Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Rob Watches.

Despite my occasional bouts of freelancing, I’ve been living in the TCM/TiVo/Unemployment Nexus, so I’ve had a chance to see some movies I’d never seen before. I thought I’d run through some of my thoughts on them here.

I love film noir, but still haven’t seen all the classics of the genre… but I finally peeped Double Indemnity a couple of weeks ago. Fred MacMurray plays an amoral insurance salesman who schemes with Barbara Stanwyck, a sultry, bored wife, to knock off her husband in the perfect murder. It’s funny – after their first meeting, which MacMurray uses to justify tempting himself over the line, the murderous couple don’t have the sort of steamy chemistry you might expect from a movie like this. Instead, the most important relationship in the movie seems to be between MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, an insurance investigator and his mentor at the company. He’s a father figure who he desperately wants to put one over on, precisely because he has so much respect for him.

A few days before the Mardi Gras party, I stayed up watching Easy Rider. I didn’t amend the party plans to include violent beatings, shotgun blasts or taking LSD in a graveyard, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed. For as much as the movie has seemed into our collective consciousness, I really didn’t know any specifics. All I knew were motorcycle riding scenes, other scenes of smoking pot around a fire, and of course the final scene. What’s strange about the movie is you always feel these characters could come to a bad end, but the randomness of it takes you aback (even if you know it’s coming). It seems more likely that Dennis Hopper’s loose-cannon character would lead them down a dark path. He never gets the chance. Jack Nicholson is really terrific as the boozy young lawyer who decides what the hell, he’ll ride with some strangers to Mardi Gras. Standing slightly apart from Peter Fonda and Hopper’s characters, he’s the one who manages to articulate the stresses and fear the hippies inspire in the straights. He’s really the only one who could: Hopper is too whacked out, and Fonda is riding that reticent cool as far as it goes.

Last night I saw another Nicholson movie, Carnal Knowledge, with Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Rita Moreno and even a moving cameo by Carol Kane. The film follows Jon and Sandy (Nicholson and Garfunkel) from their years as underclassmen in college through their married and dating life in the decades afterward. Nicholson is a bastard with women (and to his so-called best friend Garfunkel, whom he cuckolds with his first girlfriend in college), and frankly Garfunkel isn’t much better – a so-called “sensitive guy” who you can tell would love to be the type of heel Nicholson is, but he doesn’t have the guts.

Ann-Margret is phenomenal—her churning relationship with Nicholson is the centerpiece of the movie, and there’s a moment early on where you can see in her eyes that she knows she’s taking a huge risk, suggesting they move in together. Turns out she doesn’t know the half of it. The movie was directed by Mike Nichols and written by Jules Feiffer. Feiffer’s fingerprints are all over the movie – the characters regularly deliver monologues to the camera where you aren’t sure exactly who they’re talking to at first. It’s like a Fieffer cartoon come to life.

Also last night, Kathy & I watched Harold & Maude, where young, death-obsessed Bud Cort begins a surprising relationship with Ruth Gordon, a septuagenarian concerned with living life to its fullest (as demonstrated by fast driving, auto theft and olfactory art-making). I’d first seen the movie in high school, but it didn’t make the impression on me that it might have, due to my habit of drifting off to sleep whenever it gets dark. But it really is a fine movie, with some great comedic scenes. There’s a masterful sight gag when we meet Harold’s one-armed uncle in the military, and there are some real gems in Harold’s staged suicide attempts. (“Were they all for your mother’s benefit?” his psychologist asks. “I wouldn’t say… benefit,” responds Harold.)

Harold’s relationship with his mother is interesting and seemingly one-sided. He appears in numerous scenes with her, and yet he only speaks two lines to her – one in the very beginning of the movie, when he says he’s not speaking because his throat is sore, and the other at the end, when he makes a momentous announcement . That’s not to say he doesn’t communicate: when he pretends to hang himself, or floats like a dead man in the pool as his mother swims by, or remakes his new jaguar into a souped-up hearse, it all communicates the morbidity that she just can’t understand or accept in him. It could be that it seems like it’s the only thing worth saying.

The movie made me want to revisit one of my favorite movies, also from that time, The Ruling Class with Peter O’Toole. The ornate house Harold lives in brought to mind the estate inherited by Jack, the fourteenth Earl of Gurney, and his predicament is similar, but opposite. His mother can’t deal with Harold’s love of death, while the relatives in The Ruling Class are rejecting Jack's embrace of life (since he also fashions himself to be a sort of hippie Jesus). Each one is “cured” in one way or another; watching the films back to back could be either a hopeful or horrifying double feature, depending on the order.


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