“The Last Run” (1971)
Richard Fleischer’s “The Last Run” is composed, by Alan Sharp, in that spare style of writing that is meant to invest a greater chimerical meaning to every utterance, and by extension of its obvious pretensions (as reflected in the marketing campaign), to conjure the mythic brand of faded machismo popularized in the writings of Hemingway. That it succeeds at all in this somewhat foolhardy aspiration is entirely due to the presence (if not entirely the performance) of George C. Scott.
Harry Garmes (Scott), an American expatriate living in Portugal, has been retired as an underworld getaway driver for nine years, and is suffering through the kind of psychic malaise that seems prevalent among movie criminals who brace themselves for “one last score”. When he is contacted to drive an escaped convict into France, he accepts the job, but it proves to be an unexpectedly dangerous assignment fraught with double crosses which are never adequately explained, but are probably meant to be more representative of the inescapable but enigmatic forces of fate which dog the popular existential gangster figures emerging from the Nouvelle Vague. Sharp’s script clearly wishes to celebrate the world weary manliness of 1940’s noir infused American cinema mixed with Melville inspired minimalism, but the film never gets its bearings, as the narrative is paralyzed; continually muddled with a surfeit of stylistic mutism.
Fleischer keeps the film moving at a fairly brisk pace, but is incapable of reconciling his workmanlike direction with the apparently irreconcilable (at least through Sharp’s pen) variant influences cobbled into the the script. The film is neither tough enough nor vicious enough to survive the endless and needless anticipation shattered when it becomes evident that the narrative is vacuous at the core and that what is meant as an miniature modern day Homeric tragedy is merely a fruitless odyssey.
Sharp’s script attempts to embrace a figure cut from traditional movie archetypes who follow unbelievably generous codes of honor, juxtaposed with a modern take on an unprincipled, dishonorable punk who think nothing of having his wife seduce and sleep with an associate to gain a strategic advantage invisible to all but the screenwriter’s tight-lipped imagination. If Garmes’ character is conceived with a frustrating scarcity of detail, then the sketchiness of characterization afforded Garmes’ two passengers, the escaped killer Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) and his wife Claudie (a completely miscast Trish Van Devere) is virtually vaporous. And when such a familar movie trope as a generational schism is introduced as the central relationship dynamic in the film it is not unreasonable to expect that a certain level of antagonistic conflict might result, yet outside of a few terse exchanges, there is no attempt to create any level of tension in the unfolding drama. There is also a noticeable poverty of suspense in what is meant as a chase film; with Garmes’ supposed expertise in evasion tactics nowhere in evidence as the film abruptly limps to a clumsily rushed conclusion. Sharp may be suggesting that Garmes’ “last run” is, in fact, a predestined journey to an inconsequential end, but the film lacks any kind of resonance; it never grabs you. When Rickard callously advises Claudie to “forget about him (Garmes)” in the finale, it’s a task too easily accomplished.
Tony Musante is severely annoying without projecting any substantial menace and Trish Van Devere is skim milk bland. As Garmes, George C. Scott’s intensity erases the presence of his companions from the screen in every shared scene, all the while never getting a grip on a role whose depth of character could easily be summarized on a matchbook cover. Early in the film, there is a scene between Garmes and his erstwhile whore companion Monique (Colleen Dewhurst, a powerhouse who effortlessly holds her own with Scott) that is revealing and touching with an undercurrent of terse vulnerability that henceforth evaporates with the change of scenery. There is never another scene as rich, and it is a bitter tease to what the film might have been.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is awkwardly reminiscent of an Eurospy thriller, with the placement of musical cues in several scenes where they could charitably be called intrusive.
The most interesting aspect of George C. Scott’s directorial film debut “Rage” is its placidity of tone, especially considering the coiled ferocity of its star and the potentially explosive subject matter. The film’s depiction of an accidental release of toxic nerve gas onto a rural ranch area, and the subsequent exposure of a father and son- not to mention hundreds of the rancher’s sheep -is meted out in an uncomplicated and unhurried fashion in which there are no real narrative twists or unforeseen revelations on which to hang the audience’s attention while the film rather serenely unfolds to its predetermined and inevitable conclusion. Without the usual viscera prodding bells and whistles inherent in film thrillers, “Rage” becomes a rather predictable exercise in which the effects of outrageous and careless behavior on the part of callous authoritarianism subjects a hopeless victimization upon the weak and innocent, a scenario that, while not exactly original if reduced to thematic generalities, is certainly made interesting (and certainly one-of-a-kind among like minded films) by the deliberation in the sedateness with which the events unfold.
Scott himself, who portrays the infected rancher Dan Logan, excels at characters who are churning cauldrons of fiery emotion; the antithesis of his role here, an unremarkable everyman whose emotional range appears to be suspended somewhere between calm and sleepily calm- even during later events in which he begins exacting retribution, there is none of the eruptive rage promised by the film’s title, nor is there any visible escalation in the immediacy with which the events are portrayed by George C. Scott the director, the entire story told from the same flat, almost disengaged point-of-view. Certainly the dynamics of drama are not foreign to the actor-director, yet there are times when “Rage” seems untouched by human hands, as if it were conceived by emotionless automatons. Now, that being said, there is a value to presenting a volatile story without the usual theatrical credibility crushing hyperbole, and “Rage”, even in its current placid storytelling mode, might have been more effective if the screenplay by Philip Friedman and Dan Kleinman had more to say on a human level and even had demonstrated a modicum of regretful reflectiveness on the part of either the military or the public health officials, but it’s a strictly black and white affair, a crude and unembellished scenario of the bad (through their disinterest in the public damage their actions cause) versus the bad so fundamental in its conflict and underdeveloped in its characters that it actually cries for the kind of elevated action/suspense hokum of more exploitative vehicles, simply to satisfy the need any kind of dramatic closure (The film concludes on an abruptly unfinished note, as if the scenarist weren’t exactly sure of what to do with their premise.).
