Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)


Richard Rush’s 1970 Getting Straight is a key document of its era, capturing despite all its flaws a feverish drive for self-expression, drawing on the momentum of the civil rights and other social movements, and the existential threat of the Vietnam draft. In the film’s protagonist Harry (Elliott Gould), a Vietnam veteran now back in college, the movement finds a chaotic focal point, with Harry to some extent suppressing his own sympathies for the sake of getting through the process and becoming a teacher (even if he can barely explain why he's bothering), even as his personal insecurities and challenges manifest themselves in almost constant abrasiveness. Much of this display now looks misogynistic and homophobic, with Harry for example throwing off the low incidence of homosexuality in Arizona as one of the state’s great virtues, and ultimately suffering a dramatic meltdown when pressured to buy into a particular interpretation of The Great Gatsby; even less palatable is his constant belittlement of his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) (for which, despite all his remaining challenges, the movie ultimately lets him off the hook). Likewise, we’re apparently encouraged to share Harry’s view that the creation of a Black Studies department, on which a group of students are focused, wouldn’t amount to much of anything – his tossed-off remark that he was at Selma seems like a flippant way of throwing him some moral authority in this respect. The film’s view of social possibilities seems rather amusingly limited now, with a standardized life in the suburbs held up as a kind of default state to be consciously resisted. Still, the film has lots of probingly intelligent writing, and its rambunctious energy persists, with compelling scenes of confrontation between police and protestors; it may be an emblematic time capsule movie, but one conveying a transferable sense of the “fierce urgency of now,” of the hunger to rise against complacency.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sois belle et tais-toi (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)

 

The title of Delphine Seyrig’s Sois belle et tais-toi! establishes its core purpose – to present a cross-section of the experiences of female actors and thereby to bring out the industry’s male-dominated complacency. The whimsical selection of interviewees (22 in all) places Oscar-winning giants (Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley MacLaine – although MacLaine’s footage appears to have been obtained from another source, and sits rather uncomfortably in this context) with others who had few film credits at the time, or since, a diversity in security and opportunity that arguably outweighs the points of commonality. With an average overall time allocation of just over 5 minutes each (some get more, some much less), it’s inevitable too that the emphasis is mostly on the anecdotal and impressionistic, which (along with the extremely unadorned photography and title design) is the source of much of the film’s eccentric charm, and its objective limitations. For example, several speakers cite the likes of Newman and Redford and McQueen as examples of careers and opportunities generally denied to women, but then it’s also true that the vast majority of male actors were no less excluded from such rarified heights. Still, it remains rather poignant to see several of them racking their brains when trying to remember if they ever spent any meaningful non-adversarial screen time with another woman. There’s plenty more there too for in-the-know viewers, such as Fonda’s sadly hilarious account of Fred Zinnemann’s neurotic approach to making Julia, or Juliet Berto critiquing Rivette’s Celine and Julie go Boating (the notion of female directors is cited only briefly). The last word goes to Burstyn, widening the scope somewhat by positing that the momentum belongs to women and that the future of the planet depends on it, on its own terms a harmlessly overreaching piece of rhetoric which comes across here as a final touch of whimsicality.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)

 

Comanche Station was the last of the seven films that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together, and represents the collaboration at its most breathtakingly minimal and at times moving. Once again, Scott’s hero (in this case labeled Jefferson Cody) rides alone, for reasons rooted in tragic loss; once again there’s a woman in peril (in this case rescued from her Comanche captors, the object being to return her to her husband); once again paths are crossed with more venal antagonists focused on collecting the reward for themselves (which entails, once again, a transactional aspect to the placement of the woman, both in terms of the bounty attached to her, and in how the men use their interactions with her as a reference point for assessing masculinity). This might all be slighted as limited variations on a narrow theme, but in Boetticher’s hands the repetition takes on a mythic grandeur, as if obsessively shuffling and sifting through the pieces in search of an elusive perfection (in this sense, if in no other, they may bring to mind Raffaello Matarazzo’s series of pictures with Yvonne Sanson). Comanche Station draws set-ups and exchanges from its predecessors (including the final showdown with the primary villain, played by Claude Akins) with little variation, but with only five main characters, the process of honing down feels almost complete, and the woman’s ultimate return to her family is transcendent. The film has a particularly stark existential charge, mulling on the meagre tangible rewards of living a lawful life rather than a criminal one, embodied in the young Dobie (a quietly heartrending Richard Rust), who yearns to be righteous and justified, but finds himself stranded in a world that hardly allows it. That’s just one aspect of the otherness that defines the Scott-Boetticher cycle; there’s little attempt here to engage with the motivations of the Comanche, and the perspective on women is severely limiting, however quaintly noble.