Monthly Report: June 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

Gaily, Gaily (1969) I first saw this one on television (if you remember when each of the three then-major networks ran theatrical movies on a weekly basis, you are officially old) and remember very little about it except that it was loud and sometimes frenetic, that the very young Beau Bridges was appealing, that Brian Keith was his usual splendid self, and that the production design evoking turn-of-the-century Chicago was impressive. Seeing the picture again I note that it is loud and frenetic, that Beau Bridges is appealing, that Brian Keith is… but need I go on? Sometimes, with movies, one’s adolescent memories offer a more reliable guide than might be supposed.

Gaily, Gaily - Bridges, Keith
Considering the gifts of its director, Norman Jewison, and the richness of its nominal source material, there’s absolutely no excuse for Gaily, Gaily‘s being so ephemeral and insignificant. Ben Hecht’s 1962 book of reminiscence is so delightful, so fulsomely reconstructed, so alternately bittersweet and cynical, and so chock-full of possibilities for cinematic adaptation, that the movie’s eschewing nearly every one of them is utterly flabbergasting. The only anecdote Abram S. Ginnes used in his largely witless screenplay — the attempt by a hustling reporter (Keith, in the movie) to abet a quack doctor’s plan of resurrecting a hanged felon via a new miracle injection — is foolishly extended at the climax, in which the dead Bridges gets a shot of the stuff, vibrates wildly on the slab and returns to life. This vitiates the original anecdote, and the movie’s own joke payoff of it. To what end? And what are we to make, at the movie’s finish, of the series of shock-cuts by Jewison revealing the stage-lights and unfinished rafters of the elaborate main whorehouse set?* That it’s all a joke? That nothing is to be believed?

Even Hecht wasn’t that cynical.


Crack-Up still resized
Crack-Up (1946) As a filmmaker, Irving Reis was a great radio director. Crack-Up is a mildly diverting RKO mystery in which you are asked to believe Pat O’Brien as a lecturer on art and Herbert Marshall as a cop. Throughout, the effect of Citizen Kane‘s visual palette on lesser moviemakers is obvious (Orson Welles’ old Mercury stalwarts Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins even show up as two of the villains) but nearly every sequence and shot is over-extended, as if Reis was afraid the proverbial illiterate yokel in the back row wouldn’t be able to follow otherwise. The best things in the picture are a scene between O’Brien and an elderly, cantankerous train station agent (Guy Beach… I think) and a sequence set in a Times Square arcade similar to the one immortalized in The Bandwagon, which also has the virtue of one good punchline, spoken by Harry Monty. Marshall, who lost a leg after being shot in the knee by a sniper during World War I, is required to move, in full-shot, rather more often than seems entirely necessary and in a manner that borders on cruelty. The oddest thing about the movie is the way the otherwise effective Leigh Harline score was mixed, either by the RKO sound editors in 1946 — which seems unlikely — or by whoever prepared this one for home video release; every note is blared at you at double the volume, at least, of the dialogue. Why?


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser’s glorious swashbuckler, cut in twain by its producers and wonderful in any format. The StudioCanal Blu-ray is so sumptuous it may make your mouth water.


Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon (1973) A gorgeous evocation by Peter Bogdanovich of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the beautiful Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray, that looks even better today than it did 47 years ago. Paramount: Why is this essential 1970s American classic not available on Blu-ray?


Nickelodeon - colorNickelodeon - BW

Nickelodeon: Director’s Cut (Black and white) and Original Theatrical Version (1976) A stylish amalgam of two scripts that really didn’t mesh. It’s that, as well as the compromised casting, that keep that kept this entertaining and often delightful picture about the early days of American movies from potential greatness.


Monster in a Box - poster

Monster in a Box (1992) As with Jonathan Demme in 1987 (and very much unlike that rank egotist Steven Soderbergh in 1996) the director Nick Broomfield respected his writer and star Spalding Gray, getting out of his way and letting his idiosyncratic style of presentation carry the day.  Although perhaps inevitably none of the movies of his monologues after Swimming to Cambodia had the force and feel of originality that attended that landmark picture, Gray was such a genial, intelligent and almost gleefully neurotic figure that anything he had to say was worth hearing. Here he grapples, almost literally, with the expanding bulk of his first — alas, only — novel, Impossible Vacation while contemplating nirvana of a temporary sort (the Los Angeles sun); deliberate anguish visited, as it so often is, upon others by the United States government (the war in Nicaragua); the less lethal battle of writer and subject; and the elation that quickly turns to despair (Gray’s almost universally-reviled performance as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Our Town). And that Gray can eventually find as well as humor some small comfort in an unscheduled incident during the play’s wrenching final scene of projectile vomiting by the young actor playing Wally Webb (Shane Culkin, older brother of Macauley, if it matters) is somehow entirely unsurprising.


