Tuesday, June 29, 2010

John Huston's Fat City (1972): Makin' It Through the Night

Boxing films are never about the sport of boxing. Boxing is so primitive, so stark and simple-minded, that it can only function as a metaphor for the larger concerns of character and conflict. Which is simply fine with me as someone who really has no interest in sports; so many great movies are "about" boxing: Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1955), Million Dollar Baby (2004). One film that doesn't get mentioned in the same breath as those is John Huston's 1972 adaptation of a novel by Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1972). Set in the same sort of broken-down loser milieu as a Charles Bukowski story or a Tom Waits song, Fat City has atmosphere and grit to spare.

vintage '70s paperback

Vintage Contemporaries paperback

Winsome and innocent young Jeff Bridges, fresh from The Last Picture Show (1971), plays Ernie, who turns up in a gym to absentmindedly work out and meets Stacey Keach as Tully, utterly believable as a worn-out, punch-drunk and actual-drunk ex-fighter working his way to the bottom. Encouraged by Tully to train for real, Ernie goes to see Tully's old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto, who you might remember as Coach from "Cheers"), and starts a career as a fighter. Meanwhile Tully drinks in a local bar and befriends Oma (Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell), a legendary drunk who tends to fly off the handle about the "white race in decline" while she dates a black man (Curtis Cokes, a real-life boxing champion), but she soon hitches herself to Tully and they try to achieve some semblance of cohabitation.

But it ends badly and he takes to drinking again in earnest. Ernie doesn't do so hot as a boxer, seems more concerned with the cut of his robe than fighting, and soon has to join up with Tully out in the onion fields with migrant workers, discussing marriage. "Ernie, don't let anybody knock marriage," Tully tells him. "No, man, it's got its compensations," Ernie replies. But then Tully, perhaps inspired by Ernie, tries to make a comeback: "I got to get myself together and get down to the gym, start working out..." But this ain't Rocky and the training montage doesn't come together. "I'm gonna be bad news this time around!" He doesn't know the half of it.

Huston gets all the details right. Filmed in Northern California, the skid-row setting is as rough-hewn, real and powerfully presented as the opening Mexican scenes of his Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). You can practically smell the stale liquor and sweat of the characters as they stumble about. In fact, in the opening credits, Keach is sprawled out in boxers and undershirt on his single bed in a dingy room and you'll think you can just reach out and touch the funk. What an intro to a character, especially with the plaintive rasp of Kris Kristofferson singing "Help Me Make It Through the Night" on the soundtrack.

Fat City is one of those forgotten films that deserves a wider audience, filled with scenes that typify the characters studies of the time. Ruben in bed smoking while his wife sleeps, musing aloud about the promise Ernie shows. Ernie and his young wife (Candy Clark) pressuring him to marry while they waste time out parking. A dinner scene with Keach and Tyrell arguing as he opens a can of peas and dumps them on a plate alone is priceless. As Oma, Tyrell is truly one of the great screen drunks, slurring, screeching, stumbling, taking offense at the slightest comment one moment, petulant and self-pitying as a child the next. She's almost unwatchable, which might be the point.

And when it all wraps up, after all the ups and downs and drunken confrontations have been experienced, there is a truly honest and touching, even awkward, moment. Tully and Ernie randomly meet up one night - Tully's drunk, Ernie's given it up for his family - and get a cup of coffee in a truly desolate coffee shop, served by an ancient Asian man. Tully muses, "The waste... Before you can get rollin', your life makes a beeline for the drain." Kristofferson's song sneaks up on us on us again and we're left to wonder if indeed guys like this can make it at all.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jaws: On a 35-Year-Old Obsession

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.
"There is a creature alive today that has survived millions of years of evolution. Without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything. It is as if God... created the devil... and gave him... Jaws." - Narration from the original 1975 trailer.
Where does an obsessive fan of Jaws even start? How does one trace the threads of its power to captivate, to enthrall, to terrify? What does one make of its entwining itself throughout a life, and especially the nightmares, the nightmares of monstrous, maniacally grinning sharks that look like nothing ever seen on earth? One starts at the beginning, one supposes.

Being exposed to it from the age of four is probably the main fact of it. Growing up in the 1970s, you couldn't escape the Jaws phenomenon, even if your folks wouldn't let you see it until you were older. So you spent a lot of time being accosted by this monstrous shark image and wondering if, when you finally saw the movie, you'd die of fright. And by you I mean me, of course. The week before I saw it on re-release in 1978 or '79 (at a drive-in, no less!), I laid awake in bed each night, literally fearful for my life. Would this be the last thing I ever saw?

