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Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Youthful Desperation & Frustration
"Saturday Night Fever" is an example of a youthful but very real desperation and frustration, ones that permeate all of existence. It is also in many respects a wonderful "time capsule" of the 1970s, and about an often-stereotyped and ignored group in the USA; inner-city, blue-collar white "ethnics" and their manifold and often difficult cultural and socio-economic plights that have not had an adequate and respected public voice, except for being selfishly warped and exploited by the likes of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. Unlike his cluelessly provincial friends and family, daytime Brooklyn paint store worker and nighttime local disco king Tony Manero (John Travolta) is much smarter and far more aware than he initially appears, deeply yearning to escape his limited and gloomy environment, fearing that, like his parents, he will soon be inescapably swallowed up by it.
The character of the seriously unhappy and increasingly desperate on-the-cusp-of-full-adulthood Manero is not a stereotype, as many mistakenly believe, but more accurately, a Weberian "archetype" of sorts (one that in Manero's case might have been created by Albert Camus himself) accurately embodying a general personality in a specific cultural milieu. He is also what anthropologists would term a "marginal" man, unpleasantly caught between his strong Brooklyn Italian-American ethnic identity (one with which he is not entirely comfortable because of what he believes are some of its undesirable attitudes and actions, unlike his friends and family) and the wish to "make it" over the bridge into the wider world of Manhattan (as represented by his honest and kind but rather transparently pretentious friend Stephanie) although unsure of how to proceed. Disco dancer Manero's character is the flip side of that of Soviet spy Christopher Boyce in the 1985 film "The Falcon and the Snowman;" both characters suffer from a profound existential and cynical despair about themselves and their respective and equally shallow (but radically different) personal worlds; worlds deeply infected by the general cultural malaise, lethargy and escapism that dominated the USA in the 1970s, infections which they are trying to personally remedy in some manner, albeit in significantly different (but not in necessarily wise, healthful or rational) ways.
A most important scene in the film was when Tony's favored older brother Frank suddenly decides to quit the Catholic priesthood (a landmark event echoing in the later "Falcon" when Boyce quits the Catholic seminary in disgust) a decision which sends shock waves through the family. It's a poignant scene of shattering disillusionment and utter disappointment; their parents' thin, dreamlike hold on vicarious middle-class respectability is suddenly swept aside, and in the wake of this trauma, the younger and less-favored Tony, to them, becomes just an even more pathetic example of someone going nowhere fast (the lyrics of the BeeGees' gritty song "Stayin' Alive" completely and concisely encapsulate the entire theme of this film.) However, amid the bitter wreckage of these various seemingly solid but in truth quite fragile and dangerous illusions (one among them being Tony's approaching loss of unchallenged dominance on the local disco dance floor) Tony fitfully realizes that he is finally "free" in a truly existential sense, and only then can he leave behind his bleak, dead-end world while still unattached and quite young enough to do so.
"SNF," despite its flaws, is a fine example of gritty, unvarnished, unapologetic, relentlessly politically-incorrect yet thoughtful, open and fascinating film-making of the 1970s--real stories about real people in real situations in real time--a decade which had probably been the finest era in American film.
Secret Honor (1984)
An American Archetype?
**May Contain Spoilers**
I just finished viewing this incredible, astoundingly intense motion picture for the very first time after hearing about it for 20 years. Philip Baker Hall (who played the character of "Library Cop" on "Seinfeld") essays the part of Richard Nixon in an unforgettable one actor performance. The film had been shot at the Univ. of Michigan, the crew composed largely of UM students, while director Robert Altman was doing a short hitch as filmmaker-in-residence there and has the interesting, "you are there" immediacy and intimacy of a filmed stage play or TV show.
The set is a large, wood paneled office, apparently in Nixon's home in San Clemente, a few months after his August 1974 resignation from the Presidency. An angry and restless Nixon nervously paces back and forth with a glass of scotch whiskey in one hand and a loaded revolver lying on his desk, yelling angrily into a running tape recorder about the details of his childhood, adult life, controversial political career, his deep and unhealed resentments and miseries, repeatedly hurling a stream of caustic invective at portraits of Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, reserving most of his vitriolic (yet fascinating and perceptive) bile for Kissinger, rarely (typically) blaming himself for his own misdeeds, all the while intermittently and nervously scanning a battery of CCTV monitors whose cameras are already observing and recording him. Nixon on several occasions mentions the mysterious "Bohemian Grove" located in rural northern California (a subject of much "conspiracy theorizing" in recent years.)
This film is a must see, if for no other reason to experience Hall's stunning and overwhelming performance as the desperate and doomed Tricky Dick, to appreciate Altman's unique cinematographic and directorial style and to vividly grasp the nature of an bafflingly influential human and cultural "focal point" in recent American history. Additionally, whether one is or isn't a Nixon hater, after finishing this film one may gain some understanding of and deeper insight into if not grudging respect or sympathy for this undoubtedly gifted and highly skilled yet incredibly tormented and angry man whose character, behavior and personality was a rare and corrosive but powerful and unforgettable blend of all of the tragic protagonists that had ever emerged from the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevski and Conrad to Fitzgerald, Beckett and Pirandello.
