A Festival of Music, Death, and Ants

It has been an odd combination of emotions the last couple of days; if you watch the news at all, you know there was some flooding in Houston Sunday night through Monday. I picked the right part of that city to settle in, it seems. I’ve been nervous several times, but never terrified by events like this. Everything has been shut down and cancelled, leaving me with two days doing little more than sleeping (which, frankly, I needed), but it means the next three days will have five days worth of work crammed into them, so I should play catch-up right now. This will likely be rushed and graceless, for which I apologize.

Woodstock (1970)

woodstock-movie-posterThis is one of those movies I saw piecemeal over the years, but never as a whole. I kept getting tempted by a blu-ray package that promised the original Director’s Cut along with a ton of extras, and I successfully urged this digital Satan to get behind me until I found it in a Wal-Mart $5 bin.

Well, I ah… I still can’t say I’ve seen it as a whole. That’s not because of the movie itself, it’s because of me.

The music festival itself and the movie chronicling it are both cultural milestones: at their best, they show a possibility, a moment in time when we thought that things could get better through wishful thinking. That the entire event spun out of control and still managed to be an overwhelmingly positive experience is nothing short of miraculous. All it takes is watching the Maysle Brothers’ Gimme Shelter to know that this is true.

Woodstock_music_festival_redmond_stageIt’s also true that what was felt to be a wasteful, ridiculous venture by Warner Brothers – filming the festival – would be what saved the studio from bankruptcy, becoming tremendously successful and pulling it out of a financial hole. It won the Oscar that year for Best Documentary and was up for Best Film Editing, which almost never happens with documentaries. The editing is, indeed, brilliant and frequently adventurous, making use of multiple panels in the widescreen, allowing maximum usage of the tons of recorded footage. This was an innovation reportedly created by one of the film editors, a young feller named Martin Scorsese, and it is something you would see repeatedly in movies for the next few years.

The original movie was a little over three hours long, and the Director’s Cut adds over 40 minutes to that. And that’s still not the reason I stretched it out over two nights (though it is admittedly a contributing factor). It’s the interviews. That is an essential part of documentary filmmaking, and the interviews cast a suitably wide net, not only attendees but local townspeople who have a variety of opinions on the festival.

It was the non-stop parade of idealism and optimism that punched me somewhere that hurt. I’m familiar with such feelings, I had them myself aplenty, back in the day. And miserable old bastard that I am, I kept thinking, “I wonder how he feels about that now” or “I wonder if she’s voting for Trump”. And circumstances such as this make me wonder how I got to this state.

woodstock-1969-photo-2There was a time back in… well, it must have been 1989 or so, when my pal Diane and I were the movies, and there was a trailer for the Sean Penn/Michael J. Fox vehicle Casualties of War. A man seated behind us had brought his young son, and the boy asked, after the trailer, “What’s war?” Diane thought that was wonderful and refreshing. I thought it was depressing, because that innocence wasn’t going to last.

How did I get to this state?

Anyway. Woodstock is a marvelous cultural document, deserving that Academy Award, and likely more aside. The trick is, apparently, not to be a miserable old bastard when you watch it.

Buy Woodstock on Amazon

Macbeth (1971)

macbethEven this has an infamous connection to my youth. Accelerated courses for gifted students began to be a thing in my high school days, and I pretty easily qualified for that (only to find that accelerated classes in anything concerning math were doing me no real favors). I was a junior that first year of what was called Alternative School, but the real fun was to be had on the senior level, where the not-surprising innovation was to combine the English and World History curriculums into a sort of mega-humanity study. The Shakespeare studied that year was Macbeth, and they rented the 1971 Polanski version of that play to show the seniors.

They did not repeat that the next year.

They probably realized that mistake in the opening credits, which proclaims it to be a Playboy Production. The snickering that accompanies that is the sound of people forgetting that yes, there actually was a time when you could “read Playboy for the articles”. Part of the so-called Playboy lifestyle was intellectualism. The most in-depth interviews of notable people, along with new fiction by Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As the Playboy Empire branched out, it was almost inevitable they would eventually attempt film production.

They would probably regret that, as Macbeth went over budget and its premiere was a massive bomb. But all this obscures what is one of the best versions of the play I have ever seen.

The Macbeths

Macbeth is one of the Bard’s most straightforward scripts; even for a tragedy, it moves forward with admirable economy. Macbeth (Jon Finch), a minor Scots nobleman, distinguishes himself in battle in an uprising against King Duncan (Nicholas Selby). Three witches prophesy he shall be king, and his wife (Francesca Annis), ambitiously sees to it that this will happen, the cost being escalating murder, madness and death.

There is so much done right in this film, it is almost mind-bending that opinion should be against it. Kenneth Tynan, the former dramaturg of The National Theatre, adapted the script, smoothing the edges of the antique language to make it more seemly to the modern ear, without damaging it. Finch and Annis are a marvelous Macbeth and Lady, but were criticized for being too young for the roles (huh). Those that clutched their pearls at the Playboy production logo had their misgivings confirmed when they discovered there was – gasp– N*U*D*I*T*Y* in their precious Shakespeare!

out dmn spotOkay, Annis does the sleepwalking “Out, out damned spot” in the altogether, but that’s pretty minor and artfully shot. If you think that Playboy is going to make Carry On Shakespeare, you are going to get nut-punched in the libido by Polanski when the first instance of nudity – even before Annis – is the witches coven when Macbeth breaks into their sabbat to demand further prophecies. Anybody watching this movie for whacking material is going to spend several years in therapy.

"Ha Haaa They'll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!"

“Ha Haaa They’ll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!”

The most vitriol against Macbeth, though, is because of the violence. Yes, we are quailing at violence in a story about assassination, mass murder and war. Those critics had probably never seen anything past an antiseptic high school production or Classics Illustrated. (If they had ever seen a production of Titus Andronicus, they would have swallowed their tongues) The most surprising, and yes, satisfying, departure from usual productions is when Macbeth is besieged in his castle by the forces of Macduff and Malcolm, which is usually handled with cost-effective efficiency. But no, Tynan and Polanski haven’t forgotten that Macbeth is a warrior know for his prowess on the battlefield, and he takes on attacker after attacker, until finally Malcolm’s footsoldiers are giving him a very wide berth. Until the vengeful Macduff (Terrence Bayler) steps up, as prophesied. The fight scenes, incidentally, are choregraphed by William Hobbs, who literally wrote the book on stage combat.

bloodPolanski doesn’t quail at throwing the red stuff around, certainly, but didn’t deserve criticism that this was the reaction to his wife Sharon Tate’s 1969 murder at the hands of the Manson Family. I mean, jeez, I have my problems with Polanski, but that is below the fucking belt.

Anyway, I am especially happy that this got the Criterion blu-ray treatment, and I finally got to see it.

Buy Macbeth on Amazon

Phase IV (1974)

phase ivSpeaking of movies that somehow managed to elude me all these years…

Phase IV is an odd mixture of science fiction and mystic philosophy. One of those planetary alignments that new age enthusiasts keep babbling about causes not a change in man, but in the ants. Different varieties of ants, previously warring with each other, begin cooperating and organize into a supercolony near an atomic testing site, creating tall, unusual structures. Enter scientist Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and graduate Lesko (Michael Murphy), set up in a high tech dome to study the situation. As funding begins to run out, Hubbs decides to push the issue by destroying the structures with a grenade launcher (and I would love to see the line item on the budget that okayed that).

phaseiv4The ant’s reprisal comes that night, not only swarming the dome, but a nearby farm. Fleeing the biting, stinging invasion, the farm’s occupants nearly make it to the dome, but Hubbs unleashes a dense fog of yellow foam pesticide, killing the family, and any ants that didn’t get away by burrowing into the family’s bodies. The daughter, Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives by hiding in the cellar of one of the mock houses in the test ground.

The face-off between Hubbs and the ants escalates, and Hubbs gets increasingly unstable, lying about radioing to get Kendra airlifted out (it doesn’t help that Hubbs got stung by the ants, and they’re apparently breeding themselves for extreme venom). The ants build mirrored mounds to direct sunlight onto the dome, and then actually sabotage the air conditioner, so all the high-tech gizmos can’t function until the middle of the night. Lesko, meanwhile, is trying to communicate with the supercolony, and may be actually succeeding – it’s going to be a race between the sun, Lesko, and Hubbs’ increasingly Ahabian desire to tackle the main mound and kill the queen.

phaseiv09This is the first and only feature directed by Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created the iconic credits of so many prominent movies, it would be ridiculous to try and list the here – just go to the IMDb page. It doesn’t have the feel of a first-time director – Bass had been working in the industry for far too long to not have something rub off on him – but it does feel strangely half-formed. The ant footage is amazing, and the storytelling within these sequences is first-rate. The human actors, though, don’t seem to have the same advantage. Hubbs is a cypher, his motivations largely opaque – maybe he read “Leiningen versus the Ants” one time too many. Poor Kendra has to wear a corset to make her look 16 years old, and constantly suppress her English accent. Lesko, at least, shows some humanity and intellectual curiosity, which is what you pay Michael Murphy for.

The movie’s end is pretty abrupt, too, mainly because Paramount cut out a hallucinatory coda that would have made the trip – so to speak – worthwhile. It’s Saul Bass echoing Kubrick’s 2001 in a way. It was rediscovered a couple of years back, and it’s unfortunate it didn’t make it onto this Olive Films blu-ray, even as an extra. Luckily, it can be found on YouTube, even if it is a cam:

Buy Phase IV on Amazon



A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part five

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Vertigo (1958)

vertigoVertigo, unfortunately, fell victim to what I call First Steak Syndrome.

That requires some explanation. Like a lot of people my age, my brain was scarred as a youth by The National Lampoon, when it was a magazine easily available on newsstands. A continuing feature was the Foto Funnies, which were lame jokes in a six-grid photo layout, which was always an excuse to show a topless model with alarmingly large breasts. The pertinent one involved the guy in bed with her (the set was almost always a bed) talking about how, if a person had never eaten a steak, but had been told all their life how incredible a steak was, how good it tasted, when that person finally had a steak, the result would inevitably be disappointment, because the steak had been so built up all their lives. The punchline was the pendulous model saying, “Not until I’m married,” but that’s not the important part. The important part is the lifelong build-up.

And this has happened to me several times in my seemingly endless catch-up on the Movies I Should Have Been Watching All This Time But Haven’t. When I watch a movie that has been praised so unanimously that it is impossible to watch it tabula rasa, that your viewing begins on the first frame with the weight of expectation pitched unnaturally high. Vertigo is, alas, one of those. It was first recommended to me highly in college, but that was when it was unavailable in any form; finally it was released again in 1984 with four other Hitchcocks that had been in rights limbo. It is heavily referenced in two of my favorite discoveries from last year, Chris Marker’s La jetee and Sans soleil. It replaced Citizen Kane as the #1 movie of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll last year, for God’s sake. Yet I am immune to its charms.

That likely also has something to do with my own relationship with Hitchcock: I’m not a big fan. There is something about his movies that distance me from the events on the screen, even as I note the craftsmanship. The one Hitchcock movie I positively adore is Psycho, and small wonder, as it is his version of a B movie, my poison of choice. So, as I watch Vertigo unspool, I am appreciative of the technique, I note that Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock were made for each other, and don’t care much beyond that.

?????????????????I guess I should say that Vertigo is the story of police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who is recovering from a nasty incident involving a chase across tenement rooftops that left a uniformed officer dead and Scottie with acrophobia and a sense of vertigo whenever heights are involved. His leave of absence is interrupted by an old school chum who begs him to follow his increasingly erratic wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by her ancestor, a woman who committed suicide a hundred years before. Of course, the two fall in love before she plunges to her death off the bell tower of an old Spanish mission, Scottie unable to stop her because of his crushing fear of heights. Then, after six months in a mental ward, Scottie sees a woman on the street who looks uncannily like his lost love…

Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who can count in their credits Diabolique and Eyes Without A Face. Unlike either of those, Vertigo rests on a conspiracy that ultimately fails because one of the conspirators makes two very stupid mistakes – well, three, really – leading to the final reveal. As a study in obsession, it is queasily great. As a mystery, not so much so.

It flopped badly when it premiered in ’58 (and is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece – sound familiar?), and a lot of blame over the years has been placed on Stewart’s shoulders. At age 50, he was thought to be too old to be playing a romantic lead to an actress literally half his age (again – sound familiar?). Hitchcock later said he thought Kim Novak was miscast (he had wanted Vera Miles), but truthfully, Novak is fine, essaying a difficult role very well.

The Conversation (1974)

resize_imageThe Conversation is another character study about an unpleasant character. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who is neurotically protective of his own privacy. As the movie opens, he is engaged in his latest job, taping the conversation of a young couple during lunchtime in a busy park. Obviously thinking they have a safe place to talk, they are blissfully unaware of the three hypersensitive microphones with sniper scopes trained on them or the man with a shopping bag and a hearing aid tailing them.

As Caul mixes these four sources to provide the clearest version of their conversation, he becomes aware that the two are having an affair, and they are fearful of the woman’s husband, almost certainly Harry’s client. Harry’s claim to fame is an impossible surveillance he somehow managed in New York several years previous, taping a conversation under such guarded circumstances that it led to a bloodbath in a corrupt union, and the torture/murder of an entire family. Haunted by his culpability, however tenuous, to that crime, the already troubled Caul begins to fear that history will repeat itself, the two lovers will be murdered, and it will once again be his fault.