One of my earliest memories is of my parents picking my sister and me up from our aunt's house, who'd babysat us while they went to see the movie in '75. From the darkened backseat of the car I asked, "How'd they kill the shark?" My mom replied, "Three men went out on a boat and blew it up." In my tiny head I had an image of three men in a wooden fishing boat throwing a stick of dynamite into the ocean while a rather large nondescript fish swam beneath them.

me, c. 1976

Also a kid I spent a lot of summers down at the Jersey Shore so there was plenty of time to ruminate upon just what lurked beneath the waters. Daytime was bad enough, of course, but night was worse. Hearing the endless roar of waves and looking out over a blackened sea and imagining what was beneath - imaging myself out in those waters, helpless and alone, truly vulnerable, as swells lifted and dropped me, pushing me further and further from shore - was almost too much for my imagination.

I'd lean over the boardwalk railings and give myself a frisson of delicious terror, like someone who craves the burn of whiskey or habaneros on their palate. Then my parents would call me to catch up and off I'd run, glad to be free of the fear that I know haunts people everywhere; even, I'm sure, in landlocked places. I even remember being afraid of swimming across a pool at night, when I was older, and giving myself that same tease of terror... and then getting out, drying off, going inside.

The estuary sequence as originally shot

But Jaws is more than just cheap thrills, and while I always watched it over and over whenever it was on TV, it's been in the last three or four years that the obsession has fully bloomed. Once I had the DVD it was on almost nightly. Now that I'm an experienced film fan, with a film degree and all that entails (basically writing about films for free online), watching Jaws is a different experience; the pleasures are not simply in the terror the movie engenders, but in how that tale is told. It is common film lore that the shark didn't work so the filmmakers couldn't use it as much as envisioned, etc., etc.

Today I see how perfectly the film is constructed, how effortlessly it presents character and dramatic conflict, how it takes its time getting to the "good stuff." Like all great '70s movies there is overlapping dialogue, faces that bear the traces of lives lived and not makeup artists employed, and space, so much space for which the characters to move in and around, a real sense of place... until we get to sea, of course, and all avenues are closed off. It's man versus nature and man versus man and man versus himself. Brody, Quint, and Hooper each have their own reasons for confronting this beast. Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss are one of the great cinematic ensemble casts. Watch each actor closely next time you see the film; you'll be amazed at the little things they do to solidify their characters.

Do I think that Jaws is the best movie ever? Honestly, in many ways, yes, I do. It is surely the finest thriller Hollywood has made; in its perfect cocktail of character and carnage it is still a beacon to filmmakers today. While other favorite movies of mine may aspire to a higher, more rarefied art, I am also of the opinion that art and generic conventions need never be separated and yield some of the finest films ever made. The Godfather could have been a cheap gangster flick; The Silence of the Lambs a potboiler about a mad doctor; Raging Bull just another sports triumph movie. But they're not, and neither is Jaws simply another monster-on-the-loose story. I'm surprised when I talk with people who think so.

The stunningly moody and poetic teaser for the sequel
(thanks to peelslowlynsee)

And then once in a video store I overheard a young woman whining to her boyfriend, "Why is Jaws in the horror section?" Took all my strength to not grab her, thrash her about, and shout in her face, "Because when a shark EATS YOU it's considered SCARY."

"Hello, Universal? Look, I know I'm only 26 years old, but I'm gonna make you the first movie to ever gross $100 million ever. What? You want me to shoot it in a tank? FUCK YOU."

Jaws could have been what all of its countless imitators are: cheap and fast, Corman-style exploitation flicks with all of the blood but none of the heart to give it a beat worthwhile. We've all seen those movies and we've all thought they were... okay. But Steven Spielberg's Jaws (and, of course, Benchely's and Scheider's and Dreyfuss's and Shaw's and Verna Fields's and John Williams's), even with its gore-flecked teeth and gaping maw and insatiate hunger, with the irrational fear it has given people all over the world, again I say that Spielberg's Jaws is heart, all heart, and probably even my own.

Cheers, and thanks for reading.

"Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women."
The second most famous toast in film.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Steven Spielberg's Jaws: More Momentary Appreciation on its 35th Anniversary

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.

Again, a collection of in-between moments and lines from Jaws that I find as memorable, effective, and artfully composed as any of the big standout action pieces. Of course, this is only a handful; I could go on and on, believe me.

No dialogue after finding the remains of Chrissie Watkins. Holding the victim's clothes, Brody turns to the sea. What... is out there?, he's thinking. He'll find out soon enough. You can feel Brody's fear and loathing of the sea throughout the movie; Roy Scheider, who had just played tough NYC cops in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, here sends out palpable waves of nervous energy as a man out of his element and desperately looking out for places to relax. He only gets a few.

"Wanna get drunk and fool around?" "Oh, yeah." Scheider and Lorraine Gary had plenty of good moments together as a truly believable couple. Their first scene together, waking up to a sun-drenched bedroom and Brody's shuffle out the door as he tries to master the New England accent ("They're in the yahd, not too fahr from the cahr"), is a charming and realistic introduction to them. All of it shows that Spielberg's mastery of family life dynamics was present at the very beginning of his career.

"Give us a kiss." "Why?" "Because I need it." Perhaps the most soulful and touching scene in the film. After being confronted by Alex Kintner's grieving mother (another moment with the crystal-clear ring of emotional truth) Brody's exhausted but still takes a couple minutes to interact playfully with his youngest son, Sean, who's been imitating Brody's weary movements. Ellen Brody watches, hoping she can make a connection with her beleaguered husband, but then Matt Hooper unexpectedly knocks at the door. Hooper sits and spies an untouched plate (Brody's presumably), and asks:

"Is anyone eating this?" Just like a starving grad student. Richard Dreyfuss was concerned his character Hooper was simply there to "dispense shark facts" and he, Spielberg, and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb worked hard to not make him the insufferable dilettante he was in the novel.

"Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women." As portrayed by Robert Shaw, Quint is easily one of the most striking and impressive supporting characters in all of film. His testing of men is never-ending. He doesn't know it yet but Brody and Hooper are more than able to step up. Why, just check out how Hooper makes short work of that Styrofoam cup! This bit was made up by the actors and Gottlieb over coffee one morning before shooting.

And here, the enormous great white glides silent and implacable into the pond. Williams's famous score has just left a second of quiet empty space and then a cut to this, which Spielberg has framed so that we can compare the tiny form of Sean Brody to the shark.

How puny it makes people look, how vulnerable, how oblivious to the dangers just a few yards offshore we can be. This shot also prefigures Quint's how-to on determining the size of a shark: "You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail." In less than a minute, in an abrupt edit - a brilliant move on the part of editor Verna Fields, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her work - we will get our first glimpse of the monstrous and bloody maw that has haunted my recurring nightmares for over 30 years.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975): A Momentary Appreciation on its 35th Anniversary

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.

There are moments in Jaws that simply leave me speechless. Quiet moments. Odd moments. In-between moments. Touches here and there that add color and depth and shade and wit to the potentially exploitative proceedings. These are not the crash-bang of Ben Gardner's head popping out of the hole the great white shark tore in the hull of his fishing boat; not the brilliant USS Indianapolis speech; not the improvised "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line (often misquoted as "We're gonna need a bigger boat"); not Chrissie's guttural cries of pain and terror as she's thrashed about as a midnight snack. No, terrific and bone-chilling and immortal as those moments may be, it's not what makes obsessives out of moviegoers. Obsessives like me find little nooks and crannies throughout a movie into which they pour their passion and awe. This is one of them.

Quint is harpooning barrels into the great white shark, which then leads the Orca on a wild chase across the sea. As John Williams's score switches from ominous to adventurous, we get a few shots of Brody watching all the action (and also carefully strapping his gunbelt to his waist).

The last one is key, in which we see that for just a second or two Brody's forgotten what he's at sea to do: to kill a monstrous shark. In fact, just a minute before he was screaming at Quint, "You're certifiable!" That "miracle of evolution" is, lest we forget, shaped like a bullet; it practically leaves the Orca in its wake. Brody is now impressed, thrilled by the hunt of this "fast fish," marveling at it as it careens through the sea at high speed. This shot lasts all of a second, but we feel a vicarious moment of joy and humanity as a tiny smile appears on Brody's face. He's enjoying himself.

A moment like this doesn't need to be in the film, but it's here and it's part of what separates Jaws from all of its countless imitators.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

As If God Created the Devil and Gave Him... Jaws

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.

These are a few of the foreign movie posters for Jaws, Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster masterpiece. Above is the French poster, with its title translated not as Jaws but Teeth of the Sea. The tagline is "She was the first," which is not bad at all but I don't think it was ever used on American posters.

Now this one is pretty amazing and rare, a pre-production announcement poster. It's just astounding, with the victim and the shark back-lit by a blazing sun. The unfortunate dude seems to be all decked out in sharp '70s attire, you can see the enormous shirt collar. Don't know which character he's supposed to be. You can also see the cover of the original hardcover, where I don't think the artist knew exactly what a great white shark looked like.

An evocative, poetic, and yet still bloody, poster from Poland. I especially enjoy the bloody chomp taken out of the title. Nice touch. The artist is Dudzinski Andrzej.

And a Thai poster that presents us with the familiar shark image (originally painted by Roger Kastel for the paperback edition of the novel) and well-done images of the main characters and scenes. Love the dorsal fin behind Chrissie, an effective bit of artistic license. Again, the shark in the upper corner reveals an artist unfamiliar with our beloved Carcharodon carcharias.

Stay tuned; more Jaws appreciation forthcoming!