Category Archives: 1970s

Airport (1970)

*. With the hindsight of half a century, is it OK to enjoy Airport now?
*. I don’t mean “Can we laugh at it?” People thought it was ridiculous and laughed at it in 1970. It didn’t need Airplane! ten years (and three sequels) later to make fun of it.
*. Nor do I mean that only now can we see it as badly dated. This was, again, something noticed by everyone at the time. Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944.” Pauline Kael dismissed it as “bland entertainment of the old school: every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction — clichés commenting on clichés.” Variety‘s review saw it as “a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking.” Charles Champlin described it as “breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent.” You get the point. We’re not more sophisticated today than we were then.
*. But the reviewers who saw Airport as a throwback were on to something. Today I think it’s most often seen as the beginning of the spate of disaster movies that were so popular throughout the 1970s. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno being two of its more famous offspring. But really it’s a movie that I think does look back.

*. It has the feel of earlier times for many reasons. It was Van Heflin’s last film. It was the final score by Alfred Newman. There were apparently 23 Oscars among the cast and crew, which gives the proceedings a kind of Hall of Fame feel (Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, coming nearly forty years after her first). There isn’t a single interesting style note, unless you’re impressed by the use of a split screen every damn time there’s a telephone call. The cast is all white, and the leading men all of a certain vintage, the names of their characters betokening varieties of ethnic masculinity: Mel Bakersfeld, Vernon Demerest, and Patroni (no first name required, he’s the troubleshooter and “They don’t call them emergencies anymore. They call them Patronis.”). Their love interests, meanwhile, are 25 years younger. As was customary in this golden age.
*. If you really want whiplash though, compare Jean Seberg as she’s done up here in the height of Edith Head’s “Airport style” to what she looked like in Breathless ten years earlier. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. I’ll wait.
*. What it’s all a throwback to, it seems to me, is the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk popularized in the 1950s (think Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind). Airport is nominally about multiple crises at a busy Chicago airport but it’s really a soap opera. Based on a bestseller by Arthur Hailey that might have established the genre of airport novel, it gives us a bunch of stock characters in an overripe drama where the setting takes a backseat to all the usual shenanigans. Shenanigans that come at us with dialogue like that delivered by Captain Demerest the Horny Pilot (played by Dean Martin) to the sexy stewardess (Jacqueline Bissett): “You get me up to full throttle then throw me into reverse. You could damage my engine that way!”

*. Alas, Captain Demerest has put a bun in her oven, which leads to the Abortion Talk:

Why didn’t you tell me this before?
I tried. But we were in a hurry and . . .
You’re sure?
Do you mean am I sure I’m pregnant, or am I sure you’re the father?
Come on, Gwen. I didn’t . . .
The answer to both questions is yes.
You know I wasn’t asking.
You have a perfect right to. I want you to know something, Vern. That there hasn’t been anyone else but you. You see, there couldn’t be. I happen to love you. I’m afraid I was careless. I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight. So instead of being plump, I’m pregnant. Stop twisting your wedding ring. I know you’ve got a wife. I know you can’t marry me. I knew it in the beginning. I won’t make things difficult for you.

*. Just as fluffy as the Abortion Talk is the Divorce Talk. This takes place between airport manager Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his wife:

We don’t have a home anymore. We have a waiting room, a place where I can walk the floor, wondering whether you’re going to leave this damn airport long enough to drop by for a few minutes.
Why did you have to pick tonight to come out here and fight with me . . .
I came here to tell you that Roberta [their daughter] left home.
What do you mean left home? When?
I called from the banquet to say goodnight, and I spoke to Libby. Roberta, she said, told her that she couldn’t stand our fighting anymore. That she couldn’t stand the “atmosphere of hate.” And that’s a direct quote.
Where is she? Did Libby say?
She’s at Sally Bolton’s house. She’s going to spend the night there. I spoke to her.
Cindy, we can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to call a truce, even if it’s a pretense. We’ve got to start being civil to each other.
And add hypocrisy to the problem? They’d see through that in a minute. That’s not the answer.
Well we’ve got to do something.
You’re right, and the only answer is a divorce.
You think that will make them feel more secure? A broken home?
It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

