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"How are you gonna write about life if you don't live it a little?"
I've always felt a real attraction to the early heyday of 1970s-80s television movies. Often, and perhaps at their best, they were adaptations of novels or screenplays deemed either too low-key for cinema or uncomplicated enough to manage on a small budget. Something like "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank" is an ideal example of both. It plays very much like a pilot for a TV series, and as far as family comedy/drama shows go, it would have made a very good one.
It's an easy film to believe, though everything is secondary to the roles of Carol Burnett and Charles Grodin. Burnett is busy channeling elements of everything she played on her 11-year variety show, and it works well in the framework of sarcastic dialogue. She plays it up a bit like a screwball comedy, but it works because she's just as believable in dramatic scenes. Grodin is convincing playing what tended to be a very typical role for him the bemused, confused, slightly put-upon straight man. There's good humor in the gentle absurdity.
In fact, gentle absurdity would be a good enough summary of the film. It's not too sad or too funny, but it IS funny and it's familiar. There's a steady anxiety, and a lot of social humor. Like life in general, you laugh at what you know, and get on with things. While in no way being about anything big, "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank" convincingly shows you small slices of life and at the risk of being sarcastic (though still keeping with the mood), some cut deeper than others.
Brother John (1971)
What about hope, what about love?
I stumbled over this film quite by accident. I've always been fascinated by Sidney Poitier for his stony dignified demeanor and Will Geer for his irrepressible amiability (even if playing the villain). When I saw that they'd both appeared together in this production, I was curious.
"Brother John" is an extremely eclectic film. The genre of drama/sci-fi just about says it all, all while saying next to nothing. Sure, that's basically what it is... a strange combination of small-town drama, mixed with a dark and murky undertone. The writing is completely honest to both ends of the spectrum, all while explaining less than it suggests. The screenwriter, Ernest Kinoy, tells a tale that is murky yet surprising straightforward. The qualities of racial tension (a common theme of Poitier films) and the aspect of striking workers (a recurring plot point of Will Geer's life) might explain what drew the two stars to the script, and that's the corporeal backbone of the story.
"Brother John" does not play at being a big film, and in spite of its incredible deftness in acting and direction, I'm not terribly surprised by its obscurity. There is no way whatsoever to pigeonhole the plot, and at times, even particularly understand what's going on. In a strange twist, I realized about halfway through that all of the vaguely fantastic elements could have been excised (even as late as in the editing room) and it still would have been a highly serviceable drama about life in the American south.
But, instead, "Brother John" takes a sharp left turn. The title character (played by Poitier) is painted as a strange harbinger of death, like a raven on a fencepost. His identity is never fully explained. Is he the grim reaper, the angel of death, some sort of globe-trotting serial killer? These questions were answered to my satisfaction by the conclusion, but other viewers may not be so pleased, and some will leave feeling completely unfulfilled.
What moved me most was, unexpectedly, the direction and cinematography. James Goldstone, the director, has a surprisingly comfortable relationship with his surroundings. There is little attempt to force framing, to relocate interfering objects, or to stage shots in an unnatural way. His actors move in-behind lamps, tree branches, and the camera makes little attempt to circumvent them, unconcerned at being anything but an observer. Just the same, Goldstone has a brilliant sense of composition in the way he slips into deep, almost uncomfortable close-ups, then back to wide, languidly casual views of the whole room or outdoor space. He seems to be letting his actors do what they please, whatever gets the feeling across most honestly. A lot of this hinges on the dim, comforting cinematography of Gerald Perry Finnerman, who underlights almost everything, getting across a strong sense of warmth.
You might call "Brother John" a mystery, and as I leave my thoughts on a film that few remember, I'm struck by the final questions in the dialogue. What about hope, what about love? Is it enough in the face of everything evil? Do we deserve what we've got? Well, we've got it, so it's up to us to live up to it... and maybe that's the real theme of this.
Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977)
The Capital of Canada is "C"
I grew up in rural Canada, in a small middle-class household that was a little bit on the old-fashioned side. Dramas like these were part of the experience when all you had was access to CBC television and a small selection of video tapes. Although I never caught this one in particular as a child, it would have been perfectly welcome.
It's hard to picture why exactly a film like "Why Shoot the Teacher?" has been so well-forgotten over the years. Something in the lack of initial distribution no doubt, which seems to be the lot of nearly all Canadian films of this era. It's based on a book by Max Braithwaite, and it feels very much like a true story, though there's a chance I suppose that it isn't. Silvio Narizzano directs it to life with a looseness and a real live humanity.
