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Tag Archives: The Long Goodbye

A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

The period in American cinema from 1967 – 1980 has recently been anointed by some critics and historians as the last true golden age for Hollywood film production. This was a time of incredible risk-taking and creativity — when the first American film school graduates (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al) started to make an impact in Hollywood while a number of Hollywood’s older masters were able to take advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded by the death of the old studio system and its restrictive production code. It was also certainly the last era when the majority of America’s zeitgeist movies were aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers. In essaying the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, I am deliberately casting my net wide by also including independent films in order to paint as full of a portrait of the era as possible. I’m also leaving off such touchstones as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, anything by Spielberg and Lucas, etc. because those films have never meant much to me personally and, besides, they’ve been written up enough elsewhere.

David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, 1967)

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A true American “kissing cousin” of the French New Wave, Jim McBride’s no-budget feature — made for just $2,500 in 1967 money — is one of the great debut films, one of the great mock-documentaries (before the concept even existed) and one of the great movies about filmmaking. The premise is that the lead character, David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), an amateur filmmaker, decides upon losing his job to document his life with a 16mm camera — believing that the filmmaking process will allow him to better understand himself. But things only go from bad to worse as he loses his girlfriend, his filmmaking equipment and eventually his soul. As a portrait of existential despair, I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece. “Bring your life into focus, lad.”

Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their attention. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

Fat City (Huston, 1972)

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John Huston, one of the American cinema’s most overrated filmmakers, was arguably the director from Hollywood’s Golden Age who most successfully took advantage of the death of the old studio system. Many of his best films came in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easier for him to take advantage of location shooting and laxer censorship laws. 1972’s Fat City, in spite of accruing a certain cult following, remains tragically underseen and is arguably Huston’s finest hour. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this incredible portrait of working-class life follows the opposite career trajectories of two boxers: the up-and-comer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the down-and-outer Tully (a terrific Stacy Keach). This is no Rocky-style underdog story, however. It’s a beautifully observed character study about losers struggling to survive in an authentically seedy milieu (the sets were designed by Dick Sylbert and the cinematographer was the peerless Conrad Hall).

The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a cultural phenomenon that is also a great work of art. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors (including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall), hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the Godfather Part II but not me.

The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)

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Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

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Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

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John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

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The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)

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Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.

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Inherent Vice: Ruminating on the Book, Speculating About the Movie

“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”

— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice

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I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.

It ain’t a detective being put through the paces of this labyrinthine Chandler-esque plot. But a stoner who likes to bowl!
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Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.

Philip Marlowe buying cat food? In a supermarket? That’s not right!
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Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.


Remembering Altman

This Sunday would have been the 85th birthday of Robert Altman.

Did any filmmaker embody the concept of the Hollywood auteur in the post-studio system era as well as Robert Altman? By the time he finally hit his stride as a maverick, independently minded director of irreverent comedies in the early 1970s, Altman was old enough to be the father of most of the members of the “film school generation” (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al.) with whom he enjoyed a friendly competition; but if any American director could be said to own the ’70s, I think it was the older, non-film school educated, Colonel Sanders look-alike whose movies, more so than those of his younger contemporaries, were the product of an idiosyncratic but fully formed artistic personality.

Altman cut his teeth working on genre television shows in the 1960s – he directed episodes of the western Bonanza and the war show Combat! among others, which is important to keep in mind when considering the perversely revisionist genre films Altman ultimately became best known for. (In the 1970s in particular it almost seemed as if he was checking genres off a list: “You think you know what a western is? Well, here’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller!”) Working in television had also been a good way for Altman to try out different techniques involving the employment of sound and image; for instance, it’s where he first began to experiment with the dense, multilayered soundtracks that would become one of his most important hallmarks as a movie director.

In the late 1960s Altman made the leap from television to motion pictures. After a couple of films that were not particularly noteworthy, he made a movie in 1970 that became a phenomenon and changed his life forever. M*A*S*H was a dark, ostensibly period comedy about the Korean war that functioned as a thinly veiled commentary on the then-raging war in Vietnam. It was an unexpected critical and commercial success, winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival before becoming enormously popular with American audiences, especially young people and members of the counterculture. And like a lot of works of art that seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the zeitgeist, the success of M*A*S*H bought Altman an unusual degree of creative freedom for the next several years. It was also the first film to feature all of the signature themes and stylistic traits for which he would become famous. These included:

– an irreverent, anti-authoritarian point of view
– a perverse, humorously revisionist take on genre
– a dense soundtrack with multilayered, overlapping dialogue
– a close collaboration with actors in which he encouraged them to deviate from the script and improvise their dialogue.

During his first wave of popularity in the early 1970s, Altman made the two films that I consider his very best: McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and The Long Goodbye in 1973. Both attempt to explicitly and self-consciously revise the rules of their given genres. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye are so extreme in terms of how Altman subverts the conventions of the western and the private eye film respectively (and puts his own unique spin on them in the process), that the movies, in spite of earning cult followings, remain divisive whenever they are screened to this day; in classes where I’ve shown both movies, I’ve observed it’s not uncommon for students to love one film but not be able to stand the other. (Another respect in which Altman is unique: even among his diehard fans there is little consensus over which films constitute his best and worst work.)