*. I’ve quoted all this at length because I think it gets at the real charm of Airport. As I say, this is what the movie is really all about. And I think it’s the kind of thing Roger Ebert might have been responding to when he began his review by saying “On some dumb fundamental level, Airport kept me interested for a couple of hours. I can’t quite remember why.” Well, this is why. It’s a soap formula and on the most basic, perhaps even subconscious level that stuff works.
*. So if we can all enjoy Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind today not just as camp but as representing a certain kind of story told a certain way then I think we can do the same for Airport. I can’t write it off, as Lancaster did, as “the worst piece of junk ever made.” In fact I was surprised at how much I liked it. I especially got a kick out of how the stupid passengers screw up the bomb scenario not once but twice. They all deserved to die.
*. Meanwhile, with the template that had been established, could they do it all again? Given the box office they were certainly going to try!

Impulse (1974)

*. Wow. How does a movie with William Shatner playing a psycho killer manage to be this dull? Even with the mid-’70s decor and fashion on display Impulse still fails to provide any real entertainment value for connoisseurs of camp or crap. I know a lot of people consider this to be a classic of the so-bad-it’s-good genre but I was bored out of my mind. What went wrong?
*. William Grefé. That’s basically the answer. Grefé was one of those ultra-low budget exploitation directors who have later been discovered as auteurs by later generations of dumpster-diving film fanatics. Their work can often be seen on DVDs put out by the Something Weird Video people, which is a big help because they’re a lot more fun to watch with the commentary than they are with the regular audio track.
*. Impulse is not Grefé’s worst movie. It may even be his best. It’s just that I don’t imagine there’s that big a gap between the two. It’s another cheap, quickly filmed piece of crap, only without quite so many leering booty shots. In fact, there’s even a bit of self-regarding humour in this regard with some dialogue and camera work during the hot dog scene. That was a plus.
*. There is, however, a respectable attempt at a story. Shatner is a ladies man who cons women out of their money before killing them. He targets a lonely single mom whose irritating daughter, who spends a lot of time mooning over her father’s grave, is the only one who knows what’s really going on. But nobody believes her. Hitchcock might have made something out of this. In fact I think he did.
*. This is not Hitchcock. Hitch wouldn’t have stood for a mess like this. Harold Sakata, Goldfinger‘s Oddjob and a total non-actor, is thrown into the mix and then killed off (almost for real, as there was some mix-up with the stunt where Shatner tries to hang him that almost led to Sakata’s death). There’s a historical prologue that’s presumably meant to show where Shatner’s character went off the rails, but it just seemed pointless to me. I think “Matt Stone” would be scarier if he were a little more self-possessed.
*. I put “Matt Stone” in quotation marks because it’s such a stock name it can’t be real. And given the kind of character Shatner is playing it probably isn’t.
*. Yes, Shatner’s performance is hammy and occasionally funny, though it’s not that far removed from Richard Burton or Oliver Reed over-emoting on one of their bad days. Matt Stone’s wardrobe also helps. I think it might have even been weird by the standards of Florida in the ’70s, and it never ceases to surprise with each costume change.
*. This is important because, let’s face it, the only reason you’re watching a movie like this is to laugh at it. But while Shatner does his bit I really didn’t find this to be a great bad movie. There were a couple of scenes I got a chuckle out of but that was it. The rest of the time I was just bored and not paying much attention.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

*. I didn’t like this movie much at all, and I find its status among critics a bit surprising. I think this is probably because it’s seen as representative of a style of gritty independent filmmaking that we now identify as a golden age in American cinema. This despite the fact that it wasn’t really an independent film (it was a Paramount production) and cost quite a bit to make, mainly due to Elaine May wanting to shoot an enormous amount of film (reportedly over a million feet). It’s one of those movies that only looks cheap.
*. Then there’s the story of how it was taken out of May’s hands by the studio, which had the effect of making May into a martyr for her art on the order of Orson Welles with Touch of Evil. But again I’m not sure she was the real victim here. From what I can gather, and from watching her approved version, she may have been behaving unreasonably and Paramount were only trying to cut their losses.