The acting is undoubtedly what gives this film its energy, and Bud Cort is better than I've ever seen him. In a similar sense as Charles Martin Smith's character in "Never Cry Wolf" he portrays a truly charming combination of naiveté and forced confidence. It's that painfully forced bravery that saves him in the end. This film could serve as a lesson in how much difference overcoming even the smallest percentage of personal fears can make in your life.
There is a lightness to "Why Shoot the Teacher?", a faithful depiction with just enough weight to keep it all from blowing away. I felt it moving through me, lifting my head and softening my heart. It's something to be thankful for, this gentle little thing.
The Grey Fox (1982)
"You're not worth killing."
It's hard to describe the weight of silence. The early 1980s was a strong time for that feeling on film. Frank Tidy's cinematography here is somewhat reminiscent of what he did on Ridley Scott's "The Duellists". It's a world where the most meaningful things seem to happen on foggy mornings, during rain storms, and on cloudy days. It's a very dark film, this one. Not so much for its content, but for its visuals. It's muddy, damp, and late in the season.
The story itself is full of hope and longing. Everywhere you turn, there is sadness and joy, and the grand dark feeling of emptiness that fills a late Autumn day. Richard Farnsworth creates a character with a pained and gentle humanity. Bill Miner isn't some angry old man. He's the most calm and collected individual in any given scene. It's a depiction with far more truth and beauty than you would ever expect in the story of a train robber. Farnsworth got far too few chances at a stunning starring role, but this may be the best he ever had. He's something of a wonder to behold. Most of the other performances are adequate, but unspectacular. Jackie Burroughs stands out, though. She is deeply alive and engaged throughout.
Phillip Borsos never really got the chance to direct a film this good again, but his grasp of atmosphere turned "The Mean Season" and "Bethune" into something much better than they would have been in the hands of most. What he did here, at the age of 27, is both admirable and life-changing. The depth of understanding he displays about the human race is valuable, and I'm well-pleased to have had the chance to experience it.
The Nickel Ride (1974)
the shadows swallow your reflection
"The Nickel Ride" is all about mood. There's a nearly-constant feeling a dread in the air. From the first scene, you get the terrifying sensation that something bad is going to happen, and that anything to the contrary is a fleeting illusion. Cooper (played by Jason Miller) is supposedly a guy who everyone likes, but it soon becomes clear that no one respects him. Maybe it's because he stopped fighting a long time ago, back when his apathy buried his anger. There's a sense of hope in him, though, but that just makes him a target. He's in a line of work that perceives anything but the iron fist as a sign of weakness - and it's these desperate days that the opening scene drops us into. Out of a nearly-waking dream, like a mirror of Miller's first film "The Exorcist", he sees something coming that's more a thing of impeding doom than that of direct prophecy.
It's a somewhat atypical film for director Robert Mulligan. He was more one for straightforward dramas, rarely tackling a subdued loner-driven narrative like this. This is also an early original script for Eric Roth, who is certainly treading much more uncomplicated ground than on his later stories. He's written something that can be carried completely by performances. "The Nickel Ride" doesn't reach very far, so it's not totally capable of the sort of staying power that keeps other 1970s classics in our minds. But the powerful uneasy feeling and the performance of Jason Miller makes it something special. This is a curious, angry, scared little alleycat of a film.
The New Centurions (1972)
shot to the gut
Stacy Keach and George C. Scott star in this very gritty, very honest portrayal of early-70s police life. It's directed by Richard Fleischer, who usually worked on much flashier material than this. I've seen a lot of films that dug in and tried to paint a clear image of police life, but this story brings a level of realism that is somewhat missing in most cases - it was written by a cop (Joseph Wambaugh).
"The New Centurions" is a title that hints at a much deeper perspective into familiar territory. Even though all the suspected clichés are still somewhat in place, they're there out of reality rather than just filling space in a movie plot. George C. Scott's character is on his way to retirement, but instead of him not making it, he takes a much darker path. It's that darker path, and the sense of hope behind it, that informs both Scott and Keach in their fantastic performances. They're as good as they'd ever been here - deep, powerful, and incredibly personal. There's a real emotional vulnerability on display that can't be denied.