To understand how Altman subverts genre convention, look first to the cinematography. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an amazingly photographed color film, courtesy of the great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. McCabe intentionally frustrates expectations of what the visual style of a western movie should be. In contrast to the high-key lighting and bright primary colors of the horse operas from Hollywood’s golden age, everything in McCabe looks drab, muddy and brown. This color scheme, combined with the film’s snowy locations and excellent Leonard Cohen soundtrack, gives it the feel of a melancholy tone poem. And the sound design can likewise be described as “muddy”; one of the film’s most contentious aspects is a notorious sound mix that, to the chagrin of many viewers, features an abundance of scenes where people mumble indistinctly to each other in taverns and whorehouses. But as any of the film’s supporters will tell you, the sheer audacity of this muddiness is part of its perverse charm.

McCabe can also be classified as a genre-subverting “anti-western” in that it presents two big movie stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, in as unglamorous a light as possible. Beatty in particular was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time and Altman intentionally obscured his handsome features behind a bushy beard, gold tooth and omnipresent derby. The unromanticized look of frontier life extends to the supporting cast as well; Beatty’s title character is an entrepreneur who, at the film’s beginning, arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church and tries to make his fortune by opening a low-rent brothel. Altman clearly takes great delight in presenting McCabe’s small town whores as earthy and plain, the polar opposite of the glamorous western prostitute typified by Claire Trevor in John Ford’s Stagecoach. While Altman’s portrayal is probably closer to the reality of prostitutes in 19th century America, it is also important to recognize that he never condescends to these characters. On the contrary, he seems to have great affection for all of them and takes pains to present them as real people, as evidenced by scenes where we witness them during downtime – singing, goofing off in a communal bath, baking a birthday cake, etc.

The aspect in which Altman most obviously turns western conventions on their head is in his presentation of the western hero. It is obvious to the viewer early on that John McCabe is a coward and a bullshit artist who hides behind a lot of big talk. There is a delicious irony in that the other characters in the film, the townspeople of Presbyterian Church, mistake him for a famous gunfighter who happens to have the same last name. Throughout the movie Altman milks this irony for all it is worth and uses it to set up an action climax that delivers a spectacular payoff – a snowbound shootout that sees McCabe attempting to become the man he has so far only pretended to be. The end result is something rich, complex and that rewards repeat viewings.

If charges of sacrilege have been leveled at The Long Goodbye more often than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s probably less because of the way Altman undermines movie conventions in the later film than because of the way he dared to tweak aspects of its beloved source novel. Raymond Chandler published The Long Goodbye, his sixth novel featuring legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe as protagonist, in 1953 when the film noir movement was still in full swing. Marlowe had been portrayed on screen no less than three times in the previous decade by high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and, Chandler’s favorite, Dick Powell. It is somewhat surprising then that The Long Goodbye wasn’t brought to the screen until Altman’s unconventional adaptation twenty years later, long after the original noir cycle had ended. But that’s precisely Altman’s point: taking the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hardboiled private eye of the late forties/early fifties and transporting him to the health conscious Los Angeles of the early ’70s. Finding humor in this outrageous juxtaposition is essential to appreciating Altman’s film.

Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. While it features a more conventional color palette than McCabe (fitting given the film’s contemporary southern California locations), it is no less visually striking. A technique first used in McCabe that Altman and Zsigmond perfect in The Long Goodbye is “post-flashing” – exposing the camera negative to a small amount of light before processing it. This gives the finished film a hazy, dreamy, slightly overexposed quality, which Altman likened to the look of faded postcards. It is as far from the stark, black and white cinematography of film noir as Elliot Gould’s nebbishy portrayal of Marlowe is from that of his tough guy predecessors.

And yet both of these aspects are of a piece with Altman’s overall vision. The Los Angeles he portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything – except for the one brand of cat food that Philip Marlowe desperately needs. The tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food. This absurd but crucial scene establishes the theme of betrayal vs. loyalty that will predominate for the rest of the film. It is only when Marlowe informs his friend Terry Lennox “I even lost my cat” during the film’s unexpectedly shocking climax (and thus brings the story full circle) that we are likely to realize how deadly serious Altman has taken his morality tale all along.

After The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman would go on to make many other movies. There would be triumphs as well as fallow periods but, like the song says, he always did it his way. When he fell out of favor in Hollywood, which happened more than once, he would simply scale back his ambitions. The most dramatic example of this would be the entire decade of the 1980s, which were devoted to small projects like filmed plays and T.V. movies following the box office disappointment of the underrated Popeye. But Altman was a dreamer and a schemer, always waiting for the opportunity to realize his next mad folly. Thankfully, his story ends on a note of redemption as the success of The Player in 1992, much like that of M*A*S*H in 1970, allowed him to realize many more personal projects until his death in 2006 – including such late career highlights as Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion. The American cinema won’t see his like again.


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