Thursday, September 2, 2010

The 1960s: Suicidal neatniks, hysterical virgins and British imperialism

This is the second in my Decades series, in which I'm watching three films per month from a particular decade, from the 1920s through the 1970s. It's a series designed to expand my ordinary viewing habits, so I excluded the last three decades as way too easy target material.

In July I watched three movies from the 1970s, as drawn randomly at the beginning of the month, and in August it was the 1960s -- also drawn randomly at the beginning of the month. I had hoped randomness would result in something other than reverse chronological order, but you play the hand you're dealt.

Without any further ado, let's get to discussing the films I watched from the 1960s:

The Odd Couple (1968, Gene Saks). Watched: Thursday, August 12th

I had a very busy first ten days of August, planning for our baby shower, having the baby shower, then recovering from the baby shower for the next few days. So it wasn't until the 12th day of the month that I caught my first 1960s movie by digging into the free offerings from Turner Classic Movies available OnDemand. Gene Saks' The Odd Couple seemed a great place to start -- a classic I surely should have seen before now. (Though to be honest, I don't think I've ever seen an episode of the possibly better known TV show either.)

Well, to be honest again, I found it a bit too much like a TV show -- a situation comedy in the original sense of that word. You've got your clear-cut situation: two divorced men -- one a neat freak, one a slob -- move in together, and naturally, the comedy ensues. However, perhaps because I knew that the Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon comedy went on to become a TV show starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, this felt a bit too much like the pilot for the TV show, and a really long one at that. It seemed very much like they spent the first half introducing the characters -- which was strong, pilot-type material -- then the second half showing one of the adventures that would make up the many ensuing episodes of the TV show. However, the episode they showed us -- Felix and Oscar double-dating a pair of daffy neighbors -- didn't seem like the most interesting episode that would be best suited to bringing out their telling character traits. I realize this is a pretty short-sided observation, since obviously the show would not exist without this movie (or without the stage version, which featured Matthau and Art Carney). But I can't help how I felt when watching it.

This is not to say I didn't like it, just that I found it a bit slow, and only really funny in spurts. One thing I was definitely surprised about, that distinguishes it from an entity that would be created today -- much of the film's first 30 minutes is spent trying to prevent Felix Ungar (Lemmon) from killing himself after separating from his wife. Suicide is way too heavy a topic for mainstream comedy today. Still, those are some of the best scenes, as Oscar (Matthau) and his poker group (a great ensemble) make sure not to leave Felix alone in the bathroom, so he doesn't jump out the window, etc. Given the fragility of Felix's mental state, however, Oscar's resulting frustration with his neatnik behavior seems particularly callous. Oscar invites him to move in -- this was not Felix's request, mind you -- and just a few short weeks later, Oscar is out of his mind with frustration over character traits he must have been fully aware of when he made the overture. In fact, you could say that in the film's third act, Oscar gives Felix a real reason to commit suicide, insulting him in every way imaginable and basically throwing him out of the apartment. So, I guess it really does fulfill the situation component of a situation comedy better than the comedy component. Or at least it illustrates the difference between comedy in the 1960s and comedy now.

Splendor in the Grass (1961, Elia Kazan). Watched: Monday, August 16th

And so we move on to our second movie from the 1960s, Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass. Found this at the library randomly, and it was not until later that I realized Miss Topanga on Breathing Movies had also just written about it. Funny coincidence. I was interested because it was Warren Beatty's first film, and because Kazan is a great director.

But what struck me first was the film's other co-star: Natalie Wood. Specifically, how out-and-out, absolutely, stunningly beautiful she was. Wood is an actress who has only been on my radar for the last ten years, since I didn't see Rebel Without a Cause until a couple years ago, and I still haven't seen West Side Story. In fact, I first became aware of her in the last film she ever made: Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm, which was not yet completed when she drowned off Catalina Island while partying with Christopher Walken (her co-star in that film) and Robert Wagner (her husband). I didn't really realize what a looker she was until this movie. Made me sad she was dead -- I mean, she'd be 72 now, maybe I'd have a shot with her. (Ha ha.)