"Ham, Eggs, and Coffee"
It's surprising how "Alambrista!" has slipped into near-total oblivion after being shown at Cannes and receiving some measure of admiration there. But it seems to have never enjoyed a release on VHS, and hasn't appeared on DVD until quite recently. It's a shame, because this film serves as a very piercing, close-up examination of the life of an illegal immigrant.
Robert M. Young has made a number of daring and unusual films in his career, off-center stories with characters most people wouldn't notice. In "Short Eyes" it was a young pedophile in prison, and in "Dominick and Eugene" he focused on the everyday life of a mentally retarded man. Here, he takes a deep trip into the underbelly of American society, a side most of us will never come close to seeing. "Alambrista!" is a basic tale, one that Young penned himself (it was the only film he'd ever both write and direct). It's uncomplicated, but not untrue. There's a familiar 1970s documentary approach, up close and personal, and it serves things well. Also doing his own cinematography, Young is very much in on the action.
Domingo Ambriz plays Roberto, a quiet and not entirely bright Mexican man. He's very kind, but completely innocent of cities and American life. It's a heartfelt performance, and it has to be. Everything hinges on his believability. Linda Gillen is very good as the waitress Sharon, also a rather innocent personality. The characters come almost secondary, because we don't get too far beneath their skin. This isn't an internal, mental film - it's a silent observation of things. Take a close look.
the sound of death knocking
Not a lot of people have seen this one. It's like a lot of other films about teachers in an uphill struggle against apathetic or difficult students. They all seem to be set in inner-city environments, but "Conrack" has a different approach - it takes you down south, out to an isolated island just off the coast of South Carolina. It helps that this is a true story (or as true as a film adapted from a book adapted from real life can be).
Martin Ritt was a very good director, known mainly for "Hud", which he did about ten years prior. Jon Voight has never been more charismatic than this, he's like a shining beacon of inspiration throughout the film. You really believe that he believes every word he is saying, and that adds a ton of weight to his character. I really enjoyed Hume Cronyn here, he's somehow mischievous without being friendly, serious and a little bit mean. It's a great characterization.
The passion in Voight's sparkling eyes seems to be more than what carries the film. It's a great story, and a fantastic reflection of Pat Conroy's writing. The story is powerful, convincing, and exceptionally inspiring.
People vs. Politicians
A documentary film about one of the endless and countless failed attempts at attaining the presidency wouldn't normally catch my attention. But I bought this one on a whim a couple years back and finally decided to watch it today. It turns out that Shirley Chisholm wasn't your typical politician out there vying for control of the country. I don't mean that in the sense that she was both black and female (though it certainly factored significantly in 1972), but in a purely ideological respect. She didn't have much interest in the standard nonsense, the buying and trading of votes, and totally rejected the notion that you should support anyone but who you believed in. In her world, there were no compromises for the greater good, there was just the good and that's that. It's that purity of approach which has made it impossible for anyone with a similarly deep conviction and honesty to ever be elected to the highest American office.
From a documentary film perspective, it's the content and not the direction that makes "Chisholm '72" stand out. The approach is clean and well-researched, and everyone of importance gets their chance to speak. That doesn't necessarily give it enough strength to stand out to anyone not personally interested in the subject matter, but it was enough to draw a casual observer like myself. This film really captures Shirley Chisholm in her all her glory as the total antithesis of modern politics.
Murder in Coweta County (1983)
How powerful is the man who can't control himself?
Johnny Cash never got much opportunity to prove himself as an actor, but he always rose to the occasion when given the chance. With this film, and "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" (1981), he was given a pair of roles that had a depth of character he could really do something with. "Murder in Coweta County" is certainly the better of the two. Both films were directed by Gary Nelson. Besides Cash, there are two very good performances in Andy Griffith and Earl Hindman. Griffith is incredibly slimy and menacing here, playing way, way out of type. It wasn't his style to play the bad guy, but he does it marvelously here. The late Earl Hindman is excellent as well. Hindman was a character actor who is both remembered and nearly forgotten for the very same role - that of Wilson on the "Home Improvement" TV series. Remembered for his memorable performances, forgotten because his face was always at least partially hidden. June Carter Cash is fantastic and almost unrecognizable as the fortune teller.
"Murder in Coweta County" is a true story, and that information driving the script forward helps it keep from dipping too far into cliché. There are elements that feel a little standard, but nothing too distracting from the drama. The characterizations get under your skin, especially Johnny Cash is what might be the best performance he ever gave. It's a great little southern police/crime movie.