*. We open with gangster Nick (John Cassavetes) sweating it out in a hotel room and I’m only thinking one thing: where is Norman Mailer? Isn’t this the same room we were stuck in for all of Wild 90? I only partly jest. There is a lot of the same feel as in Mailer’s little movie here, from the sense of seeing tough guys behind the scenes to the repetitive and inane dialogue that sounds improvised. In fact I think some of it was improvised, as Mays just let her actors go with a scene. There’s a basic premise, and obvious structural motifs (the nighttime journey through a kind of underworld, including a trip to a cemetery, and the way the film begins and ends with Mike and Nick hammering on different doors), but within these parameters things just seem to wander from one set piece to another, none of them connected to much of a narrative spine.
*. In brief, I don’t think it’s a particularly original story, or presented in a very compelling way. As I’ve already noted, it looks cheap, in terms of everything from the lighting to the choppy editing. And I want to be clear I’m not talking about deliberately abrupt editing but shots that simply don’t match up.
*. The two leads, Cassavetes and Peter Falk, often get a lot of credit but I thought the former guilty of overacting and the latter miscast. This is a shame since I think the character of Mike is the only interesting thing in the movie. I wanted to know more about him, what it was that made him turn from being a lifelong sidekick and schmuck to finally going after his revenge. But he’s just left up in the air. Given that he’s made his break with Nick before the film starts it’s a movie about betrayal where the betrayal has already taken place, which means his character doesn’t travel any kind of arc. Does he feel guilty at the end? Why?

*. Does May bring any new perspective to the table as a woman? Yes, according to the essays on the film I’ve read, but I find her vision of “toxic masculinity” little different from what you get in other gangster/buddy movies, and the female characters are all left pretty vapid and vague. There’s the hooker and then there are the wives. I don’t get the sense of any new take on gender relations here.
*. I wonder how May wanted us to see the ending. It strikes me as being comic, what with Nick trying to wave off Beatty’s assassin while whining to Mike about how he’s getting a perforated ulcer. This is ridiculous, and I assume intentionally so. But is the film a comedy? Not in my book.
*. So it’s not a favourite. As far as such pictures go I found it both overdrawn and underwhelming. Though filmed in 1973 it wasn’t released until 1976, the same year Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie came out, which I like a lot more and which I suspect cost a lot less to make. Mikey and Nicky is definitely worth seeing, but I don’t cut it as much slack as others do. It is representative of a certain style and period, but I don’t think it’s first-rate in any department.

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

*. Terror of Mechagodzilla is one of the most direct sequels in the Godzilla canon, with the action picking up right where Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla signed off. As things get started a submarine is looking for the remains of Mechagodzilla and finds a new monster named Titanosaurus instead. Titanosaurus is, in turn, being controlled by a mad scientist who looks like a Japanese Colonel Sanders and who is in cahoots with the bad guys from the Third Planet of the Black Hole.
*. Given how much I liked Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. And to be sure it has some highlights. For example, I liked hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla (Main Theme) again. Remarkably, it hadn’t been used since Gojira.
*. Titanosaurus didn’t become a fan favourite (I think this may have been his only appearance, making him this film’s King Caesar) but I think he looks fine, even if his elephant-trumpeting is only slightly less annoying than the racket made by Gabara in All Monsters Attack.
*. Best of all are the fight scenes between the three heavyweights, culminating in Godzilla charging at Mechagodzilla while eating everything the giant robot throws at him. The Big G’s not going to let any of those fancy bells and whistles stop him now! It’s ass-kicking time!
*. And yet I didn’t care for this movie that much. Nor, I should add, did fans. It had the lowest box office of any Godzilla film thus far so Toho figured it was time to move on from the franchise, making this the last film from the monster’s Showa era (which is how they reckon these things).

*. I think it may be that the story just doesn’t come together well enough. Sure it’s loopy and weird in the usual way, but there’s just too much going on. Godzilla doesn’t even show up until quite late in the day, and Titanosaur, whose super power is basically waving his tail and making a wind storm like Rodan does with his wings, has to carry most of the first part of the movie. Then there’s the crowded human story, which involves not only the scientist and the aliens but the scientist’s daughter, who is a cyborg connected, somehow, to Mechagodzilla’s brain.
*. Bottom line: not a bad entry, but I can understand why, even without the box office declining, Toho wanted to take a break. They were clearly nearing a point of creative exhaustion that matched the audience growing tired of seeing the same thing all the time. Even the screenplay here was based on a script that won a Godzilla story-writing contest, which is as clear an indication as you can get that Toho was beyond running dry at this point.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