The film started out in what I considered to be a highly conventional manner: Beatty is a star football player, Wood is a girl next door, and their love is blossoming in 1920s Kansas, but the mother of Wood's Deanie tells her that "good girls don't go all the way." Of course, Beatty's Bud does want to go all the way, and that's the conflict. I guess this was pretty racy stuff for 1961 -- the movie supposedly contains the first French kiss on film -- but I didn't really start to become interested until the movie takes a turn for the darker after Bud seeks affections in the arms of another woman. Deanie literally goes crazy when she realizes her prudishness has cost her Bud's attentions -- first she tries to kill herself by drowning herself in a dam, and then she goes to a mental institution. Now it was Wood's turn to impress me with her acting -- she really commits, really goes for it, in the scenes that require her to be anguished and distraught, some of which were downright discomfiting. I should have known that the film would not be as conventional as it appeared at the start, but where it went really caught me by surprise in a positive way.

And Beatty? What a little baby face he is in this movie. Very interesting to see.

Zulu (1964, Cy Endfield). Watched: Sunday, August 29th

My third movie from the 1960s looked like it might miss the deadline for August due to the early arrival last Wednesday of my son. Its imposing length (139 minutes) seemed to make that fate all the more likely. But we've discovered that the baby tends to sleep very well between breakfast and lunch, so I got an unexpected opportunity to pop this into the DVD player Sunday morning, having acquired it through the mail nearly two weeks earlier.

Zulu was on my radar for one reason and one reason only -- it appeared in a lyric from a song I love, "Guns Don't Kill People" by Goldie Lookin' Chain. The line in the catchy rap/hip hop song goes "Guns blazin' like Michael Caine in Zulu." Despite the fact that the title refers to African tribesmen who were exceptional warriors, I guessed from the song lyric alone that the movie might be one of Caine's movies where he plays some kind of modern-day South London badass, like Get Carter. Turns out, he's a lieutenant in a famous military skirmish from 1879, in which a hundred British soldiers held off attacks from 4,000 Zulus. I probably should have been more familiar with the film -- my wife, an Australian, says it was one of those movies that was played regularly on TV as a Saturday matinee when she was a kid. Then again, it clearly has a cultural significance to those from the British empire that it doesn't have for us Americans.

In fact, I didn't know the outcome of the battle as I was watching, and that made it an exquisitely tense experience. Over half the movie is comprised of build-up to the battle, and Zulu contains some of the best examples of this I've ever seen in a war movie. A half-dozen storylines are established in the military outpost upon which the Zulus are steadily descending -- there's the malingering thief Hook who's trying to get out of battle by pretending to be sick; there's the preacher and his daughter trying to convince the soldiers to abandon the post in the name of both peace and avoiding certain death; there are the two lieutenants politely feuding over command considerations because one has three months' seniority over the other; there's the company choir still trying to practice as the Zulus approach, in whimsical contrast to the gravity of the situation. The whole thing is a tremendous slow burn developed wonderfully over that first hour, until the point that you can hear the Zulus marching in the distance, sounding ominously like an approaching locomotive. Considering that nothing but their feet and their chants are making this noise, it gives a frightening preview to what's awaiting these soldiers, who are doing their best to remain stoical.

In just the three days since I've seen it, I've already decided that Zulu may be one of my favorite war movies of all time. However, I will say that there was something about it that slightly bummed me out: the outcome of the battle. (Spoilers to follow, in case you are concerned about keeping the plot of a 46-year-old movie secret.) Given the frightening odds and the excellent military strategy of the Zulus -- they even have guns, which they stripped from the bodies of the British soldiers left in their wake -- I was sure that this would be one of those grim stories where the undermanned army would actually end up being wiped out. Well, that may have been a bit too dark for 1964 -- but it's also not what really happened. In reality, the Brits actually did hold off the Zulus, who end the film by honoring them for their fighting spirit and willingly withdrawing despite still holding vastly superior numbers. Where the film fudges it a bit, I think, is in the number of Brits it shows being killed relative to the number still remaining at the end. Let's just say that the 100 soldiers on hand end up looking more like 250. But, I'm willing to forgive that. An excellently made film all around -- a must-see.

Oh, and this film takes over the distinction of being last, alphabetically, in my list of movies seen. That honor was previously held by Zorba the Greek.

Okay, on to September. What decade will come next?

*rummages in bag*

Good -- a break from that reverse chronological pattern. We're going all the way back to the 1920s, ladies and gentlemen. This is where we separate the boys from the men.

That's right, we're going silent -- which is probably the right choice with a young baby in the house ...

No comments: