Friday, 12 August 2011

Short Reviews # 3: Other Stuff

(Susan Seidelman, 1982)

Back when I started this blog you probably wouldn’t have put good odds on my praising a movie by one of the creators of the ‘Sex & The City’ franchise, but here we all are to witness me reporting that Susan Seidelman’s independently financed debut ‘Smithereens’ is an absolute blast.

Of the various movies that have leapfrogged their way to ‘cult favourite’ status by capturing the spirit of New York in its magical and volatile late 70s/early 80s prime, ‘Smithereens’, which was shot over a two year period in the East Village, strikes me as one of the most vivid, its low budget and vérité intent giving the film ‘time capsule appeal’ to die for, as Seidelman’s camera tears freely through the streets, apartments, junkyards and nightclubs, largely free of permits or fabrication. It would have been really funny if she’d bumped into Abel Ferrara making ‘Driller Killer’, and they’d ended up in the background of each other’s movies. I’d like to think it was a near miss.

Anyway, first-time screen actress Susan Berman is bottled dynamite here, doing very little acting one suspects as Wren, a perpetually wired proto-Ghost World girl / New Wave refugee in mini-dress and oversized shades, plastering xeroxes of her face onto every available surface as she tries to find a place for herself in the life of the city – both literally and figuratively – and desperately clinging on to any hint of cool or fame.

Richard Hell presumably didn’t need to search too far for his motivation either, portraying a fading, manipulative sleazeball rock singer in what is easily a career-best performance, and our vague love triangle is completed by Brad Rjin, blank as a slate as an itinerant kid from the Mid-West, sleeping in his VW van in a junkyard en route to wherever life happens to takes him.

If ‘Smithereens’ has one drawback, it’s the rather wishy-washy proto-indie melodrama at the heart of the storyline. Seidelman may have had ‘The 400 Blows’ or ‘Bande A Part’ in mind (fresh from film school, the movie’s style and pacing hits those nouvelle vague buttons dead on), but in truth her aimless, drifting characters and their subdued semi-relationships seem more like a blueprint for the kind of sub-Slackerish solipsism that Hollywood started injecting into it’s rom coms and youth dramas in the mid-‘90s tot try to nab a mythical Gen X audience. I dunno why, but I kept thinking ‘Reality Bites’, and then feeling a bit ill.

But that’s small fry really – the strength of the lead performances, and the more genuine desperation that overtakes Berman’s character as the film progresses, keeps us on-message, and what really matters here is that, like its ‘60s inspirations, ‘Smithereens’ is a movie practically exploding with life, every scene dragging us through strange places full of singular people, bright colours and unexpected outbursts of energy and human connection, the camera rushing to keep up with the antics of a charismatic heroine who never hits the ‘OFF’ switch.

The soundtrack is killer too, much of it provided by Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, who formed perennial indie faves The Feelies off the back of the music they initially recorded for this film, and early versions of tracks that went on to form the bulk of their debut album ‘Crazy Rhythms’ sound brilliant here, more fierce and anxious than they ever did on the LP – the perfect accompaniment for watching our frazzled heroine tearing round the chaotic New York streets. Meanwhile, whatever was left of Hell’s Voidoids by the dawn of the ‘80s provide ‘Kid With the Replaceable Head’, one of his best post-Blank Generation tunes, and there’s some great use of ESG’s timeless ‘Moody’ to enjoy too.

There’s so much great incidental stuff in this movie that lives on in the mind after viewing: Rjin sharing a sandwich with a hooker on a cold night, and her king-of-the-junkyard pimp popping up at regular intervals, making increasingly menacing offers to buy his van. Berman desperately trying to muscle into her weak-willed friend’s already woefully over-crowded shared apartment. Hell’s sleazoid punk flatmate trying to put the moves on said weak-willed friend. Just nice little scenes, y’know? Slice of life stuff, but from a way of life that seems strange and special to us now.

Despite its sometimes hokey relationship dramas, there is a raw spirit to ‘Smithreens’ that easily puts it in the top tier of independent American filmmaking from this era. I don’t usually go much on film festival accolades, but it’s no accident that every release of this movie can proudly claim it as “the first American independent film to be selected for Cannes”, and it’s easy to see why Seidelman was on board soon afterwards for Madonna’s ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, in many ways a bigger budget reiteration of the style and themes of this film.

