Saturday, April 28, 2018

Target (Arthur Penn, 1985)

During his rather brief but glorious heyday, Arthur Penn seemed incapable of generating a merely functional scene; his work was at once thrillingly intimate and engaged and yet full of weighted, often melancholy implication. His work has the quality of a cinematic barometer - at its most vivid in the sixties; silent for much of the misbegotten seventies and then disillusioned and wayward; and then never fully himself from the eighties onward, as if America had lost its power to stimulate. Target is no doubt one of his least-cherished films, although by some measures (the more conventional ones) it's among his most proficient - it's seamlessly plotted, compellingly paced and entirely on top of its action scenes, especially the car chases. Gene Hackman's Walter Lloyd is a small-town lumber yard owner, so boring he won't even accompany his wife on a European vacation, until she disappears and he heads over with his son (Matt Dillon) in search of her: the first dead body shows up at the baggage claim, heralding Walter's past identity as a CIA Cold War super-operative, the detritus of which now provides a resurgent threat. Hackman is surely in tune with the broader idea, that however much the 80's might have seemed like a time of settling and resignation, nothing had been resolved; the surface might still crack both for worse (undermining all concepts of stability and predictability) and for better (Walter's resurrection of his buried self, and the consequent rewrite of his relationship with his son, portends a healthier and more vibrant future for the family). It’s no surprise of course that the peril turns out to be caused by rot within the system, by duplicity and weak character. I suppose the degree to which you think the climactic fire symbolizes a broader possibility of cleansing might depend on how optimistic you felt at the time about peak-Reaganism. But it seems certain that the younger Penn would have found stranger and groovier patterns in the flames.

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