The casting of the film does little to help in the matter of stoking a fire in the enervated drama, with each character colorlessly portrayed by actors either unrecognized for any depth of volcanic charisma (Paul Stevens, Stephen Young, Richard Basehart, Martin Sheen) or those whose skills are underused (Barnard Hughes seems adrift at sea, whereas the excellent Robert Walden is underused to the point of invisibility), though it is Scott as the center of this failed revenge drama who fails to find any core to his severely underwritten character (outside of being a rancher and father, he remains an enigma to the last shot of the film) and though it may have seen admirable to have attempted to show the events of the film in a naturalistic, non-Hollywood setting, the movie is as doomed as Dan Logan without the essential but missing human element.
“Let the Good Times Roll” (1973)
Whatever the initial intentions of the makers of “Let the Good Times Roll”, the resulting movie takes a lesser bite out of its subject than the opening few minutes might promise, as the film’s creeping inconsistency of focus makes much of the initial richly sardonic editorial stance problematic by the directors (Sid Levin and Robert Abel) who openly demonstrate what is possible but then allow the opening suggestion of satiric inspiration to fizzle out, especially when such a carefully modulated jaundiced eye might make the film resonate in interesting ways; certainly reaching far beyond the film’s ultimate ambitions.
Whatever else “Let the Good Times Roll” may be, it is also an ultimately depressing film; a peculiar result from a movie which openly celebrates a time (the 1950’s) and place (America, though mostly concentrated around the images and lifestyle of middle class white bread America), and the revolutionary music of that era (rock and roll) which indelibly defined the culture of the nation. That this definition is more proves to have more resonance than the film recognizes is one of its many shortcomings as a project that might lay claims to a fraternity with the documentary form. The opening minutes display a whimsy that signals a gentle (and deserved) thumbing of the nose at the era’s self-appointed authorities of moral piety who clamor for a preservation of American values and codes of decency by imposing a fascistic clamp on the thoughts and actions of the entire community. These documentary representations are among the initial delights of the movie, briefly instilling the proceedings with an absurdist example of civil service gobbledygook comparable to the infamous government issued atomic bomb warning such as “Duck and Cover”, similarly expressing dire messages which presume the viewer to be of a very limited intelligence. In “Let the Good Times Roll” this material, in retrospect, appears almost self-deprecating- a fiery sermon excoriating the deviant impulses drawn out by “the beat, the beat, the beat” (as if Benny Goodman arrangements or Strauss waltzes or gospel spirituals aren’t based on rhythmic patterns); a representative of a Long Island Jr. High School PTA reads a prepared statement over inappropriate student clothing, words that might carry more weight if she weren’t wearing a hat indistinguishable from a “Plan 9 From Outer Space” flying saucer -as the socially apocalyptic warnings are so overheated with emotion but lacking both reason and a charitable faith in the basic goodness of their communities that they undermine their own concerns with inevitable eye-rolling results. However, wisely neither Levin nor Abel show the slightest interest in sledgehammer response tactics, but rather allow the material to speak for itself: the film clips of erroneous delinquent behavior is mainly represented by predictable clips of “The Blackboard Jungle” and “The Wild One” and their hysterical depictions of rather aged youth run amok, while the vast majority of material depicting clean-cut teens more than refutes the calculated Hollywood attempts at stoking imaginary fires over invisible pandemics featuring adolescents destructively unchecked by way of the demon influence of a musically spread contagion.
The film begins strongly, presented in this kaleidoscopic montage fashion which bookends and occasionally accents the concert performance material which is the heart of the film, though the situation suffers when, as the film progresses, there is far less of this vintage material and that being of increasingly diminishing rewards, to the point where by halfway through the feature, the filmmaker’s enthusiasm for such supportive materials hits a level of creative anemia that is truly distressing (How often does one see a film in which the director(s) visibly seem to be losing interest in the project as it unfolds? ) as by the later half of the movie the vintage assemblage seems randomly selected (as opposed to the well selected, interestingly juxtaposed material which is composed with such fluidity it gives the earlier portions of the film a genuine sense of stream-of-consciousness) to the point where the vintage material appears more as decorous window dressing used to distract from the rather blandly shot concert footage than included as contributions to a specific thematic destination. Nor is the film, as strictly a concert film- which in actuality it is rather than a cultural documentary -particularly well organized in its presentation of musical performances which is essentially an extended commercial for the then-popular touring Richard Nader’s Original Rock and Roll Revival Concerts, the film wastes far too much of the limited running time on onstage hijinks (and at times seems to settle into a preoccupation with generic audience shots, a blatant brand of filler that is epidemic among concert films) which have little to do with advancing the excellence of the musical form: an annoying impersonation of Murray the K by actor Rob Reiner, an embarrassingly inflexible example of hick-kicks interrupting the vocals of The Shirelles, but most egregiously wasteful is an extended sequence with a dynamic Little Richard who interrupts a fleeting performance to enact the persona of a wild man of rock and roll- dressed in his signature Joanne Worley regalia -by climbing a mound of speakers, perform a semi-striptease and fling the garments at the audience; a spectacle that might have a little more juice if the singer didn’t approach the task with the nervous hesitation of a beginning climber suddenly faced with the North Ridge of K2.
