting the film, which seems low. You cannot take cars like that off road. Period. God knows what the client in San Francisco was going to think when his car finally got delivered, seeing as it must have been pretty wrecked even before Kowalski goes kamikaze at the end.
*. It’s a film cliché, but cars that get in accidents don’t usually explode into fireballs. They only do that in movies. It’s silly, but it’s become a part of that alternative reality movies have created.
*. Did the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968) originate the term “blue meanies”? I’m guessing that’s what Super Soul is referencing when he uses the expression to refer to the cops.

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*. I felt sorry for the nude biker. Not only bouncing around through off road, but on a seat that was apparently so hot they had to pour ice water on it. According to Sarafian, shooting her in the nude the sun also “burnt her vagina,” leading to blisters that a doctor had to burst so that she could keep working. I mean . . . ouch.
*. Sarafian lucked out getting John Alonzo. The photography looks beautiful, and not just for the shots of the road cutting through the desert, the smoke trails below and clouds above. Almost every setting has a rich sense of composition.

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*. It’s been compared, fairly enough I think, to Easy Rider. I think it’s a better movie, but then I don’t think much of Easy Rider, at least as anything more than a work of cultural and historical significance. It also makes me think of Thelma & Louise, which introduces the gender argument again. Thelma and Louise ride off a cliff but they do it together; at least they have each other. Kowalski is very much alone. In Easy Rider Wyatt and Billy are killed separately. Could we imagine two men dying together?

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*. Easy Rider was also a movie more explicitly about the counterculture. I don’t think that’s what Kowalski represents. He rejects drugs (mostly), except for speed, which is only a kind of fuel. He’s not just out for a joyride but actually doing a job in delivering the car. He doesn’t fight authority so much as he just wants to escape it. The movie has a spiritual, not a political message.
*. As we learned in The Wraith (1986), “roadblocks won’t stop somethin’ that can’t be stopped.” What is it that can’t be stopped? Fate. According to Sarafian, Kowalski is “propelled by forces out of his control,” though he seems to me to be very much in control throughout, and chooses his fate. On the other hand, if the car is the real star of the movie (as Sarafian has also said) then technology is in the driver’s seat. This is the paradox of freedom I began by questioning: are you driving your car, or is it driving you?

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Easy Rider (1969)

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*. Does it matter if a work of art is any good? This is one of those questions that has come to absorb me after more than twenty years as a critic.
*. When I say “good” I am appealing to semi-objective standards: whether a novel or piece of music or film shows technical skill, invention, imagination, talent. I understand that we can argue endlessly over matters of taste, but I think most people can agree when these qualities are in evidence and where they are lacking.
*. Allowing me this much, I think it’s clear that being good doesn’t matter at all to a work’s commercial success. Terrible, totally worthless novels, songs, and movies can go on to become huge bestsellers and megahits; they may also slip unnoticed into oblivion. My point is that there’s no connection between being good and being a hit, so that being good doesn’t matter.
*. But does an influential or culturally significant work of art have to be any good? I think you can see where I’m going with this.

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*. I don’t think Easy Rider is a great movie, but to some degree this is to be expected. It was made cheaply and on the fly by young people with little experience who were stoned a lot of the time. But there’s no denying the enormous impact it had. David Thomson’s essay juxtaposes the two responses nicely when he lists the film’s many achievements and historical importance before pronouncing it “unwatchable.”
*. I guess we can argue over what it is that makes a movie “great.” In 2007 the American Film Institute ranked Easy Rider 87 on its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time so that’s some kind of official imprimatur. But here’s William Bayer: “To say that a picture is great is not the same thing as to say that it is a great work of art. It can be a great work of entertainment, a great articulation of an idea, a great example of a new technique, or a great work of personal expression. Let’s simply think of the word ‘great’ as a superlative to be applied to pictures that distinguish themselves in an important way. Easy Rider is one of the most distinguished pictures of fantasy fulfillment of the 1960s, for it certified an apprehension about America that was harbored in a vague form in many people’s minds, and when they saw it rendered so intensely in this particular story they instantly recognized that it was true.”
*. This chimes with Roger Ebert’s take (included in his essays on “Great Movies”): “It plays today more as a period piece than as living cinema, but it captures so surely the tone and look of that moment in time.”

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*. This may be true, but what do we think of that moment in time now? Hippies quickly went on to become a nearly universally despised subculture/movement (for a good analysis of how this happened, see David Sirota’s Back to Our Future, which is about the cultural shifts that took place in the 1980s). We look back at these hairy fools now with condescension at best. More commonly, “hippie” has become a generic term of contempt, including all the naïve, self-righteous sell-outs of the era. That said, the non-hippie character types in Easy Rider have fared even worse, as witness the cultural mythology of redneck degenerates and whatever it is Phil Spector turned into.

