Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)


The title of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle subtly points to the film's structuring displacement –  it identifies Eddie as its central point, played by its biggest star by far (Robert Mitchum), but concerns itself as much with the chains of connection around him, to the point that Eddie ultimately becomes more notable as absence than presence. He’s a habitual criminal, looking to avoid pending prison time, even at the cost of giving people up to the police – first the ones he doesn’t care about, and then even those he does - but his view of the big picture, and of his own place within it, is fatally limited. The film is populated with risk-aware characters trying to shore up their positions, posturing and pushing others around, but often still misjudging the real threats – it’s full of subtly tragic ironies and inter-dependencies. But if the constant transacting of guns and information almost verges at times on self-contained abstraction, the film provides sufficient evidence of the brutal tangibility with which this activity intersects with the real world, depicting a series of bank robberies (carried out with guns channeled through Eddie) in forensic detail. The film’s audaciously desolate climactic stretch has Eddie failing in his final play, and gradually fading from the movie and from life itself, becoming drunk and incoherent and lost in a hockey game crowd, his subsequent death shown with chilling offhandedness, treated largely just as a training exercise between experienced and novice killers; in the final low-key scene between two of those “friends,” his death is barely even worth dwelling on. Mitchum is ideally cast, allowed a rare opportunity to evoke a life and a history that don't run out at the edges of the frame, his wife and kids briefly but astutely depicted, marooned outside the community of “friends” that wearily propels his fate.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)


It’s hopeless at this point to try saying anything new about Godard’s Breathless, and yet of all films it still feels like the one that might most be written about, or rather responded to, whether in words or celluloid or gestures or dreams, still in possession of a space all its own, where established orders of classical cinema and post-war American exceptionalism and gender relations and social correctness are in their different ways teetering or fraying or morphing, to be abandoned or appropriated depending on their adaptability. One could rhapsodize over every moment, but the dying run of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is as worth singling out as any – a defiantly absurd cinematic flourish, but with real life (or “real life”) all too obviously continuing on each side of the street, people going about their business apparently oblivious to, or unmoved by, the gorgeous history-making charade taking place within feet of them, and yet preserved for posterity whether they know it or not, a moment of their life rendered transcendent even as they looked the other way. One could speak of so much of the movie in similar terms – it shimmers with a constant sense of delighted experimentation, of trying poses and attitudes on for size, of relishing the sound of new words and the look of new faces, of creating and immediately fully occupying fresh cinematic space, of happy accidents (the resonances attaching to Jean Seberg prime among them). One almost feels protective of her and the movie, knowing that Godard would so quickly move on – for all Michel’s immense charisma (and Belmondo here is one of the all-time great alluring screen presences, and he and Seberg one of cinema’s all-time fascinating couples), he expresses himself worn out by the film’s end, ready to yield if circumstances would have allowed (if a friend hadn’t thrown him a gun), a capitulation that seems like Godard’s own acknowledgement of territory already defined and conquered.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)


John Huston’s The Unforgiven provides some early images of pure relish, the three frontier-dwelling Zachary brothers high on the imminent prospect of material wealth, with several references to the sexual gratification that might follow, dynastically plotting to cement through several possible variations of inter-marriage their ties with the neighboring Rawlins clan. The fourth Zachary sibling, adopted daughter Rachel, seems in her impulsiveness and vibrancy both more modern and more primal than the others, a duality that becomes suspicious to the surrounding settler community when a mysterious old man claims that her ancestry is Native American (in the film’s terminology, Kiowa Indian); once the word is out, the Kiowa steps up its hostility and the community starts to fracture from fear, suspicion and prejudice. In the end, the four siblings are left standing among the ruins of their home and business, the family’s coherence apparently having survived the ordeal, but the movie provides little scope for optimism about its prospects of recovering its external bonds and standing, or about those of the country being built around them. Huston’s delighted engagement with actors reaches a kind of zenith here, pushing Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster to the point of frenzied excess at times, and surely enjoying the contrast with Lillian Gish as the mother, a portrait in severe perseverance; it’s Gish who’s at the centre of some of the film’s most haunting (and we’re encouraged at times to read events in almost supernatural terms, as if the layers of myths and past traumas standing in the way of progress were ever lurking in spectral form) moments, playing on a grand piano out in the open to counter the ominous music coming from their adversaries, or unilaterally ending an in-progress “trial” by shoving the horse away, ensuring that the defendant will end up hanging from the noose, uttering no more truth nor lies.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)


Watched shortly after the welcome ending of the Trump years, the most prominent topical reference point for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain might be Qanon, a swirling, ever-renewing theory of everything, in which its adherents claim (however sad their disillusionment) to transcend the lying confines of conventional understanding (the main narrative follows a group of powerful individuals, each associated with one of the planets, that comes together to acquire ultimate power). Of course, the comparison is unfair to the ecstatic and (in their way) deeply-sourced aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, but the film is, by some measures at least, so (as they say) out there that it’s hard for the uneducated viewer to separate meaning from opportunism. It certainly impresses as an exercise in physically committed movie-making – pressing tigers and hippos into action for the sake of one or two shots, marshaling a series of staggering crowd scenes, a parade of amazing sets and other design elements and any number of logistically impressive shots (it’s staggering that the budget was apparently under $1 million); it also has a constant parade of nudity, mostly of an impersonally ceremonial kind of nature, summing up the absence of much that feels authentically human, or relevantly rooted in contemporary experience (leaving aside its various satirical aspects, for example its parodies of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, which although overdone at least further demonstrate the scope of Jodorowsky’s imagination). The surprisingly offhand nature of the ending seems on the one hand unequal to the involved quest that led up to it, but on the other hand asserts the film’s most direct connection with its audience, an implicit invitation to take from it what we wish and discard the rest. Still, even though one could list the movie’s points of interest almost indefinitely, it all ultimately feels less illuminating or potentially transformative than any number of far more modest, earthbound works.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Airport (George Seaton, 1970)


George Seaton’s Airport is a pretty damn irresistible entertainment machine, a portrait of society strewn with personal failure and dissatisfaction, the trajectory of which is nevertheless toward exceptionalism. It anticipates the present-day decline of American infrastructure in how its Lincoln Airport is governed by low-vision local politicians more worried about local interests and short-term cost considerations than looking ahead to the future; the more far-sighted general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the emblematic figurehead whom everyone both relies upon and second-guesses. Bakersfeld specifically refers to himself as a kind of bigamist, the first and official family all but broken and the second consisting of his work; other main characters manifest similar tensions, home life coming second to lovers, or blocked runways, or unattainable goals, reaching its apex in Van Heflin’s Guerrero, overwhelmed by psychological and economical problems, evolving the desperate plan to blow himself up on an aircraft so his wife might at least reap an insurance windfall; the final scene of his wife (Maureen Stapleton), consumed by unprocessable shame, may provide the film’s most raw, uncontainable emotion. At the end of the day, the narrative resolves the most immediate problems with a relative lack of grandstanding, and while the film is hardly a character study, it has a somewhat greater interest in its people, even at their most briefly-glimpsed, than the genre typically demonstrates. The dialogue frequently emphasizes airplane durability and capacity (Boeing even receives a specific grateful shout-out), radiating little doubt that even the most lurid rupture will be purged (perhaps literally by being sucked out into space) and that equilibrium will be restored, even if that may entail some reshuffling of domestic arrangements. Among the relish-inducing cast, Oscar-winning Helen Hayes is less the draw now than Jean Seberg, in her most prominent late movie, embodying a model of supportive professionalism, her complex personal resonances in no way drawn upon.