Similarly ill-conceived are segments with Bo Diddley which are interrupted with gimmicky visuals which attempt a similarly “hip” but equally unnecessary and intrusive effect to those punctuating Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” (an early segment featuring Chubby Checker is similarly marred by excessive split-screen multiplication during his dancing of The Twist) and a final sequence with iconic Chuck Berry in which an inordinate amount of time is wasted watching the musician attempting to find a graceful way to wander off the stage. Surprisingly, the most resonant performance comes with the appearance of The Five Satins who reach a particularly intimate emotional connection with the audience that reminds of the often overlooked importance of the romantic ballad in the commercially formative years of rock and roll. Equally interesting are the personally meditative moments that pop up randomly in the film, scenes filled with such intimacy of experience that one hungers for the directors to pursue further untapped and invaluable recollections from such irreplaceable cultural icons : a rumination on the blatant and unfair disregard of the “original” black groups who were instrumental in the genesis of the musical form (The “5” Royales, The Dominoes, etc.), Bo Diddley reflecting on the necessity of knowing how to cook in hotel rooms since black performers were made to stand at the back doors of restaurants, and in the most serene sequence of the film, a few reflective moments with Chuck Berry as he looks over the tattered remains of his original touring bus, a scene which more than any other in the film emphasizes the unforgiving effects of the passage of time and neglect of an item of value’s usefulness: a rather literal metaphorical representation of the film’s musical roster.
It is in the film’s overt demonstration of the disposable nature of America’s popular culture, where a concert series might be successfully billed as a return to the “Oldies” when little more than a decade has elapsed, that the film achieves a quite unexpected level of melancholy. Buoyant, lively, with an infectious youthful enthusiasm (despite missed opportunities and inconsistency of technical polish) which makes the ridiculous assertions of 1950s scare mongers that rock and roll will be the end of civilization as we know it (the same warnings that came of that generation’s enthusiasm for swing and jitterbugging-a far cry from The Whiffenpoof Song) seem like deluded alarms from cultural Chicken Littles. While “Let the Good Times Roll” features many of the iconic rock and roll personalities shaking, rattling and rolling onstage for the entertainment of an audience which, curiously, seems for the most part far too young to have experienced the era first-hand, it also becomes apparent that in regard to the chronology of each personality’s height of fame there is a general average of a little more than a decade before the film’s release, a rather dispiriting admission of how wasteful American culture has become and that fame- no matter the level of talent -is almost instantly fleeting and replaceable by the new and equally transient cultural fashion of the hour. That the singers perform with great elan yet are still regarded as antiquated- the cultural version of dinosaurs at such a premature juncture in their careers -is a demoralizing comment on the fleeting nature of popular culture and the attention span of the commercial marketplace.
“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” (1972)
After his initial filmmaking efforts which richly drew from his experience, not only as a sketch writer, but more importantly as a stand-up comedian, Woody Allen comes to terms with the episodic nature of the his directorial work with his deliberately sketch based film of Dr. David Reuben’s highly popular non-fiction sex manual “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”, a film which emphasizes the invention of Allen’s talent for short form humor while relieving him of his (at that point in his career) difficulty in cohesively structuring his often thematically unrelated jokes into a singular narrative. The film also emphasizes that much of Allen’s formative talent (and the beneficiary of his observational eye) is in the parodistic referencing of literature and cultural iconography; certainly a rich lode of humor which he exploits in this film not only in the disparate directions in which the seven individual vignettes unfold, but also in the very basis of the movie’s source itself, this being Allen’s only film directly taking its basis from a specific, published work.
Reuben’s book is written in the form of a question and answer session, which provides Allen with his means in which to structurally remain faithful to his source, while executing his satirical riffs with his own imagined responses to the books questions. As expected, the different segments vary in quality, though it is interesting to note that those which have more of a basis in direct cultural parody are more successful and sustained, thus the opening portion answering the question “Do aphrodisiacs work?” in which a court jester’s (Allen) amorous advances at the Queen (Lynn Redgrave) are thwarted by a chastity belt, or the next segment entitled “What is sodomy?” involving Gene Wilder’s destructive affair with a sheep, are less satisfying and tend to run out of comic steam as they are beholden to not particularly imaginative comic conceptions, the humor deriving from neither of Allen’s more appreciable comic gifts: to derive comedy from his own life or, as previously mentioned, cultural parody.