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*. You can see a crude and misguided idealism among the hippies here, but that’s it. The homesteaders are particularly pathetic, but at least they have an excuse in being city kids. I don’t know why Wyatt is so convinced they’re going to make it.
*. What makes the movie interesting, at least for me, is that it’s already aware of all this. The hippie dream, or Wyatt’s and Billy’s dream of freedom, carries within itself the seeds of its own failure, like that roll of drug money in their gas tank. They’re a pair of drug smugglers, not farmers. And at the end, do we even need to hear Wyatt tell us that they blew it? Hopper is already dreaming of retirement in Florida: “You go for the big money then you’re free.” This is the kind of freedom people mean when they talk about winning a lottery. It’s a betrayal of the promise of the West, whose innocence is spoiled as soon as they drive across it. They’re no more cowboys than the hippies at the commune are farmers.

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*. I don’t think much of Peter Fonda as an actor. I don’t think he’s very good, or even very interesting when not being good. Danny Peary calls his performance here “absolutely wretched”: “If this isn’t the cinema’s definitive wooden acting performance, then he must have been Mark Frechette’s inspiration for Zabriskie Point (1970). Fonda’s not much of an actor to begin with so it didn’t help that when Wyatt and Billy get stoned in the film, he and Hopper actually got stoned on camera rather than act as if they were stoned. It’s as if someone shot novocaine into his face.”
*. But . . . I do kind of like Fonda in this movie. Hey, he’s not as blank as James Taylor (admittedly, not an actor at all) in Two-Lane Blacktop! And his preternaturally tall form (either ambling along or stretched out on his elongated chopper) has something princely about it, adding to what Pauline Kael saw as his “his air of saintly noblesse oblige.” He might be Quixote to Hopper’s grubby Sancho Panza. Most of all, however, he seems a decent, likeable guy. That counts for something. Again one can compare the two to Taylor and Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop and get some idea of why this film was such a hit and Blacktop bombed.
*. Most critics and reviewers are of the opinion that the film only really comes to life, or finds its top gear, with the introduction of Jack Nicholson in what would become his breakout performance. I don’t agree. Perhaps it’s only in comparison to Fonda and Hopper, but I find Nicholson’s acting overdone and out of place. He stutters unnecessarily (I think he’s just drawing attention to himself), does something Pythonesque with his elbow while calling out “nick, nick, nick” when he takes a drink (a bit of improv apparently borrowed from the bike wrangler), and I don’t know why he’s always playing with his tongue. I guess he just has the pasties.

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*. What I found most remarkable about Nicholson’s part as the Faulknerian lawyer George Hanson on this re-viewing is that I had forgotten he got killed! I hadn’t seen the movie in over fifteen years and this part had completely fallen out of my memory. But then his death is quickly and quietly forgotten in the film, despite Hopper’s intention that it be seen as significant and important.
*. The title refers to a man sponging off the earnings of a prostitute. It’s relevance here is hard to figure. Apparently it was Terry Southern’s contribution. The original title was The Loners.
*. For a low-budget “stoner” indie, it has quite a reputation for being pretentious. Hopper was keen on what was happening in Europe and consciously wanted to make “the first American art film.” I don’t think he did, and for the most part his artistic flourishes, particularly the jump edits, don’t work for me. I also think its “meaning” is delivered in a heavy-handed way. Hopper claims to have been under the influence of Buñuel at the time, and Buñuel is not a subtle director.

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*. You could, however, make a list of things done right. The photography by László Kovács is very nice, not just in the shots of the great outdoors but in his handling of portraiture. The soundtrack has lots of golden oldies on it that add to the general mood. And I really like the LSD trip in the New Orleans cemetery. Those sort of sequences are impossible to do convincingly, but here I thought the montage of the foursome’s collective trip worked very well.

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*. But I think Easy Rider‘s ultimate significance has to do not with what it was but what it wasn’t, what it broke against. Our heroes were smuggling cocaine into the U.S.! Peter Fonda — Henry Fonda’s son! — was smoking a joint! A lot of joints! On camera! And taking acid! 1969 was a true watershed year, for both the commercial and the critical success of countercultural films like this. Here are the nominees for the 1970 Academy Awards for Best Director: John Schlesinger – Midnight Cowboy, Arthur Penn – Alice’s Restaurant, George Roy Hill – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sydney Pollack – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Costa-Gavras – Z. When Peter Biskind came to write his history of this period in American film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his choice of title indicates the primacy he gave to Easy Rider as the forerunner of the American New Wave (or New Hollywood) that so quickly crashed and burned.