Hall's Richard Nixon, like Marlon Brando's character of Col. Walter Kurtz in 1979's "Apocalypse Now" is a poignant and intense collage of what some might term a classic "American archetype;" a brooding and obsessive "failed overachiever" whose single-minded drive to reach that nebulous yet seductive goal of "being somebody" had been completely and irreparably derailed at the final bend by the same volatile forces that had also driven him relentlessly and vindictively toward that goal, leaving all sorts of tragic wreckage, human and political, in his wake. Was Nixon good, bad, both, neither or something else altogether? And finally, from the opening scene of "Secret Honor," a more specific and pointed question arises, one that persists all the way to the film's final two words: Is there a little bit of Dick Nixon in all of us?
Wisdom & Happiness
One of Clint Eastwood's early yet still obscure directorial efforts, `Breezy' gently and charmingly explores the nature of wisdom, which can be present in the most unusual of people and the real meaning of happiness, which is usually found in the oddest and least-expected of places, usually when one is not looking for it.
Amid the smoldering cultural wreckage of the recently-ended 1960s with its nagging remnants of the shrill `don't trust anyone over 30' crowd and the seemingly still-unbridgeable `generation gap,' the odd and quirky relationship between the youthful, Ophelia-like Edith Alice `Breezy' Breezerman (Lenz) and the middle-aged Frank Harmon (Holden) successfully and simultaneously reveals several very simple but still frequently-ignored truths; that shrewdness and insight are not necessarily the sole province of the `aged' and that a carefree, happy spontaneity isn't and shouldn't be automatically restricted to the `young.' And, more subtly, we also are quietly reminded that neither wisdom nor happiness can realistically exist isolated from one another and that the bitter memories of our own respective pasts can often tragically prevent us from getting what we truly need the most.
Like the Italian neo-realist director Sergio Leone under which Eastwood successfully toiled in the 1960s, the personalities of the film's characters are deliberately and slowly intensified but not over-presented or stereotyped, which adds to the power, insight and poignancy of this understated and well-produced film.
Vanishing Point (1971)
A Dirge For A Dying America
Richard Sarafian's 1971 film "Vanishing Point" is, for starters, a fascinating study of those persons anthropologists sometimes term "marginal men"--individuals caught between two powerful and competing cultures, sharing some important aspects of both but not a true part of either, and, as such, remain tragically confined to an often-painful existential loneliness. Inhabiting a sort of twilight zone between "here" and "there," a sort of peculiar purgatory, these restless specters cannot find any peace or place, so they instead instinctively press madly on to some obscure and unknown destination, the relentless journey itself being the only reason and justification.
Disc jockey Super Soul (Cleavon Little) and delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) are two of these specters, marginal but decent, intelligent men who can't or won't live in burgeoning competing cultures which in reality have offered them very little of worth or substance, despite their own personal sacrifices. Kowalski himself had tried to "fit in" with the Establishment as a soldier and police officer and later, attempted to do the same with the blossoming 1960s counterculture, but soon disappointingly found that they both were ridden with their own various forms of dishonesty and insincerity. Personal honor, self-reliance and genuine respect--Kowalski's stock in trade--were tragically valued very little by either, despite each one's shrill and haughty claims to the contrary.
Moreover, it's no accident Newman's character has a Polish surname; the Poles throughout their history have created a very rich and unique Slavic culture largely based upon just such a "marginality"--being geographically jammed between powerful historic enemies, Germany and Russia, and never being able to fully identify with either one, at often great cost to themselves. It's also no accident Little's character is blind and black, the only one of his kind in a small, all-Caucasian western desert town--his sightlessness enhancing his persuasiveness and his ability to read Kowalski's mind, the radio microphone his voice, his race being the focus of long simmering and later suddenly explosive disdain--all of the characteristics of a far-seeing prophet unjustly (but typically) dishonored in his own land.
The desert environment also plays a key role in cementing the personal relationship between and respective fates of these two men--to paraphrase British novelist J.G. Ballard, prophets throughout our history have emerged from deserts of some sort since deserts have, in a sense, exhausted their own futures (like Kowalski himself had already done) and thus are free of the concepts of time and existence as we have conventionally known them (as Super Soul instinctively knew, thus creating his own psychic link to the doomed driver.) Everything is somehow possible, and yet, somehow nothing is.
Finally, VP is also a "fin de siecle" story, a unique requiem for a quickly dying age- a now all-but-disappeared one of truly open roads, endless speed for the joy of speed's sake, of big, solid no-nonsense muscle cars, of taking radical chances, of living on the edge in a colorful world of endless possibility, seasoned with a large number and wide variety of all sorts of unusual characters, all of which had long made the USA a wonderful place--and sadly is no longer, having been supplanted by today's swarms of sadistic, military-weaponed cop-thugs, obsessive and intrusive safety freaks, soulless toll plazas, smug yuppie SUV drivers, tedious carbon-copy latte towns, and a childish craving for perfect, high-fuel-efficiency safety and security.