The film is a major advance in American film as far as the sex comedy is concerned, a genre which proliferated in the 1960’s though a generally dismal expression in increasingly sniggery vehicles passing as either domestic comedy such as “The Impossible Years” and “Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding” or dreary “racy” comedies about playboys such as “Goodbye Charlie”. With “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex”, Allen takes the sex comedy and accomplishes two things unheard of in mainstream Hollywood cinema: (1) he brings sex to the forefront as a subject, without the cloying diverting pretense to which most other Hollywood comedies are subject up to that point (the film is no more sexually graphic in what is presented visually than those other films, but the sexual subject matter is certainly more unashamedly explicit), and (2) turns the comic observance of sexual behavior back on the audience to laugh at its own (often popular culture induced) inhibitions about sex. Allen forgoes- with one prominent exception involving a rabbi, pork chops and a whip -satiric jabs at easy authoritarian parochial targets (the type that once seemed daring but later tiresome in the films of Buñuel) knowing full well that most people give a fleeting nod to such authority while in real-life pretty much do what they wish; any inhibitions within their own behavior being a matter of personal timidity rather than strictly a panicked aversion to sacrilegious damnation.
In this sense, Allen’s film is both liberating and extremely modern; at its very best when framing the comedy within a backdrop of familiar motion picture parody, thus removing even the most outrageous sexual burlesque from the jaws of vulgarity and into something approaching genuine wit. The juxtapositioning of square-toed cultural reference with often (though not always) aberrant sexual content makes for a surprisingly heady mixture in which the audience is invited to laugh at not only at the dull conventions of what are often foisted as landmarks of middlebrow entertainment (“Fantastic Voyage”) or bellwethers in avant-garde modernism (the films of Antonioni), but at the forced conservatism of popular culture- especially the movies -and how such mainstream conventions might be shattered with the mere introduction of frank, human, adult sexuality. Thus, a rather trivial piece of “cult” filmmaking as Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” becomes the basis of an inspired comic SF/horror vignette (under the ironically apropos heading: “Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate?”) with Allen eventually chased about the countryside by an enormous rampaging breast which not only mocks the conventions of both the mad scientist film and the entire Atomic mutant genre of the 1950’s, but is also a pointed satirical jab at the bosom as a target of sexual preoccupation in popular culture (At one point Allen produces a crucifix to ward of the giant mammary, poking at both the familiar method of supernatural discouragement in horror films, while commenting on the impotence of religious authority to suppress the encroaching tide of, not vampires but society’s sexual awakening.)
Similarly, the film ends on a genuine high with a skewered riff on “Fantastic Voyage” under the heading “What Happens During Ejaculation?”, with all of the prerequisite technicians (here played by, among others, Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds) sitting in front of those familiar computer banks with uselessly flashing banks of Christmas lights transplanted inside the body of man on a date; his road to sexual arousal and climax ably assisted by various teams of engineers, work crews and a particularly chatty band of sperm headed by a terrified Allen whose who’s despondent fear that “what if it’s a homosexual encounter?” is only one of the many pleasures in a film that, despite a few spotty moments, certainly knows how to go out with a bang.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973)
Norman Jewison is not what you would call a particularly imaginative director; his skill set positioned somewhere in a middle ground of narrative competence and skilled craftsmanship that is all tool frequently taken for granted amid the never ceasing jockeying for discovery of the latest great cinema savant whose technique of intentional personal intrusiveness over their material is mistaken for bold innovative talent: Stanley Kubrick became a past champion after “2001”, with Martin Scorsese currently holding exalted critical and industry favor among those easily impressed by obvious film school gimcrackery. Middlebrow film making is commonly mistaken as inferior film making, when in actuality it is the basis of virtually all of what has been generously labeled “classic” Hollywood cinema, in that a respect for the narrative was considered paramount over the aesthetic embellishments demonstrating a willingness of directors who endanger coherent and logical storytelling for the sake of advancing their own aesthetic signature. (This will explain the circumstances under which an inexplicably lauded film as “Raging Bull” seduces with its catalog of “notice me” directorial tricks while scoring zero points as a character study.) Conversely, Norman Jewison is the brand of director to whom few, if any, memorable moments are attributable solely through visual inspiration, yet his films are postulate with scenes that nourish the audience’s appetite for both intelligent entertainment and occasionally the more profound thought. Seldom does a Jewison film contain set pieces which will excite the banal analytics of university study and corresponding auteurist treastises (a characteristic of some directors which proves dangerously revealing when their bag of manipulative tricks is on the wane, best exampled by the later years of Alfred Hitchcock) but there has been is an abundance of interesting stories well cast, proficiently mounted and relayed with a refreshing attention to narrative clarity.
Where Jewison runs into trouble with film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” is in his abandoning his usually conservative (read: practical) eye behind the camera and in attempting to make a musical more relevant to the times- meaning catering to the more slovenly counterculture aesthetic which would be contrary to the formalism of traditional musical production as exercised in his previous “Fiddler on the Roof” -leaning toward the avant-garde conceptions of the Broadway theatrical staging (clearly an influence), a rather anachronistic hippie/ pseudo-pagan celebration of post-“Hair” ritual tribal flailings by experimental director Tom O’Horgan (one need only to glance at O’Horgan’s own disastrous filming of his stage version of “Futz” to see that some theatrical conventions do not translate well to film), with the film emerging as a product of an ill-advised osmosis of uncomplimentary creative temperaments as unlikely as any ever imagined in Hollywood legend. Thus the filmization of the popular concept album cum theatrical production seems to borrow from “open theater” innovations mixed with smatterings of New Wave European cinema, merging with conventional film techniques, all blended into an insoluble mix which attempts to make the production contemporary (for the time it was filmed and released) while ignoring the timelessness and universality of the story.