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*. That is, crashed and burned like Wyatt and Billy. As Biskind points out, the failure of the American New Wave Dream is at least one of the prophetic meanings that Wyatt’s enigmatic line about blowing it takes on in hindsight. This is the self-awareness I mentioned earlier, the film’s consciousness that success could only be self-defeating. In 1969 that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The frontier had been closed for nearly a hundred years. That’s why all of these early road movies have such a tragic feel: they’re harkening back to a mythic past even while they hit the wall in front of them.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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*. Was it likely that anyone in 1946 was going to say something bad about this movie? Wouldn’t being negative be un-American?
*. Audiences duly trooped to see it. The Academy Awards fell over themselves trying to honour it (Harold Russell, a non-actor, holds a special distinction for being the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role). And yet to say, as Pauline Kael did, that this is “not a great picture” is an understatement.
*. Fleshing her thoughts out a bit, Kael notes in carefully balanced judgment that “episodes and details stand out and help to compensate for the soggy plot strands, and there’s something absorbing about the banality of its large-scale good intentions; it’s compulsively watchable.” I’m hesitant to agree even with this. It’s a movie that’s far less compulsively watchable today, in my opinion, than a lot of others from the same period.
*. To put the worst first: It’s very long and very simply and predictably plotted, which means it’s dull; the entire cast is guilty of over-acting; there are scenes that are now so dated they are inappropriately and unintentionally hilarious; and it takes all of the problematic issues it deals with and resolves them with a wave of the Hollywood whimsy-wand.
*. On the plus side: The staging makes really effective use of deep focus photography (by Gregg Toland), and there are moments (some of the best in the film) when the trio’s cool reception home is illustrated very subtly. With regard to the latter point, I like the way a scene’s attention sometimes drifts away from our heroes; for example, to the man who wants to take extra luggage on the flight, or the desk clerk at Fred’s apartment who wants to deal with someone else.
*. Is this pre-Vietnam War syndrome? The return from WW2 is usually remembered as “hail the conquering heroes!” on a grand scale, but aside from their immediate family the three main characters here meet a discouraging welcome. They are resented and looked down upon, and there’s even a political figure who tells them they were fighting the wrong war before Fred and Homer go all Rambo on his un-American ass (an act of patriotic dignity that gets Fred fired).

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*. But perhaps the syndrome goes back even further. The trio of vets from the trenches of WW1 don’t do so well in The Roaring Twenties either. But at least they could become gangsters. There were opportunities in the 1920s.
*. In this cruel world, where can a wounded man find comfort? Only at home, with the love of a good woman who is essentially a mother figure. Of course Wilma is prepared to become Homer’s nurse, even helping him dress for bed (after he’s had a glass of milk), and tucking him in. But he is disabled, and admits he is as dependent as a baby. Peggy is a trained nurse too, and has been taking home economic courses and is also ready to put Fred to bed, calm him when he has nightmares, and cook him a delicious breakfast when he gets up. Mother Milly, for her part, will watch over poor Al’s drinking with a concerned eye (Roger Ebert calls it “superhuman understanding”), and also do the breakfast-in-bed routine (instead of a lecture he gets “royally treated”). Surely, we are told, the way to integrate these men back into society is to place them in kindly domestic cocoons.

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*. It seems a bold move to have plucky Peggy declare — to her parents, no less! — that she’s in love with the married Fred and that she’s “going to break that marriage up!” Making this scene even worse is her parents’ declaration of how often they’ve hated each other but have always managed to work things out, which makes Peggy cry. This is one of those unintentionally funny parts I mentioned.
*. If only Wyler could have left well enough alone. But he keeps overplaying his hand. I like the first kiss between Fred and Peggy, jammed together between parked cars. But it’s ruined right away by a cut to her long, wilting look after he pulls away. There are a lot of bad and unnecessary reaction shots like this sprinkled throughout, as though Wyler doesn’t trust the script or the actors to do their thing without some extra help.

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*. And finally there’s the resolution, with that wave of the wand of Hollywood whimsy. Al is an irresponsible drunk, but I guess will be allowed to keep going on in his comfortable job at the bank. Perhaps Mr. Milton will put someone over him just to keep an eye on him and veto any of his bad loans. Homer can fire his rifle in his garage and do his novelty piano act at Butch’s bar while Wilma nurses him. And Fred has traded up, getting rid of the slutty and spendthrift Marie (Virginia Mayo) for the younger, virginal, more affluent Peggy. He even has a more manly job than selling ladies’ cosmetics now too.
*. Does this sound like a happily-ever-after ending? I am full of misgivings, and I imagine contemporary audiences were as well. Can we not imagine Homer going postal, Al bottoming out, and Fred slapping Peggy around in a few years? But as David Thomson notes, “it would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved America past Goldwyn or the public.” And did Wyler even have such a darker view?
*. So the music soars, there’s a big kiss and a wedding, and everybody went to see it because I guess it made them feel good. It wasn’t real, but it was what people, then and now, wanted to be real. The best years of their lives are just ahead. Tomorrow is another day.

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