*. I was surprised when doing some background reading for these notes to find that Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is one of the lowest-rated movies in this franchise. Indeed, some consider it to be the worst Godzilla movie ever made.
*. I am not of their company, and to be honest I’m not sure what its critics are complaining about. As I see it, the major strike against it is its formulaic and silly plot. But by this time the formula was long established, and as far as silliness goes I don’t think it’s any more bizarre than earlier films.
*. Sure, the notion of aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole plotting to take over Earth with the aid of a robotic Godzilla made out of “space titanium” is silly. And the fact that underneath their human disguises they’re all wearing Planet of the Apes masks doesn’t help things. But are they any sillier than the New Wave Xilians from Invasion of Astro-Monster? As madcap as their scheme for global domination is, I think it makes more sense than the crew from Planet X.
*. Or take the scene where the priestess awakens King Caesar (or Shisa) by singing to him. Is that as loopy as The Peanuts singing to Mothra? I don’t think so. And yet Mothra vs. Godzilla is a fan favourite.

*. So let me say up front that I think Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is one of the best Godzilla movies, period. Here are a few reasons why.
*. (1) Mechagodzilla is great. He’s the evil doppelganger who first appears disguised as the real deal. That just goes to show how devious he is. Plus he’s a giant weapons platform that fires rockets and blows things up, he flies by way of rockets in his heels, and he even generates a force field by spinning his head around. Is there any wonder he became such a popular addition to the franchise?

*. (2) The human story (or human-alien story) is really good. Yes, that’s a relative judgment, but compared to the usual nonsense in these movies I really enjoyed the plot here, with its cigar-smoking ape-men and hardy Interpol agents.
*. (3) The monster fights are more violent. Mechagodzilla (disguised as Godzilla) sets the tone early by ripping open the jaws of Anguirus (who actually suffered a somewhat similar fate in Godzilla Raids Again). In the final fight Godzilla will be soaked in blood, including a massive arterial spray from a neck wound that is later duplicated when the Interpol agent shoots the leader of the aliens in the throat. This was something new for the franchise. And Godzilla literally ripping Mechagodzilla’s head off is the perfect coup de grâce.
*. Even the elements that I don’t think work as well are at least inoffensive. I’ll confess I don’t know where Godzilla’s new magnetic power came from. Being struck by lightning? Whatever the case, it certainly comes in handy when fighting a giant robot. And then there’s King Caesar. I actually like his look, and his fighting style, but he doesn’t have much in the way of special powers and in the end he doesn’t do all that much. In the sequel, Terror of Mechagodzilla, he’s even erased from the opening montage that replays all the highlights from this film.
*. So yes it’s formulaic and silly, but in a good way. There’s no part of this movie I didn’t enjoy, and it’s one of the few in the series I can happily return to.

Eraserhead (1977)

*. I first saw Eraserhead at a rep cinema sometime in the 1980s and it really made an impact. I think I was dragging friends off to see it for the next couple of weeks. And even though I don’t think I’ve seen it since then, watching it again now I found I remembered almost all of it quite distinctly.
*. Much of that probably has to do with how striking the imagery is. Who can forget Henry’s towering hairdo, or that mewling baby? All rendered in exquisite black-and-white. Could you imagine this movie in colour? I can’t.
*. Filmed in L.A. but Lynch wanted it to look like Philadelphia. I’ve never been to Philadelphia but I know this doesn’t look like L.A. It really is a remarkable job of low-budget world building. Of course locations are a big part of this, but it’s also an effect of the lighting. This is a dark film even in the daytime.
*. The images also stick in the mind because of their mysterious nature. Ever since it came out it’s been a parlour game to try and uncode Eraserhead‘s meaning. This is something David Lynch obviously wanted to invite, which is why he’s remained coy about offering any interpretation of his own. Thus far he’s only said that “no critic or reviewer has given an interpretation that is my interpretation.”
*. I suspect this may be because he didn’t have anything specific in mind. In fact, I don’t see how he could have had anything specific in mind. Does it make a difference that Henry works as a printer? Does that relate to what happens to his noggin?
*. The most frequently quoted line about the movie, that it is “a dream of dark and troubling things” is all we’ve gotten from Lynch, and it only shuts the door. Despite all the books that have been written on the subject, I don’t think dreams have any objective or universal meanings.
*. Of course this hasn’t stopped critics from trying to unpack Lynch’s dream (or nightmare). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this since, as I say, it’s clearly invited. But given the weirdness of the proceedings I don’t think we should expect to get very far.

*. The one point that does seem certain is the revulsion shown toward sex, something that is almost de rigueur when dealing with body horror. There are giant sperm wriggling around and getting squished underfoot or slapped against walls. There’s a bed that sort of melts into a milky hot tub in a very unerotic way when Harry makes out with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. The products of sin are disgusting, from the bitch with her pack of nursing pups to Henry’s hideous baby. Meanwhile, it’s hard to figure out how Henry (a very human Jack Nance) and Mary managed to conceive in the first place (something that Henry is a bit mystified by himself).
*. It’s not difficult to make sex seem disgusting. In fact, making it look good is probably harder. Plus, the world of Eraserhead is an all-around ugly and depressing place. What’s interesting is that even the glimpses we’re given of escape or of something outside Harry’s immediate environment, are even worse. The Lady in the Radiator, singing of heaven, is deformed. The Man in the Planet is in even worse shape. Henry’s window only looks out onto a brick wall. This may be the most disturbing thing about Eraserhead: that within its dream of dark and troubling things the dreamer only dreams of things more dark and troubling still.
*. If the visuals are depressing and disgusting the film’s sound, designed by Alan Splet, is equal in its misery. I’d forgotten just how irritating, indeed purposefully annoying a movie this is to listen to. What a cacophony of noise: humming from machinery, static from the radio, hissing from the radiator, squeaking from the furniture, trains in the distance, the baby’s crying, the wind blowing, and all of this playing non-stop.
*. Eraserhead is a movie better experienced than talked about. I don’t think Lynch had any real statement in mind and people probably see in it what they want to see. I was mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I came away from it this time with a lot of respect for what Lynch accomplished, on a shooting schedule that stretched over five years, I have to say it’s not a movie I enjoy as much today. It was student work, of the highest caliber but still student work, and it appealed to me as a student. But my imagination isn’t what it used to be.

Damien: Omen II (1978)

*. From where we sit, a sequel to a super-profitable film like The Omen seems obvious. At the time, however, this was before the onset of modern franchise filmmaking and all those horror brands of the early 1980s. Before Star Wars even, a movie that was partially made possible by the profits from The Omen.
*. According to producer Harvey Bernhard on the DVD commentary for this film, a trilogy had already been suggested sometime after The Omen had finished filming but before it was released. The studio “wanted a second picture fast.” David Seltzer was asked to write the follow-up but said he didn’t want to do a sequel. Meanwhile, Richard Donner was working on Superman. About the only people who came back were Jerry Goldsmith and Leo McKern (uncredited, despite having a fairly significant part).
*. I started off my notes on The Omen by talking about how important it was to land a star like Gregory Peck to play the lead role. Actually, William Holden had been offered that part but turned it down because he didn’t want to be in a movie about the devil. After The Omen turned into a huge box office hit he apparently had a change of heart. Plus he’d also been very ill. So we get another heavyweight here, and one right off an Academy Award nomination for Network. And Lee Grant, his co-star, had just won an Oscar for Shampoo.
*. The stars help to establish the same incongruous Masterpiece Theater sense of dignity and decorum used to wrap up a story that is just as silly as the original. It has a good premise though, with Damien being unaware of his true identity at the beginning of the film. When he does find out he even has his moment in the garden (a dock in this version), asking “Why me?” Being the son of the devil turns out to be no more fun than being the son of God.
*. I like that angle, and think it works well. It also helps that Jonathan Scott-Taylor is very good in the part. The series got lucky (or cast well) when it came to finding actors to play Damien. I liked Harvey Stephens in the original and Sam Neill in The Final Conflict.
*. So Omen II has a lot going for it. It doesn’t measure up to The Omen though. That movie was built around a number of signature kills. Something similar is attempted here but the kills aren’t as good. Some of this is due to their not being very interesting. Things kick off with an old lady having a heart attack in her bedroom when she sees a crow (this movie’s replacement for the Rottweilers in the original). Not scary. Then later in the movie there is an industrial accident that doesn’t register at all. These kinds of things happen all the time.
*. But even where the kills are better conceived the execution fails. There is a scene where a woman is attacked by a single crow, has her eyes plucked out, and then is run over by a truck. This is an obvious reference to The Birds, and indeed the bird wrangler was the same guy who worked on Hitchcock’s movie, but how can you go back and do The Birds with a single crow and hope that anyone would take it seriously? Then there’s a scene where someone falls through the ice on a frozen river that might have worked but doesn’t. And finally a spectacular elevator kill that sets itself up so obviously and takes so long to get to its payoff that it can’t meet expectations.
*. My guess is that director Don Taylor (Mike Hodges had been fired in the early going for taking so long) just didn’t have much of a feel for this kind of thing. It seems to me that some of the film should have worked, but really none of it does.
*. One way you can tell the kills aren’t working is the way Goldsmith’s score is ramped up to introduce them. I’m all for bravura horror scoring, but when it comes on this heavy you’re right to suspect it’s trying to compensate.
*. These movies don’t really play fair with the warnings people receive. “You have been warned” was a tag line from the original, but warned by who? A priest who looks even crazier than he sounds (and he sounds plenty crazy)? Or in this movie a journalist who starts ranting right away, while wearing a shocking red dress. Bernhard really hated that dress. “Why would anybody wear a dress like that? I mean, as a newspaper reporter it’s not in her character. It’s ostentatious. It’s ridiculous.” It was also a choice made by Mike Hodges. Another reason for firing him, I guess.
*. There’s one particularly interesting direction I wish they’d gone in. A hint of it comes in the scene in the trainyards, when it seems as though a shipping container is about to get dropped on someone. Bernhard mentions this as an obvious red herring. The thing is, we’re so attuned to the notion of people dying in crazy ways by this point it’s almost like we’re watching one of the Final Destination movies. We’re primed for another suspicious “accident.” But nothing happens. At least yet.
*. Such paranoia fits in well with the sense of Damien as part of a whole sinister conspiracy. He certainly has enough enablers floating around, waiting for him to come of age. So Omen II might have taken its place alongside the classics of ’70s conspiracy thrillers quite comfortably, and been better for it. Instead of this, however, we get a movie that, while decent enough, basically follows in The Omen‘s footsteps without being as good in any way.

The Omen (1976)

*. It’s entirely fitting that the DVD commentary for The Omen with director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland begins by stressing the importance of landing Gregory Peck. Not that it’s a great performance, but Peck gives the proceedings a necessary gravitas, the “dignity” and classiness that Wes Craven saw as setting The Omen apart. I mean, we’re talking about the kind of guy who answers a telephone by saying “This is he.”
*. How did he end up here? According to Donner his (Peck’s) son had just died and he was desperate to get back to work. Plus he apparently saw something in David Seltzer’s script. Slightly more than was in there, I think, but his faith in the project helped.
*. Seltzer was honest about his motivations. “I did it strictly for the money. I was flat broke.” He follows this admission up, however, with something heartfelt: “I just wish I’d had this kind of success with something I personally found more meaningful.” You have to respect such honesty.
*. Some people think The Omen is a bad movie. It even has an entry in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss. I think this is mistaken. The Omen is trash, but it is, as Pauline Kael once categorized these things, great trash.

*. Like all great pop entertainment it’s terribly derivative (basically being the offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist) but nevertheless has moments that stick in your head. I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten the highlights: the first nanny hanging herself, Damien freaking out on his way to church, the baboons going crazy at the zoo, the priest being impaled by the lightning rod, the skeleton of the jackal in the grave, and of course the beheading of David Warner by a sheet of glass. As Kim Newman put it: “If there were a special Madame Defarge Humanitarian Award for All-Time Best Decapitation, this lingering, slow-motion sequence would get my vote.”