Veering wildly between mock Antonioni and imitation Monty Python (this last, presumably unintentional but still present), the film’s lack of a clear perspective is both frustrating and exhausting: just what did the director have in mind? Shot amid the ancient ruins of Avdat, the setting acts as a source of deliberate anachronistic conflict with the modern theatrics- a conflict consistent with that of the concept album’s fusing of rock and ancient gospel -but the the film is visually dead, with the camera following the actors about the hills and rocks of arid landscapes with nothing to act against and since a solitary character is often alone onscreen (especially in the case of Carl Anderson’s Judas), the environmental desolation leaves the actors seeming dislocated, wandering aimlessly without apparent direction nor with anyone or anything with which to interact; if ever there were an example of the importance of distracting production design, this is the film: Jewison’s mise-en-scene, outside of a few crumbling pillars and a very shaky looking scaffolding is comprised of nothing but bleached rocky hills and caves (its as if the cast were driven into the desert for rehearsals to the spot where the sets were to be built and someone forgot to phone the construction foreman). Its a design strategy which might work if there were an intent to use the barren setting to emphasize a state of metaphysical isolation, but Norman Jewison is far too literal a director for such ambitions. In fact, what is critically absent from the production is any sense of spirituality, a rather crippling omission for a film purporting to depict the origins of a religion. Rather, the film’s injudicious decision to pursue a fleeting contemporaneous hipness tended to make the film feel dated even when new (is there anything more fleeting than counterculture couture?), suggesting an unappetizing sense of cultism rather than theology, hollow idolatry rather than devotion, blind admiration of celebrity rather than faith.
Depicting the events of the last week in the life of Jesus, the focus is presumably more from the perspective of apostle turned betrayer Judas Iscariot, though the film imprudently seems to forget about his character for inordinately lengthy periods once the action starts in earnest. This, in itself, is not inconsistent with the project from its origins as a concept album, though the demands of the cinema are different than those of an LP, and though there are several new songs added to the production (some carried over from the stage incarnation), there is no genuine attempt to explore the Judas’ disillusionment; indeed, since he is depicted as one who believes Jesus to be a man rather than of mortal divinity, the film’s lack of consistency in this perspective only emphasizes the thematic disappointment of the original work. To strip down theological tenets to the core philosophic roots is certainly a legitimate course of exploration- and not without precedent as evidenced by Niko Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo” -but the fundamental source of the antagonism between follower and leader is insufficiently delineated, nor is Judas’ compulsion to betray explained to any satisfactory degree.
Instead, what “Jesus Christ Superstar” becomes is a loosely weaved hippie love-in punctuated with Solid Gold jerks and spasms standing in for expressive choreography, oddly tinny orchestrations and a cast of varying inconsistency, from the quite acceptable (Carl Anderson as Judas and Barry Dennen as Pilate) to the unrelievedly grotesque (Josh Mostel, who seems entirely too pleased with himself during opening sequence- which forms a wraparound device indicating the cast as a troupe of performers who will enact this Passion Play -and to whom one might wish a higher standard of self-amusement). Two other performers merit mention in problematic ways: as Mary Magdelene, Yvonne Elliman sings with an impressive internal flame (as she did of the album), but it’s fortunate that her contributions are mainly limited to these vocals as she cannot act; though Ted Neeley, as the eponymous Superstar, is a far more critical casting weakness: enactingsis the role as neither fiery nor soulful, only stoned (and not in the Biblical sense). Nor does his Jesus seem particularly communicative (on the basis of his behavior here, the only miracle performed is that this Jesus is able to attract a following at all), never making eye contact and constantly looking at the ground (he’s the David Janssen of movie messiahs) as if more concerned with tripping over a rock than spreading the Word.
“The Last Detail” (1973)
There are directors whose reputations are built primarily on the not always reliable renewal of interest from dedicatedly obsessive cinema enthusiasts both of the cultish and academic persuasion; the latter faction, of late, seeming to be less discriminate in the designation of newly unearthed, attention worthy artistic legacy than even their more idiosyncratic brethren, mainly for the sake of publishing further empty volumes of increasingly obscure analysis of often completely imagined aesthetic minutiae from the swelling ranks of university and small press; Hal Ashby being one of the current recipients of such dubiously sensible reevaluation with an equally questionable elevation of artistic standing not quite merited by actual filmic achievement as much as personal wishful thinking by the critical minds desperate to convey an original thread in the cinema firmament. Fathomless cult attention to the incomprehensibly resilient trash that is “Harold and Maude” notwithstanding, Ashby’s output is characterized by a particularly flavorless mise-en-scene, and an inattention to all but the most obvious and cheaply wrought dramatic effects. A promising project such as “Bound for Glory” is distinguished solely by the breathtaking photography of the gifted Haskell Wexler, and a sly , knowing lead performance by the underused David Carradine; but for all of its picturesque quality was dramatically disconnected and ultimately leaden. “Shampoo”, Ashby’s 1975 critical favorite du jour, was lauded for qualities, more liberal minded wish fulfillment than anything actually in the film; a crashing bore whose timid but self-satisfied smirking humor- passing for profundity -was dated before the ink dried on the script. Similarly, his 1978 Vietnam film “Coming Home” managed the unenviable task of finally approaching the subject of the controversial war with a pair of tongs manipulated by arthritic hands clothed with insulated oven mitts; the consequences of a national trauma reduced to a soap opera of an unfulfilled wife experiencing her first orgasm. Which brings us to “The Last Detail”, Ashby’s 1973 film of Darryl Ponicsan’s slim novel, indifferently directed, unattractively photographed by Michael Chapman and adapted by Robert Towne with an increased reliance on easy obscenity heavy dialogue which marked but wasn’t allowed to similarly define the substance of the language of Ponicsan’s source work.
The film and novel follow a pair of career petty officers on Shore Patrol detail, transporting a prisoner from Norfolk to the Portsmouth Naval Prison; a detail that is colored by the the markedly disproportionate punishment meted out to their charge, an eighteen years old Seaman, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), who receives an eight year sentence for an attempt at a petty thievery of a charity box (unluckily it is a favored charity of the CO’s wife). If this journey from naval base to prison has the flavor of a Candide-like odyssey, then the crustier of the two veteran salts, a feisty bundle of walking braggadocio, Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), assumes the titular role of a modern Pangloss, though as portrayed in the film he is fundamentally a picaresque character who takes the forlorn and decidedly unworldly Meadows under his surprisingly sympathetic and protective wing. Buddusky is a comic contradiction: a Shore Patrol authority who himself is the embodiment of those generally targeted by that very authority. (This is emphasized in a scene lifted directly from the book in which Buddusky excitedly answers a bartender’s threat that he will call the Shore Patrol: “I am the Shore Patrol!”) Buddusky’s companion in this detail is Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), an initially less than enthusiastic participant in Buddusky’s lengthy efforts to extend the time of the detail. allowing the virginal, unworldly Meadows to experience the earthier pleasures of life before his extended incarceration, including a drunken episode in a cramped hotel room, a morbid visit to Meadows’ mother’s slovenly home, a visit to with Buddhists practicing Nichiren Shõshû chanting and a visit to a realistically seedy brothel.
All of the aforementioned incidents are lifted directly from the book, though there is a significant change in the visit to Meadows’ mother which bears consideration. In the novel, the visit carries far more weight as not only is Meadows’ mother home when the sailors arrive, but also her live-in “lover” Mr. Smith, a grizzled piece of human wreckage who lays claim to also being a veteran of naval service; a virtual mirror of a future version of Buddusky. In the film, the empty house is simply unkept and filled with evidence of alcoholism, an intellectually lazy alternative version which attempts elementary brownie points to needlessly stack the sympathy deck toward Meadows, but (more importantly) removes any psychological subtext from Buddusky, a problem that is symptomatic of the entire film.
There are other important differences between the source book and the film. Within the context of the novel, the detail has an unconscious though cumulative effect on the two veteran sailors, an effect far more pertinent than the surface plot points involving the awakening of Meadows, as the story is leading to a climax in which lies the tale’s suspense: in the light of their growing bonds, just what will Mulhall and Buddusky do with their young companion? But rather than the fate of Meadows, it is the moral dilemma of his two compatriots which comprises the meat of the drama; the detail becoming a cathartic experience for the pair whose dissatisfactions with the career of a “lifer” eventually erupts into an implosively destructive course in a finale which is entirely unconvincing and thus unsatisfying but gives real meaning to the title, which is obliterated by the movie’s vivid alteration of events. This muting of the novel’s more extreme consequences makes sense only when partnered with the film’s simplification of the book’s ending- with its sarcastic but sheepish surrender to career routine -but this alteration also imposes an inescapable prosaism to Buddusky: rather than taking action, he is unwittingly revealed to be merely a loudmouthed braggart, a revelation not only equally unsatisfying but anti-dramatic: just what was the presumed meaning of the entire film anyway? This ultimately divests the detail of any particular meaning, resulting in a reduction to a series of incidents which ultimately signify nothing, and then only within the reduced context of an equal simplification of the characters of Mulhall and- especially -Buddusky,
Robert Towne’s adaptation is characterized mainly by surgical excision, however, in correctly disposing of the brainless melodramatics of the novel’s ending, Towne has failed to provide any compensatory narrative payoff that would maintain his main character’s cathartic moment of self definition; one that would demonstrate the cumulative effect of the events that have just unfolded. a failure of conceptual integrity that is further advanced by Towne’s deletion of several key elements in Buddusky’s character, including his capacity for advanced intelligence which he deliberately submerges, and a key reunion with his ex-wife which significantly lights the fuse of his doubts and self-loathing.With this narrowing of Buddusky’s character, the narrative descends into an almost crudely comedic tone with the more ludicrously dramatic elements popping up in awkward spurts of melancholic shrillness; all italicized with a spectacular lack of finesse by director Ashby who never fails to bulldoze his way through any contrived plot point rank with obviousness. If in this severely reductive context, Buddusky is all hollow showmanship, Mulhall has been similarly minimized from interestingly simmering and resentful character to a blandly sensible but stoically undefined figure who seems neither discontented with his career, nor particularly sympathetic to the more outrageous of Buddusky’s world expanding plans for Meadows, yet nonetheless resigns himself to his most outrageous whims. (Why is it in the context of “white” Hollywood stories, interesting black male characters are generally subordinated to flatly stereotypical colorless figures or extravagantly florid street wise punks and hustlers? Is it too much to ask that the “content of their character” might be drawn with equal depth from the same well?) There is zero chemistry between Nicholson and Young, much of this the result of, but not limited to, the hazards of Towne and Ashby’s tonal reconception of their relationship.
As Buddusky, Jack Nicholson is a frontal assault of a three ring circus mingled with the placidity of the carnival sideshow and the subtlety of an air raid siren; teeth flashing and eyebrows waggling enough to be seen by surveillance satellites. There is not a quiet moment in the entire performance; he’s stuck in a continuous replaying of the explosively outraged behavior from the famous diner scene from “Five Easy Pieces”, but that was a crescendo from an extended period of contained sardonicism; in “The Last Detail”, Nicholson allows himself no wiggle room: he’s on full burn from the first moment, as if the actor were compensating for his vaporous underplaying in the previous “The King of Marvin Gardens”. His behavior is not a reaction to the accumulation of frustration but the showcase of a deviled ham. If Ponicsan’s novelistic intentions are of any consequence to the actor it is not evident on the screen; the performance being less an exploration of character than a prelusive exercise in the excesses Nicholson would memorialize to gaudy perfection in the unfortunate “The Shining”. Otis Young faces a different dilemma, attempting to perform in concert with a whirlwind, while shackled with a thanklessly eviscerated role affording little opportunity for memorability. However, Randy Quaid is quietly moving as Meadows, and there is a dandy, brief but chilling turn by Michael Moriarty as military authority turned inhuman.
Woody Allen reveals the absurdity that is the future by mining the ridiculous that is the present in “Sleeper”, a science fiction comedy decidedly lo-tech for all of its futuristic advancements, which only seem to be cheaply plastic extensions of our increasingly built-to-be-disposable material as well as ideological society. Curiously, for a film which propels the audience into the future, much of the comic design is based in the physically expressive signature of the silent film; Allen’s admiration for the great silent comics is well established, and its his own considerable capacity for physical slapstick comedy is the most unjustly neglected facet of his performance arsenal.
The film is Allen’s penultimate effort during his early directorial period in which he concentrated his films on the accumulation of razor sharp observational witticisms which played havoc on the conventions of a specific cinematic genre he was using as the basis of his satiric knives. Allen’s performance style, the nebbish persona clearly honed from his years in stand-up comedy, is his most consistent characteristic in this period (and the bulk of his career), finding a comfortable foothold in every vehicle since, in many ways, the films are actually cinematic extensions of that same stand-up experience. This early “funny Woody” film period predated the increasingly personal director at war with both exploring the increasingly unfunny depths of his personal neuroses and imitating his cinematic betters. In this early period, Allen’s films were often as formless as his formulative stand-up comedy routines (essential exposure in measuring Allen’s craft can be found in his recorded comedy compilation “The Night Club Years”, though the original double LP pressings are favorable over the reissued CD version which injudiciously deletes much solid material and destroys the comedian’s timing through sloppy inexcusably editing), though less so than his celebrated New Yorker writings; the films often cleverly strung together sketch ideas (Chaplin performed wonders with a similar structure in his “Modern Times”) more resembling an assembled collection of comic situations (not unlike his published collections of New Yorker pieces) rather than a linear narrative. (The last film of this period, “Love and Death”, was the closest approximation of a straightforward story line, though it had the advantage of the example of Tolstoy.) This may explain why “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” emerged as his most controlled of his earlier period, as it was deliberately designed as a compendium of theme-related vignettes; each segment short enough to rely on the value of its individual inspiration (there’s not a loser in the bunch) and not overstay its comic value.
However, the one consistent flaw in Allen’s early work is an inability to end his films on a satisfying note; the danger of the revue/sketch structure which formed the basis of his early work, was that it was more difficult to conclude with a collective summing up of such scattershot materials. This is not a situation which is remedied in “Sleeper”- this may even contain his weakest ending of all, concluding not with a bang nor a whimper, but a shrug of disinterest. This problem, however, is symptomatic of a problem which crops up continually in the film, which is the strained weakness of a scenario in which the conventions of the targeted story type (dystopian science fiction) are not satirized in meaningful ways which might expose the often intellectually stale conceits at the heart of this overused sub-genre: an increasingly lazy concession in futuristic fabulism that ignores logical societal and political evolution in favor of a blanket negativism promoting the ease of Laputan thinking rather than the more ambitious construct of a credible beneficent societal structure.
The film’s narrative is simplicity itself: Miles Monroe (Woody Allen), a health food store proprietor and clarinetist, is secretly awakened from cryogenic suspension after two hundred years by a team of scientists who wish to use his undocumented anonymity to penetrate a State sponsored project of unknown origin known as Aries. Initially resistant, circumstances force Miles to flee his temporary sanctuary and eventually meet up with the Underground Resistance, but not before acquiring the company of a spectacularly untalented poetess named Luna. Much of the humor derives from encounters with cultural relics from 1973 and Milo’s knowing, sarcastic spin on their relevance (comments about a yet-to-be-disgraced Richard Nixon resonate with an eerie prescience), and a fixation on futuristic comfort which is, pointedly, antithetical to contemporary claims and standards: hot fudge and tobacco are health products, sex is promoted as a group activity or with the use of State sanctioned mechanics (the Orgasmatron), anxieties are tranquilized with “hits” off of the spherical Orb. In Allen’s dystopian conception, petty vice has become the norm, which seems to have an amusingly effective mollifying effect on the citizenry.
The film’s plot is noticeably underdeveloped and the SF genre conventions, as such, seem to hold no interest for him (unlike Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein”, there is insufficient attention to any but the most basic genre tropes), yet this does not inhibit his satirizing a far more challenging target for his satirical ammunition, for as with all valuable speculative fiction, the futuristic setting is used merely as a springboard for critical illumination of contemporary society. The dystopian science fiction backdrop is used by Allen as fertile ground to ridicule the empowered leadership of both politics and high culture, comprised of the grossly incapable and the aesthetically clueless: the film mocks philosophies far more Warholian than Orwellian. Allen’s concept of the dystopian power structure is not one of totalitarian omnipotence, but of a public incompetence shielded from collapse only by the lethargy of a barely functional society. Rather than being tranquilized by drugs (though there is the Orb) or pervasive widespread paranoia, the citizens (outside of the few initial doctors and rebels who seem to be the only ones with their noses out of joint- perhaps because none of them gets a good line in the film -and therefore seem like a bunch of killjoys)seem perfectly content with their situation. The State doesn’t appear to be that menacing (unless one is conspiring against it, but that’s not a great stretch from reality) nor competent (as illustrated by a running gag involving two security men who continuously fail to engage their weaponry) its simply that the population is to high to initiate any hint of discontent.
However, there is a deeper subtext to Allen’s whimsey (co-written with Marshall Brickman) which truly distinguishes the film, and that is its satirical take on the perceived values placed upon culture; both in the popular sense and the exclusivity of “high culture” circles composed of sycophantic ninnies and braying phonies to whom the sound of their own purposeless voices signifies everything. The conversation among the depicted “sophisticated” set is as humorously empty as the dialogue in “2001: A Space Odyssey””, and with a similar satiric intent. If in Kubrick’s film the entirety of human communication is shown to be a regrettable failure of evolution- the grunts and body language of the opening primordial grouping ironically expressing far more important information to each other than any utterance from film’s roster of scientists and astronauts -then the empty dialogue of Allen’s artsy divus and divas expresses a more overt surrender to the vacuity of expression which the “artists” presume to be important but is little more than nonsensical jibberish. An admirer excitedly states to the spectacularly untalented poetess Luna (Diane Keaton), in rapturous awe, that “you were so obviously influenced by McKuen” is Allen’s stab at the falseness of what is ignorantly identified as art. Most importantly, is the subtle jab cautioning at the consequences of such a hollow, meaningless culture: the circles of intelligentsia who assume the guardianship of the voice of the cultural arts are seen as no threat by a dystopian authority that one would assume would wish to squash all forms of challenging thought, but are obviously dismissed as a harmless cadre of self-absorbed dilettantes, harmful to no one but their own self-deluded egos.
The greatest irony of “Sleeper” considering its time-traveling theme, is that much of the humor could be considered badly dated. Not that the techniques of humor employed suffer from antiquated obsolescence, but many of the cultural reference points essential to understanding some of the central jokes may be be obscured by the passage of time, perhaps making more of a statement on the audience than the depth and quality of Allen’s comic inventions. The explanation of the coming of an apocalyptic war with “a man named Albert Shanker getting hold of a nuclear warhead” will probably stymie most in the audience, unaware of just who Shanker is, though is this the fault of the joke or might causation of the failure to grasp the humor stem from the decreasing mental reference file brought to the theater by the confused viewer? Are references to Howard Cosell, Chaing Kai-shek or Rod McKuen relevant to the modern audience which disregards the culture of the past for the fleeting celebrity of the present? Successful humor is timeless, regardless if some in the audience struggle to catch up.
Allen’s cinema persona- he seldom plays a character, merely variations of “himself” -is the sarcastic wit who is actually a minstrel of spiked derision: more addressing the audience directly (thus obliterating a secure fourth wall) in the guise of asides- generally unnoticed by the characters with whom he’s interacting -that substitute for the literary devices of internal thoughts and monologues. In “Sleeper”, as in most of Allen’s films, he plays the film’s tour guide with a comic running commentary, the observant eye who renders judgment on everyone else: all of whom are either deemed ridiculous or slightly more ridiculous. However, in “Sleeper”, the weakness of Allen’s comic methodology is also laid bare, which is the total absence of generosity in spreading the jokes around. Clearly Allen is intended to be the only funny person in the room: the class clown amid a world of bores, dry academicians, pretentious literary frauds, social parasites and generally dim people. The problem with this imbalance of wit- especially in a film zeroing in on the vacuousness of the arts scene -is that it makes Allen’s targets of satire all the more dull. There are no characters, with the exception of Miles, who are even slightly interesting, and scenes in which Miles is absent (thankfully they are few in number) tend to drag to a level where the formlessness and lack of narrative tension actually begins to unravel the last twenty minutes of the film. Both Allen and Keaton work frenetically (though without success) in the final scenes at the Aries Project, obviously in compensation for the uncomfortable feeling that exhaustion within the slim material is finally taking root, leading to the inevitable half-hearted trickle of a finale.
Diane Keaton’s is thrown sufficient whimsical opportunities which she fails to capitalize on to catch in her usual, semi-narcoleptic state of dizzy amateurism. In “Sleeper” she proves her performance incapacity in “The Godfather” was no accident, and her inability to convincingly focus on effective line readings while submerging her overly ambitious personal industry of tics, stammers and idiosyncratic vocal stumbling, extends well beyond drama and into the comic form. The remainder of the supporting cast is outperformed by a small electronic dog named Rags, a momentary lift from Elio Petri’s “La decima vittima”, but far funnier in this incarnation.