The just-issued DVD contains both the US and UK releases of the film; the UK release, I believe, is a much more satisfying film, as it has the original scenes deleted from the US version. As an aside, Super Soul's radio station call letters, KOW, are in fact the ones for a country & western station in San Diego.
The Last Detail (1973)
The Navy the Navy still doesn't want us to see
Jack Nicholson is a performer with the rare ability to completely immerse himself in a chosen role and convince the audience of the stark reality of his performance. Playing Navy Signalman First Class Billy "Badass" Buddusky in Hal Ashby's 1973 film rendition of Darryl Ponicsan's novel, "The Last Detail" is a sterling example of that uncommon talent. Rough-edged but understanding, crude but compassionate, Buddusky and fellow "lifer" Gunner's Mate First Class "Mule" Mulhall (skillfully portrayed by Otis Young) are "detailed" as armed Shore Patrol guards to escort a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Va. to a naval prison in Portsmouth, NH in order to serve an eight-year sentence after being convicted at a court-martial of petty theft.
The five-day journey northward is an adventure for all three. Sympathizing with Meadows's plight, apprised of his utter naivete and realizing his sentence far exceeds the severity of the offense, Buddusky and Mulhall conduct their version of a cram course in traditional male rights of passage--ranging from a drunken spree in Washington, D.C. to duking it out with Marines in New York City and getting their charge sexually initiated with a Boston prostitute--if for no other reason than to give him some taste of what he will not be experiencing for a long time and to teach him in some small way to assert himself as an individual.
Darryl Ponicsan's novel (which hit the racks at practically the same time the film had been released--the book's ending is quite different and, to me, is much less believable than the film's) was initially hailed as a polemic against what many believed was the cold indifference of the military establishment. However, since that time, it has been judged more a compelling "slice of life" drama about the complexities of everyday human behavior and how it is shaped by our own decisions and by entities beyond our immediate purview. And, more importantly, it forces us to think about how our ever-more-complicated society is increasingly unable to find ways to help its young people constructively mark transition into adulthood.
"The Last Detail" is a sadly overlooked but superb blend of pathos, ribald bittersweet humor, hard-edged '70s realism and insightful and subtle human drama, one that brashly and subtly brought back many personal memories of my Navy hitch and a work that says something to all of us by merely focusing upon a small "detail" of a sadly overlooked and unappreciated decade that was alternately (and simultaneously) bleak yet hopeful.
Das Boot (1981)
An Interesting Combination of Genres
As a former US Navy STS3 (third class submarine sonar tech) I remain convinced (along with the other "bubbleheads" who have posted here) that "Das Boot" is to date, far and away the best "submarine film" ever. Unlike this one, most films of this genre are not true "submarine films," but either dramas, comedies or political thrillers where the submarine is a mere prop, a backdrop.
In "Das Boot," the characters are well developed and subtly varied, and the camaraderie among is not forced or self-conscious, but is simple and straightforward and flows from the shared experiences of being underway and in close quarters. The submarine itself is the main character, the entire crew "becomes" the sub and all action and meaning follows from that. Moreover, the differences between the captain and the "Number 1" (executive officer) character are quite believable, #1 almost satirically but perfectly reflected as the-insufferably-ambitious-jerk-who-is-already-planning-his-post -military-political-campaign.
Juergen Prochnow's character as the captain is quite compelling. His moody and long stares, economy of words and the pensive air surrounding him him coexist well within his firm and able but low-key leadership style. The sea and its awesome power and wonder mean more to him than anything and his humility (and his humanity) seems in large part drawn from his seafaring experience which long predates the war.
The air of pervasive fatalism that surrounds the U96 no matter what happens touches well upon a little recognized fact that the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) was, in contrast to the other branches of the German military in WWII, all but ignored; this disdain stemming largely from Hitler's utter lack of serious knowledge or interest in the role of sea power in warfare.
Hence, the U96's enemy is not really the Royal Navy's destroyers or patrol planes, rather it is its own command in Berlin under whose orders it ostensibly operates, and, at a deeper level, the power of an unforgiving sea and each sailor's own fears. The captain's anger over not receiving any orders, his vocal ridicule of Hermann Goering and his blank, almost contemptuous stares at the small photo of Admiral Karl Doenitz are thus all quite in character. The U96 and the other boats have been, for all practical purposes, mere pesky details the Fuehrer has already written off and so the physical isolation of the U96 crew is thus compounded with a very real sense of abandonment, not even allowed the simple victory of mere survival, which makes the sailors' tragic fate that much more poignant.
Although I am no film critic, I get the impression that the director (Wolfgang Petersen) had a great appreciation and knowledge of the cinematic techniques of Akira Kurosawa as well as of Russian filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and of great familiarity with classic English war dramas like "Sink the Bismarck." His Kurosawa-like portrayal of the often baffling nature of human behavior in various situations, the Russian literary theme of the individual facing the colossal power of nature (in this case, the sea) and the meticulous attention to detail, continuity and realistic characterization representing the best of British cinema are all apparent here.