The Bridge on the River Kwai - Hayakawa, Guinness

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) A beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.


Texasville - resizedTexasville (1990) Peter Bogdanovich’s follow-up to his and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. It doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Jeff Bridges’ pet Queensland Blue in the story, it asks to be taken not for what it might be, but only as what it is.


Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City (1990)
Picture This

George Hickenlooper’s rather strange documentary about the town that inspired Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and in which Peter Bogdanovich filmed it, and the making of the 1990 Texasville. Timothy Bottoms later claimed he reprised his role as Sonny in the sequel so he could produce this documentary, but aside from some unconvincing ruminations  which seem to be undone by Cybill Shepherd’s spontaneous behavior toward him in front of Hickenlooper’s camera, I could detect little of the bitterness the actor supposedly nurtured toward everyone on Picture Show for their alleged nastiness and lack of professionalism. A couple of Archer City residents grouse, with an inarticulate vehemence that smacks of sheer phoniness, about the production company, but as the town is reaping the financial rewards of hosting a Hollywood crew, that too seems weirdly like a put-up job for the documentarians. The DVD was obviously taken from a video source rather than the original film, and its ugliness as an artifact is mitigated only by the self-effacing charm of Bogdanovich and isolated moments such as those of McMurtry’s mother humorously telling tales on herself.


Hell House - McDowell at the climax

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Perhaps the most genuinely unnerving spook-story of its era. It still packs a wallop.


*A mansion, by the way, whose lush appointments were more likely to be seen in the residence of a Rockefeller than in the digs occupied by a clutch of Second City whores.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Home again, home again: “Texasville” (1990)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Larry McMurtry has made a habit of revisiting the characters of his novels on an irregular basis, and Texasville was the first of three examining the ageing characters of his The Last Picture Show. While that book (his third following Horseman, Pass By which was filmed as Hud) concentrated largely on the hapless romantic Sonny Crawford and saw things mostly through his eyes, Texasville swings the emphasis to Sonny’s best friend Duane Moore (“Jackson” in the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich adaptation of Picture Show) and it’s a canny shift: As Ruth Popper, his onetime married lover observes, Sonny was sad in high school. He’s also a bachelor. Duane, an extrovert who gets depressed and has reason to, is essentially happy. And as a married man with grown and younger children, several lovers in various states of marriage and oil wells that brought him unexpected ’80s wealth and are now bankrupting him, his life is intrinsically more complicated than Sonny’s, and with more characters to bang up against.

The book, which like the movie is set in 1984, has an antic, satirical tone very much at odds with the more somber realities of The Last Picture Show, although its core is deadly serious: Aside from Duane’s impending financial ruin and the recurrent question of whether he can hold onto his decades-long marriage with the wry, T-shirt slogan-wearing Karla, the town itself is facing both an uncertain future and an impending centennial celebration; Sonny seems to be drifting into a kind of dreamy madness centered around a past that has been dead for years; and Jacy Farrow, the bored and wealthy flirt who upset both Duane’s existence and Sonny’s in 1954 (’51 in the movie), has returned following the accidental death in Europe of her young son.

MCDTEXA EC008

There was a lot to get into the narrative — McMurtry’s novel is 600 pages — and Bogdanovich, returning to the characters he rendered so vividly in The Last Picture Show, did honor both to them and to the book, although he had to cut nearly a half-hour from the release print, which he restored in 1992 for a Movie Channel airing. (The missing footage, alas, is not included, even as deleted scenes or extras, on the old MGM Home Video DVD, the only available version.) The writer-director even improved upon the original in not depicting Duane and Karla’s pubescent twins as the budding psychopaths of the novel, children so horrific in every way that the reader cannot comprehend how their parents have not had them ritually slaughtered as a warning to other whelps of Satan.