The-Conversation-1The Conversation is as post-Watergate as a movie can come. Harry’s evolving paranoia is well pricked-on by Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and grimy early 70s design. The titular conversation itself was shot with several different line readings, so the actual performance changes as Harry’s attitude toward it does. Coppola has said that movies like this and his earlier The Rain People were the sort of movies he wanted to spend his life making; the fact that this would mean living in a world without The Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now puts one in the unfortunate position of being glad he didn’t get his wish. Even with a lower budget and smaller scope, the cinematography here is highly detailed and enveloping: in that first aerial shot of the crowded park, you look exactly where Coppola wants.

Gene Hackman picks this as a personal favorite among all his roles, and he does an uncomfortably good job of portraying a shabby man with a shabby soul. The cast constantly surprises, with Teri Garr, a very young Harrison Ford (in a role that was supposed to be small, but Ford so impressed Coppola he expanded it), Robert Duvall, and that Rosetta Stone of 70s cinema, John Cazale.

A bit of a tough nut to crack, but very worthwhile.

Chinatown (1974)

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressThanks to HBO, I had seen the last five minutes of Chinatown many times. It was time to catch up on the other two hours and five minutes. Besides, I had a crime thing going on.

In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate the possible infidelity of city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling, who played Ham in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, and yes, I was distracted by that bit of trivia). Gittes finds it, then is surprised to find out that the woman who hired him was not Mrs. Mulwray – that would be Faye Dunaway – and when Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy involving two very important parts of LA life – water and land.

People argue over whether Chinatown is neo-noir or just plain noir, so ably does it imitate the truly American genre from the 40s, but come now – the movie is so far removed from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity that it’s clearly a new, meaner generation of that beast. Simple human greed is always a factor in noir, but here the greed is magnified a thousandfold, the corruption on a massive, government level. Director Roman Polanski trades in dark, venetian blind-lit rooms for sun-burned Los Angeles streets and parched orchards. Previously hinted-at sexual crimes, buried in Hayes Code-constricted noir is extremely – and famously – overt here.

Generally speaking, I don’t have a good relationship with the Polanski movies I’ve seen, but Chinatown is a seriously good movie. This is the movie that elevated Jack Nicholson to a romantic lead, and Faye Dunaway just keeps cropping up in these Great Movies, doesn’t she? There’s probably a reason for that.

Easy Rider (1969)

MPW-23917I didn’t feel like yet another crime movie, so I went with more Nicholson.

Though Easy Rider isn’t truly a Nicholson movie. What it is is a remarkable bellwether in American cinema. The third-grossing movie of the year (behind Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy), it kicked off the New Hollywood with a vengeance. Like that other surprise counter-culture hit, Bonnie and Clyde, it also borrows a lot from the French New Wave.

There’s not much plot in Easy Rider, but there is a hell of a lot of earnestness. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) make a small fortune smuggling cocaine in motorcycle batteries. They buy new bikes and set out to find America, or at least make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up alcoholic ACLU lawyer George (Nicholson), and introduce him to marijuana. They pick up two hookers in the Big Easy and have an acid trip in a cemetery.  Everybody gets killed by rednecks. The end.

2077615734_0f6ef42587It’s an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued at how, without much in the way of visual effects, the trip sequence in the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery so accurately captures the LSD experience.

None of these guys were exactly strangers to Hollywood at this point, but this movie definitely – and most certainly in Nicholson’s case – brought them from the ranks of small roles and day players on TV shows to the ranks of actual Movie Stars, and not just in B pictures. Again, like Bonnie and Clyde, actual locals take many of the roles, but you can also catch young Karen Black, Toni Basil, and Luke Askew for once not playing a lunatic. Fonda is his usual straight-shooting dreamer, and Hopper has the courage to make his balancing role a paranoid jerk.

And if nothing else, Easy Rider has some arrestingly beautiful scenery played against THE BEST DAMNED MOVIE SOUNDTRACK EVER.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that roughly between Network and Some Like It Hot in our last installment, I hit a day where I was called into work a City Council meeting to cover for a co-worker, and I had to employ my second cheat: Ebert had written about three Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoons, and I watched them in the waning hours of that Wednesday. They are What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. All successfully subvert the usual template of Looney Tunes shorts, and are well-deserving of the respect shown them. There are copies available on YouTube, but are of such abysmal quality, I’m not even going to try linking them here.