Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The 1970s: Psychiatry, nuclear paranoia and machine guns

About a month ago, I pledged to proactively broaden my film viewing, back into the pre-1980s decades that are less well represented in my collection of movies watched. I announced a plan to randomly choose from the six decades between the 1920s and the 1970s at the start of each new month, watch three movies from that decade in the coming month, write about them at the end, and then blindly select from the remaining decades for the next month. I'm calling this feature Decades.

For my first month in July, I randomly selected the 1970s and got right to work. However, I must say, it was not the enthralling experience I expected it to be. Part of that surely had to do with the fact that the 1970s are a relatively easy decade for this project, since I'd probably watch one movie from the 1970s every month anyway. As a matter of fact, I was worried I'd accidentally exceed three 1970s movies during the month of July, which would kind of dilute the purpose of the exercise. The other unintended consequence was that I found myself consciously avoiding movies from earlier decades, feeling like I should save them until the month they actually come up to bat. This kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise in a different way -- if my goal is to see more older movies, I should hardly be shying away from viewings just because they don't adhere to some arbitrary structure I've put in place. Lastly, I found that an entire decade is kind of a large period -- the films I chose felt very arbitrary in the sense that they couldn't be concentrated down into some overarching theme. The original point wasn't to have a theme, but as I got started, I felt like maybe it should have been.

Oh well. Let's see how the rest of the decades go. For now, I've committed to at least one run-through of the exercise -- to five more months that will take me up to the end of the year. Then I've got an interesting variation on this idea that I'll debut for the start of 2011.

But let's not be sticks in the mud before the Decades project has even started. And let's kick right into what I watched last month:

High Anxiety (1977, Mel Brooks). Watched: Friday, July 9th.

This film had actually not been on my radar at all until I watched a different film a couple weeks earlier: Reign Over Me, starring Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. In that movie, their characters go to a Mel Brooks film festival, at which they watch four classics: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie and ... High Anxiety? I hadn't heard of that last one.

So when I saw it at the library just a couple days after the start of this project, I knew it would make a funny Friday night viewing for my wife and me. Never mind that it wasn't exactly what someone thinks of when they refer to a "70s movie."

Well, it did -- sort of. The ratio of laughs to minutes was fairly low for this, one of Brooks' later parodies -- a parody of Hitchcock films, as the poster above no doubt indicates. That's a pretty fruitful subject, but I found many of the jokes to be somewhat obvious. Not to mention the fact that there were occasional long stretches between what even Brooks himself would probably characterize as a joke. So the pace was kind of sluggish overall, and I found myself falling asleep toward the end. Still, Brooks definitely hits a couple times in this film. There's one funny scene in particular in which Harvey Korman as a corrupt psychiatrist is trying to prove symptoms of insanity in a patient to the new doctor overseeing his institute (Brooks). Every time Brooks' back is turned, he torments the patient in a way that will bring out the symptoms -- each time hiding his antics before Brooks looks around. It's great comic timing, which is the hallmark of Brooks' best work.

The China Syndrome (1979, James Bridges). Watched: Saturday, July 10th.

Since I wasn't aware until sometime in the mid-1990s that Michael Douglas even existed before Romancing the Stone, this is one of those movies that would have surprised me if I'd seen it back then, since Douglas was a successful producer back in the early days -- something I found counterintuitive for an actor who wasn't even established yet. (You're supposed to act first, then graduate to producing). He produced The China Syndrome, and also co-stars (with Jane Fonda) as a cameraman who uncovers evidence of an accident at a nuclear power plant while filming a random puff piece for the local news.

When some of you commented on the post where I introduced the Decades idea, one commenter listed The China Syndrome as a "no-brainer" for films from the 1970s I should have seen. So I put it at the top of my queue, and received it soon after the project started.

We really enjoyed it. It was a good thematic successor to the paranoia trilogy made my Alan J. Pakula earlier in the decade, what with a major social issue and shadowy unseen figures trying to hide their underlying corruption at all costs. At the same time, we noticed that its pacing was a lot more languid than today's thrillers would have been -- in that way, it is very recognizable as a product of its era. This isn't to say it was at all lacking. The idea of the China syndrome itself -- a nuclear reactor having such a catastrophic meltdown that it burrows itself into the earth, where it would next materialize in China (though that's clearly an exaggeration) -- still has potential relevance to us today, in a way that other Cold War movies about Russian nuclear attacks probably no longer do. (Though I think I would still feel tense watching WarGames.) I also enjoyed watching Douglas, Fonda, and especially Jack Lemmon at work.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Peter Yates). Watched: Thursday, July 29th.

My third movie also made it onto my queue by virtue of being recommended (and then seconded) in the comments section of my first post. However, it was supposed to be The Long Goodbye, which also came from that comments section. But even though Blockbuster (yes, I'm still hanging on to my Blockbuster account) listed both films as available, Eddie Coyle leap-frogged The Long Goodbye in the queue and got shipped to me first -- at which point I drove The Long Goodbye down lower onto the queue, so it wouldn't become my fourth 1970s movie of July, as previously discussed.

I first started watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle almost two weeks ago, but clearly wasn't in the mood for it that night, as I abandoned it after five minutes and opted for something quite different: The Cell, as discussed here. It took me another week to start watching it again, at which point I split it over the course of two sittings. Hey, that happens sometimes.

This is pretty much the raw and gritty 1970s movie I imagine when I think of raw, gritty 1970s movies. No one gets away clean in this movie of low-level gun runners, bank robbers, and cops who will make false promises to the low-level gun runners in order to try to get the bank robbers. The principle of honor among thieves is put majorly to the test over the course of the narrative, much of which centers around a sting set up to capture a guy who peddles machine guns. There really isn't anyone to root for, per se, but Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle is as close as one gets to that, in part because he makes his sad sack so human. The film coalesces from a couple distinct narratives into one as the film moves on, but it's still a very downbeat, quiet kind of movie, with a different definition of what constitutes catharsis. It's serious and sad. As an added bonus, it's set in and around Boston, where I grew up, so it was fun to see the scenery as it looked in the year I was born.

Onward and upward ...

So, which decade awaits in August? Drum roll please, as I dig my hand into my sack of choices ...

Backwards it is. The 1960s are up next.

Randomness is more fun when it comes out more random, don't you think?


Don Handsome said...

Will there be / can there PLEASE be an addendum to this 1970s "Decades" feature once you finally see The Long Goodbye? Or maybe this double secret 2011 variation on the Decades Feature will include a viewing...in other words, SEE IT.

This is a worthy project...a variation of which you know I am currently / always engaged in. I'm hoping you find the 1960s more exciting.

Vancetastic said...

Well, maybe I'll just devote an entire post to The Long Goodbye. There's nothing to prevent me from seeing it now that the calendar has turned to August ...

After all, the project is really just to try to force me to see a certain minimum number of older movies. However much I want to go beyond that is up to me, as long as I'm not exceeding three for the particular decade that's being discussed that month. Yep, it's pretty arbitrary.

Theis said...

Glad you liked The China Syndrome. It's in my top 3 films that I've seen in the last year (together with Inception and Doctor Parnassus).
Jack Lemmon is great and Fonda and Douglas are also very good.