The Jokers
(Michael Winner, 1967)

I don’t know if anyone can help me out here, but: what IS the deal with Michael Winner? I mean, just the way he managed to crank out dozens of films through the ‘60s and ‘70s, working with some of the era’s most renowned actors on expensive studio films that explored a range of potentially interesting subject matter, and yet… they’re pretty much all crap. And I mean, prior to ‘Deathwish’, he never even had a commercial hit, insofar as I can tell. How did he keep on getting the budgets? Why did people want to work with him? Who knows.

I don’t say this because I hold some personal grudge against the man – after all, some of the greatest directors in history were similarly insufferable blowhards - but simply because I’ve yet to see a film by him that hasn’t been a cack-handed disappointment of one kind or another. Case in point: ‘The Jokers’, in which Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford play a pair of indolent aristocratic brothers who devise a fool-proof plan to steal the Crown Jewels and subsequently return them, thus making a mockery of the English establishment and cementing themselves as heroes of the counter-culture and popular press. Zany hi-jinks and tense, Italian Job-style heist capers ensure, set against a backdrop of authentic Swinging London decadence, with screenplay assistance from future sit-com savants Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

What could possibly go wrong? I mean from a start like that my dog could probably make a good movie, and I don’t even have a dog. And yet, Winner somehow manages to turn in a picture that is singularly unlovable. It’s not *awful* as such – Reed and Crawford are reliably brilliant, as are many of the familiar faces in the supporting cast, and there’s enough going on to make for pleasantly diverting viewing if you happened to catch it on TV on a rainy afternoon, but each opportunity to turn the film into the madcap pop art masterpiece it truly should be is shamefully bungled.

Winner’s directorial style here is ugly and rather lumpen, favouring awkwardly framed close-ups and jerky jump cuts over wider, more visually inviting compositions, whilst the kind of local colour and random magnificence that usually livens up even second rate films shot in ‘60s London is singularly lacking amid a succession of drab interiors and party scenes that look like suburban wedding receptions. The city location shooting is pretty good, with chaotic crowd scenes are quite convincingly orchestrated, but even here… London just looks like London, y’know?

Simple though the film’s story is, the plot ends up tripping over itself, slowing down the final act as characters rehash the same details and arguments again and again to no very satisfactory conclusion. There are a few good lines and capers reminiscent of Clement & La Frenais’ better TV work, but if the best thing you can say about a feature film is that bits of it might pass muster in an episode of ‘The Likely Lads’, well… I’ve leave you to finish that sentence.

Worst of all though is that rather than offering any critique of his privileged, self-satisfied and generally dislikeable protagonists, Winner seems to invite us to identify with them as loveable rogues – a disjuncture that can’t help but invite comparison to the director’s own boorish public persona. In fact, the whole film seems to have a particularly nasty strain of low key misogyny running through it, as most obviously expressed in the character of Reed’s Swedish girlfriend, whose lack of English vocabulary is seen to render her a childish simpleton, as the brothers forcibly exclude her from their conversations whilst we in the audience are invited to roll our eyes at her ‘idiotic’ pronouncements. Englishmen in ‘60s movies – and in ‘60s real life I daresay - could get away with a lot of bad behaviour if they had a bit of charm and charisma, but Winner and co seem to have forgotten that latter half of the equation here, giving us a pair of heroes who just seem like conceited oafs waiting for a fall that never comes.

I’m probably exaggerating the negative aspects of the film somewhat – it’s honestly not that bad – it has some good set-piece scenes and is passably entertaining on a basic lizard-brain level. If it’s ever on TV during that aforementioned rainy afternoon it’s probably worth a shot, but like most of Winner’s films, it could have been so much more.

The Hired Hand
(Peter Fonda, 1971)

It’s been over six months since I saw this Peter Fonda directed western at a BFI Flipside screening, and whilst it’s not exactly a ‘drop everything’ life-changer, I still regularly find myself reflecting on how much I liked it.

Beginning as an archetypal ‘hippie western’, it doesn’t take much effort to project a post-Easy Rider resonance onto the tale of Fonda, his best buddy Warren Oates, and a more impetuous younger companion slowly cruising around the American wilderness, idly dreaming of one day making it to California. From the outset, Fonda proves a far more accomplished director than anyone might have expected, exhibiting an almost Terrence Malick-like sense of scope and meditative detail, greatly aided by Vilmos Zsigmond.’s photography, which is so beautiful here it almost brings tears to the eyes, particularly in a stunning psychedelic sequence of swirling, superimposed, sun-drenched landscape shots. Pretty far-out, but striking and unexpected enough to avoid seeming like a goofy period cliché, whilst Bruce Langhorne’s extraordinary soundtrack of droning, Sandy Bull-esque guitar provides a perfect an accompaniment to the visuals, prefiguring both Neil Young’s ‘Dead Man’ score and the expansive rural minimalism of the late Jack Rose’s playing in his group Pelt. Too much, man!