*. That’s actually quite a lot of highlights for one trashy movie. I call it trash because, as critics were quick to point out, the story is nonsense, tricked out with a bunch of humbug, and the whole thing was done on the cheap. A budget of only $2.8 million, which is shockingly low even by the standards of the day. Donner really knew how to stretch a buck. Apparently the ad campaign, which was brilliant, cost more, leading Gene Shalit to opine “When a producer spends as much money on ads and commercials for a movie as he spends on making the movie itself, perhaps audiences have a right to suspect that they are being sucked into seeing a piece of junk.”
*. I say the story is tricked out with humbug because the theology, history, and geography are total nonsense. The name of the town Megiddo, for example, doesn’t derive from Armageddon. It’s the other way around (and Warner’s character also mislocates Megiddo in relation to Jerusalem). And you have to slap your head at Europe being on “the other side of the world” from Bethelehem. But this is the sort of humbug that made critics guffaw at The Da Vinci Code and it didn’t stop people from buying books and movie tickets for that either. It seems to me that if Hitchcock could laugh at people who would tear his movies apart for their implausibilities we have to cut the same slack for popular entertainments that toss scholarship to the wind. Though I’ll admit I did wonder a bit at Seltzer’s claim that he spent three months doing research for the script.
*. It’s curious the way people take things more seriously when they’re put in bad verse. The poem that gets recited here, “When the Jews return to Zion,” is a pastiche of part of the Book of Revelation, but it’s totally invented. Why a snatch of doggerel like this should sound more impressive than actually reciting part of the actual Bible is a bit confusing to me. But I guess it’s the same principle that’s operating in The Wolf Man when we hear “Even a man who is pure in heart.” If it rhymes it must be true.

*. This was the arrival of Richard Donner as a feature director. He’d done a few movies previously, and lot of TV work, and would go on to do Superman and the Lethal Weapon series. All of which earned him one of the shortest entries in David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Mr. Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it’s over yet.” Actually, by the time Thomson wrote that Donner basically was finished. But the judgment I think is fair enough. The only question is how highly you rate being successful vs. being interesting. Personally, I think Donner does a good job here working with the trifecta of difficult directorial challenges: shooting on location, and working with children and animals.
*. The Omen was a very successful movie, spawning several sequels and a reboot. Coming back to it I found it held up pretty well. It’s very silly, but all the big moments are still fun. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is justly celebrated. I’d forgotten how good Billie Whitelaw is. She really takes over as Mrs. Baylock. And Harvey Stephens, who pretty much dropped out of acting after this, defined the role of the demonic tot moving forward, just as the name Damien would henceforward always be associated with the devil and Rottweilers would be commonly viewed as nasty-by-nature dogs (they’re actually not). For a movie to achieve all that on a shoestring is quite an accomplishment. Then ask yourself if you’d rather watch this than any one of the Robert Langdon movies. That’s the difference between great trash and trash. Which leads me to wonder if Hollywood is still any good at producing the former. Not so long ago it was the one thing you could depend on them doing well.

Being There (1979)

*. I’ll begin with a couple of observations on differences between then and now.
*. (1) The story is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski, who shared a co-writing credit on the script. I had only vague recollections of the book from years earlier and so thought I’d look at it again. My local library system, however, had no copies, even in storage, and as near as I can tell it’s now out of print. Admittedly, Kosinski’s reputation has taken some hits over the years (with accusations of plagiarism and fakery), but still this was surprising. It’s not that old a book and it was a bestseller. But I’ve noticed lately that a lot of books seem to be just . . . disappearing.
*. (2) Chance is fixated on television, which provides the background fabric of his life. This wasn’t strange at all in 1979 and part of the satire is directed at people who were literally being raised by the tube, learning through imitation of what they saw on it. Watching the film today I found this part of it nostalgic. Sure, we spend more time than ever looking at screens, but these are mostly on phones or tablets or laptops. Who actually watches TV anymore? It may be that in the future people will have a hard time understanding this part of the movie. Our relationship to the screen is very different in the twenty-first century. Less passive, I think, anyway.
*. I think it’s a movie with different messages, but they’re all connected to the idea of people projecting onto Chance, making him into something that will satisfy their own needs. This makes him the perfect politician, because as Roger Ebert observed “the higher up you get in American politics the more the platitude rules,” until you get to the very top and the platitudinous man, the man who has nothing at all to say, is king. But there’s more to this than just what Ebert castigates as the superficiality of public utterance or the dishonesty of democratic politics. The bromides of Chance are what the public demands, what they need, what makes them feel good.