Aside from Sam Bottoms and Ben Johnson, whose characters died during the action of The Last Picture Show, and Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom (she and her husband were killed in a private plane crash between books) all the major players returned for Texasville: Jeff Bridges as Duane, Cybill Shepherd as Jacy, Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, Cloris Leachman as Ruth, Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, and it will surprise no one that they were as effective in their roles in 1990 as they were in 1971, Bridges in particular, and not merely because he quite obviously gained a great deal of weight to play the middle-aged Duane. He uses the extra padding in his walk, which, humorously, lies somewhere between a macho Texas strut and a waddle. Annie Potts gets Karla exactly right, and there is also terrific support from the large supporting cast, especially Pearl Jones as the Jackson’s blasé housekeeper, Su Hyatt as one of Duane’s lovers who is also involved with Duane’s older son Dickie and finding deep satisfaction with him, and William McNamara as the boy himself. McNamara is just pretty enough to make you understand why Dickie makes the legs of so many young girls and middle-aged women go wobbly, and just sweet enough to illustrate how he keeps them all in a state of collective delirium: He’s like Jacy when she was young, but with an innate generosity of spirit, and a genuine interest in his conquests, that Jacy never pretended to have.

Texasville - resized

This woman, however, is not that girl. She’s gone away, and lived, and lost, and her European life, as much as her grief, has made her less self-absorbed; she has humor now, and compassion, where Jacy only previously had a vague, slow-boiling discontent. Shepherd carries the loss lightly, for the most part, until the bittersweet climax, when she lowers her defenses, radiantly. Leachman’s Ruth too has mellowed; as an elderly woman she understands that having been given love was what mattered, not the having lost it, and she sees everyone around her with a bracing, unsentimental clarity. And Bottoms’ Sonny is the quiet, tragic figure of the story, his mind, unable to process either his old losses or his essential sadness, slowly becoming mired in 1951.

Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show in black-and-white in part because, while location scouting in Texas, he realized that color made even the scrubbiest backgrounds look too pretty. Texasville proves him correct: No matter how desolate the landscape, and despite the cinematographer Nicholas von Sternberg’s efforts, the color film softens it. But as with the previous picture, Bogdanovich’s direction is assured — even more so 20 years later — and his trademark long scenes played in full are such a welcome change from what, by 1990, had become the nervous, MTV-directed, norm that it constitutes almost a revolutionary act to depict two human beings talking together in one space and without a series of increasingly frenetic cuts.

Texasville - Bridges and Bogdanovich

Texasville doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Duane’s rambunctious Queensland Blue dog, it asks to be accepted not for what it might be, but only as what it is.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Everything gets old: “The Last Picture Show” (1971)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Following a remarkable writing/directing debut which very few people saw (Targets, 1967/1968)* Peter Bogdanovich, on the advice of his then-wife Polly Platt and working with the author, adapted Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, one of the best brief “coming of age” books by an American writer. Shooting on location in Archer City, Texas (McMurtry’s hometown), in black-and-white, with a cast of actors who might be familiar but were certainly not (or not yet) stars, and on a modest $1.3 million budget, Bogdanovich delivered a small masterpiece detailing the dreariness, and the extreme anomie, of a small, windswept Texas town in the early 1950s that can, of course, stand as emblematic of any community, then or now, in which hope dies pretty much at birth, and the only things that hold people  — especially young people — together are drink, meaningless sex, and the tiny incidental pleasure of the movies they see that in no way reflect their own lives or experience.

There is scarcely a character in The Last Picture Show who is not either seeking sex, having it off with someone else’s spouse, or who has not done so in the past, sometimes from lust or even genuine love but (for the adults anyway) largely out of sheer boredom. The only exceptions that come to mind are Eileen Brennan’s Genevieve, the mother-figure toiling as a waitress due to her off-screen husband’s illness, and the smiling, mute and backwards boy Billy (Sam Bottoms) — and even he is initiated, in a disastrous encounter with a fat middle-aged whore (Helena Humann), courtesy of a few teenagers looking for something, anything, to do on a Saturday night. (We are at least spared the sequence in the novel in which the boys take turns humping a poor blind heifer, although in the movie they consider it.) I don’t wish to seem critical of these people for their erotic obsessions: Half the characters in the movie, after all, are adolescent, and thus naturally preoccupied with sex; anyone who says otherwise about his or her own teenage years is either lying, a Pentecostal, or both. But there appears to be, in Anarene/Archer City, no other activity that can engage them, aside perhaps from billiards or high school athletics. And it’s telling that the only book we see in the movie is a well-thumbed paperback of I, the Jury being surreptitiously passed from one masculine hand to another in a high school classroom. Perhaps the Coach (Bill Thurman) is right when he complains that the boys on his basketball team might be better shooters if they practiced more and jacked off less.

It is the Coach’s request that Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to her physician that sets The Last Picture Show’s most important chain of events in motion, and it is there too that McMurtry and Bogdanovich commit a curious omission. In the former’s novel, Coach Popper is known for bedding certain of his players on out-of-town trips in which he contrives to get his current favorite to share his hotel room, and that he has had only the most perfunctory conjugal relations with his wife. The screenwriters elide over this detail in their movie; thus when Ruth, weeping, says to Sonny, “You really don’t know, do you?” she seems to be referring, not to his ignorance of her husband’s furtive sexuality, but to a general naïveté in the boy’s personality. Since Genevieve warns Sonny, “One thing I know for sure. A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief,” we can be sure that in Anarene the Coach’s “secret” is clandestine only in his own guilty brain. It seems accepted, the way the teenagers in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys accept their teacher’s expected groping of their groins when he takes them home on his motorcycle — with a shrug and, maybe, a curious, virginal thrill.

The Last Picture Show - Leachman and Bottoms

It’s been several years since I read The Last Picture Show, so I no longer recall whether the Coach acts as a kind of procurer, sending Sonny to Ruth in the hope that he’ll satisfy her, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, the relationship between Sonny and Ruth is, along with the lingering love Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) feels for a girl he once romanced, the movie’s heart, and it is to the point that it is in no way sentimentalized. Their first sexual congress is, on Sonny’s part, oddly tentative and, on Ruth’s, so emotional her tearful gratitude is quietly agonizing. Even at the picture’s climax, when she confronts Sonny with his caddish selfishness with white-hot fury, she is pathetically incapable of not needing him. As Bottoms sits at her kitchen table, devastated by a death he probably could have prevented and by his guilt over that and his treatment of Ruth, she holds his hand to her face, beaming tearfully. It’s a shattering moment, filmed by Bogdanovich with his customary grace and measure and his laudable avoidance of the overly emphatic.

It became fashionable to knock Bogdanovich in the 1970s, for — in the eyes of his (possibly envious?) former fellow critics, anyway — making nothing but hommages to his favorite filmmakers. Ford and Hawks were the two most often cited, but if those reviewers had really been paying attention they might have noticed that if there was a true referent in Bogdanovich it was Orson Welles. Not the Welles of busy tracking sequences and kinetic editing but the Welles who made The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello: The Welles who pulled off extensive scenes without an edit while not calling your attention to his having done so, and whose concerns were more with the small and revealing moments between people, and with limning their loneliness and loss of innocence — to borrow from Thoreau, their quiet desperation — than in dazzling your eyes, although only a fool would fail to note that he did that as well. As with the idea of a young man’s falling into a bass viol during a drunken serenade having, ultimately, tragic repercussions in Ambersons, the memory of a man and a young married woman carrying on a long-ago affair, the girl lacking the courage to break with convention or her own need for security becomes heartbreaking by the end of The Last Picture Show.

Peter Bogdanovich - The Last Picture Show

If Bogdanovich took from Welles (or Ford, or Hawks) any particular stylistic or pictorial cues, it was those Old Masters’ penchants for long, sustained sequences played in full before a static camera lens. It is, pace Martin (“Look at Me!”) Scorsese, the richest and most assured form of motion picture photography, requiring, as Welles told Bogdanovich, “much more confidence from the director, and a great more skill, and presence, from the actors,” to pull off. Bogdanovich was defeated in this technique only once during The Last Picture Show, and crucially, when due to the clouds overhead and to Timothy Bottoms’ actorly pauses he was forced to make what looks like an extraneous cut to the foreground near the end of the otherwise beautifully sustained dialogue between Sonny and Sam the Lion as the latter reminisces about his one great love affair.

Bogdanovich’s director of photography on The Last Picture Show was the excellent Robert Surtees, whose career stretched back decades and who was responsible for the look of a number of superbly-shot movies: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Ford’s lush Mogambo (1953), the exquisitely mounted Oklahoma! (1955), Ben-Hur (1959), The Graduate (1967), the gorgeous Sweet Charity (1969) for Bob Fosse, William Wyler’s criminally under-seen and underrated The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), The Cowboys (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Turning Point (1977). The look of the movie is almost more Depression-era Texas than the headiness of post-War, oil-boom 1951; if there were tumbleweeds in Anarene, they’d be blowing down the un-paved streets. But that, it seems to me, is the point; Anarene is one of those places in America, if you have any sense or push, you run from as soon as you can.

The Last Picture Show - Shepherd, Burstyn

I once had a woman friend who referred to Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in the picture as a girl “who gives bitches a bad name.” Yet even she is explicable, if perhaps the furthest thing from admirable. Jacy is that emptiest of small-town miracles, the wealthy beauty with no brains and nowhere (and no one) on whom to truly focus her desires, which are in any case so vague and diffused they are only a nagging overall sense of futility she can neither name nor dismiss, much less escape from. In her first acting role, and at 21, the former model is not only strikingly lovely but remarkably assured. You can see, observing her, why her director fell in love with her. And even when Jacy is cavalierly playing with people’s lives, she’s almost impossible to hate, although you’d rather she was more like her unhappy mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who at least has developed some poise — although we suspect she’s always had it, and by the end proves it — and a clear vision of what she cannot change, regardless of how much she drinks or how many lovers she takes on to ameliorate her essential loneliness. “Everything gets old,” she warns Jacy, “if you do it often enough.”

I see I have scarcely begun to limn the beauty of Bogdanovich’s great ensemble cast, which includes the always-splendid Jeff Bridges as Duane, Sonny’s best friend and Jacy’s doomed squire; Timothy Bottoms’ gentle, if Callow, Sonny; his younger brother Sam’s sweet, docile Billy who loves as, in my experience anyway, only a retarded individual can, and cannot be made to hate even when he’s the unwitting butt of misguided adolescent cruelty; Eileen Brennan’s warm, sad and maternal Genevieve; Leachman’s achingly needy Ruth; and Johnson’s simple, understated Sam the Lion. Sam was a role Welles badly wanted — he knew it would win the actor who played it an Academy Award ™ — but Bogdanovich was correct in going for Johnson, who was vaguely familiar, mostly to Western movie habitués, and that Welles would have over-balanced the part. The director was also convinced that Ruth Popper was a certain Oscar-winner, and both he and Welles were right, as Johnson and Leachman took home the Supporting Actor and Actress trophies in early 1972. For Leachman it’s the role in toto, and the raw vulnerability with which she plays it. For Johnson, I suspect, it was that long monologue about the perfect love of his past that did it.

The Last Picture Show - Bottoms, Johnson, Sam Bottoms

It’s interesting to note that although she praised the movie Pauline Kael (whose spurious essay “Raising Kane Bogdanovich would blast the following year in Esquire) also found Bogdanovich’s rise as a filmmaker troubling and wrote that “even Nixon could like The Last Picture Show.” This is as bone-headed a view as those of critics a couple of years later who thought American Graffiti an exercise in nostalgia. The people in Bogdanovich and McMurtry’s picture are no less desperate than the kids in George Lucas’. If you have axes to grind, or when you see only what you want to, you miss the big picture. Speaking of which, The Last Picture Show does hold a certain nostalgic reference for me, as I first saw it in the mid-1980s when it was the final booking at a local art-house just before, like Sam’s Anarene movie house in the picture, it closed its doors for good. But McMurtry and Bogdanovich differ on that ultimate offering: In Bogdanovich’s movie it’s the 1948 Red River, clearly a special booking (and by a woman who confesses she doesn’t know how to run the place.) In McMurtry’s novel, it’s a standard 1951 “B” oater, one presumably chosen months in advance.

I suppose the director couldn’t resist making an affirmative statement in the picture he chose to run clips from. But I prefer McMurtry’s solution — it’s just another undistinguished movie, for a town that probably doesn’t merit anything better, and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.


*Bogdanovich also, under the pseudonym Derek Thomas, directed something called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) for Roger Corman, who gave him the opportunity to make Targets.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/paper-moon-1973/