Things take a rather different turn though after Fonda and Oates’ young friend is murdered during a bad night in an unfriendly frontier outpost, prompting Fonda to decide he should face up to his responsibilities and return to the homestead he abandoned seven years ago to go a-wonderin’. The look of anger and resignation in the eyes of his wife (Verna Bloom), contrasted with sight of free-spirited Oates saddling up his horse to head off into the sunset, tells us everything we need to know about the bind this swiftly aging young man finds himself in.

Given that Fonda made this film at the same time that he and his New Hollywood contemporaries were living lives of unparalleled freedom and alpha-male excess, stroking their egos with monstrous works of creative craziness, I was surprised and rather impressed by ‘The Hired Hand’s formal restraint and concentration on simple human drama, and even more so by the way that it sees Fonda offering a persuasive critique of his lifestyle as a Hollywood-hippie playboy, consciously exploring the issues of personal responsibility often faced by men of his age and, generally, coming up with the right answers.

One of the things that is most remarkable about ‘The Hired Hand’ is its frankness in addressing the relationship between Fonda and Oates. Considering that Bloom is the female lead in what is still ostensibly a Hollywood film, her character is portrayed as a surprisingly unattractive figure, whilst the camera’s ‘gaze’ lingers a lot more persuasively on the male leads. As Fonda and Oates swagger around in their fashionably threadbare jeans n’ spurs looking like they’re out for a night picking up chicks at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, Bloom wears the drab, shapeless garments of a genuine agricultural homesteader, her face drawn and prematurely aged, looking like she actually has spent seven years performing back-breaking labours as a single parent in the unforgiving Texas sun. Far from a caricature of a needy/victimised wife though, her character is gifted with a sharp emotional intelligence, and wastes no time in clocking the relationship between the two men, asking her ‘husband’ (if indeed he is able to regain that title after so long in the wilderness) in no uncertain terms whether he wouldn’t be happier sharing a sleeping bag with Warren under the stars than spending the night in her bed.

With the elephant in the room thus revealed, a violent revenge plot emerges from outside to force a conclusion to the three characters’ emotional stand-off, and the film essentially becomes a platonic love story between the two men, with Bloom playing Jules to Oates’ Jim, so to speak. In fact, the shadow of Truffaut’s masterpiece hangs heavy over ‘The Hired Hand’, sharing its deeply rooted humanism and unconventionally honest approach to human relationships, as well as its slow-building sense of tragedy.

Oh, and there’s also some cool stuff with people getting shot and guys riding horses and such, in case you were wondering.

A very good film indeed in my estimation, I think wider recognition and a new audience for ‘The Hired Hand’ would be richly deserved. (Tartan did a big 2-disc DVD release a few years back that you can now get dirt cheap, incidentally.) I certainly won’t be thinking of Peter Fonda as just a pretty face from now on, that’s for sure.


Roger said...

Hi, Ben,

Re Winner: remember that the period he worked was the post-studio era - pre-film-brat-young-turks 1970s and he was always only workmanlike, stuck in the changing heady '60s without the luxury or berth of being supported at the same location or producers over many years. He probably had to take on most jobs that came his way. Like Richard Fleisher, his work is in commercial genres and is usually good enough for what was asked of him. Sometimes some art shone through. His run with Bronson culminating in Death Wish was the perfect match for a handful of films and the reason for our interest, but it was a B-genre/action film as well. Of course, he ended up at Cannon, which is where the level of his craft in the 1980s could only ultimately survive.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and there’s also some cool stuff with people getting shot and guys riding horses and such, in case you were wondering. PHEW!

Ben said...

Yeah, there's a few bits of good 'Western' stuff in 'Hired Hand'... if maybe not quite so much as the poster I've used suggests.

Roger: sorry for the delay in replying to your comment! Thanks for your thoughts. For the record, I don't really expect Winner to be any kind of 'artist', but I find even as a straight up genre filmmaker his stuff usually falls really flat.

Then again though, I've not actually seen any of his run with Bronson (only stuff like 'The Jokers', 'The Big Sleep', 'The Sentinal'), so maybe that's where I'm going wrong...?

I did see 'Death Wish' on TV as a kid, and even then it seemed really offensive and stupid, but maybe there's a kinda humour / gonzo spirit to it I might appreciate a bit more as a grown-up, who knows..?