*. I don’t want to lean on this too much. Chance is what a certain class of people need. Ben (Melvyn Douglas) and Eve (Shirley MacLaine) both need him, for different reasons. But for starters, they’re both rich and white. The racial angle of the movie is only really glanced at when the former maid Louise sees Chance on TV and explodes “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America!” With the right skin colour and a nice set of clothes you can fall upward all the way to the Biltmore Estate, or the presidency. I take it this is part of the meaning of the final shot too: that the system is set up so that people like Chance can’t fail, or fall, no matter what.
*. The matter of class is subtler. I don’t think it’s clear that everyone loves Chance, though he apparently does have high positive ratings from pollsters. It seems that poor people don’t care much for him and others find him creepy or strange. But Ben and Eve are damaged rich people.
*. That they are damaged should make them more interesting, but I find this is where the film falls a bit short. The thing is, if Chance himself is a blank slate for others to draw on, those others become the important part of the story. But what is Ben aside from a rich old guy? I couldn’t even get a track on what his politics were. And how sympathetic is Eve, being someone whose great wealth has only isolated her and made her lonely? One can’t help feeling she was a bit of a gold-digger, and the fact that Ben is on board with her adultery doesn’t make it any more palatable. Does she even deserve Chance?
*. Some people at the time found it prophetic, with Chance prefiguring Reagan. But I don’t think the analogy works. Reagan was a performer. This is something Chance, the holy fool, is not. He just likes to watch.
*. This brings me back to where I started, thinking about then and now. I keep looking at Chance and wondering if he’s our contemporary. He’s dressed in the fashions of the 1930s and ’40s, but as one character observes that style is now coming back. I think the only real point though is that he’s nothing at all except what you want to think he is or what you need him to be. So at any time in any place he fits right in.

The Howl (1970)

*. There was a time, specifically in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Tinto Brass was considered an essential filmmaker and heralded as the next Antonioni. He was even tabbed to direct A Clockwork Orange, a project he had to decline because of a scheduling conflict. This was right around the time when he was making The Howl. Go figure.
*. This early promise, if it was promise, never materialized, and by the end of the ’70s he was dragged (or dove) into the mess that was Caligula and for the rest of his career seemed mainly interested in working on “erotic” films.
*. Today there seems to be a wide range of opinion on Brass, based mainly on his early work. I’ll say up front that I think this is an absolutely terrible movie that I found it nearly impossible to watch, but if you enjoy this style of filmmaking . . .
*. But is it a style? It seems like mere incompetence to me. The photography is ugly. The editing is slapdash and mangled. Visually, one is never quite sure what the point is, even what we’re supposed to be looking at. I guess, in the film’s defence, I can say that this fits with the rest of the movie. The dialogue is gibberish. There’s no plot to speak of. A woman (Tina Aumont) and a man (Luigi Proietti) wander around together, encountering various weirdos. The man does a funny walk like Chaplin and carries a toolbox. The woman makes revolutionary speeches.
*. The point? There’s some kind of crude anti-authoritarian message, what with all the soldiers and cops beating hippies up and shooting people against a wall. Then there’s footage of Mussolini and Hitler and Vietnam tossed into the mix. But this is so vague that I actually found it a bit offensive. I certainly didn’t see where Brass had anything he really wanted to say. It all winds up with a line disparaging logic and coherence though, so maybe that was the point.
*. I could make a snarky point here about how Brass is more interested in tits and ass, but he’s not an erotic filmmaker either. We see a lot of flesh on display, but it isn’t sexy even in the few instances where I think it was meant to be. Hell, Tina Aumont doesn’t even look sexy.
*. Just as wasted as Aumont is the location of the Santo Stefano penitentiary, which had just closed in 1965 and gave Brass a great backdrop for the prison riot scene. Wasted.
*. I’ve seen various labels thrown at it. Psychadelic. Surrealist. It doesn’t seem to me much of either. Certainly not surrealism, which even at its dreamiest had more coherence to its vision than this.
*. Well, there’s not much point saying more about a movie I hated and couldn’t understand at all. Maybe I was missing something, but it all seemed to me like Godard on a very bad day: making even less sense and looking a whole lot worse. Come to think of it, now I feel bad about connecting Godard’s name to this crap. Enough!