Wednesday, January 11, 2012



Little Big Man is framed by the reminiscences of 121-year old Jack Crabb played by Dustin Hoffman who was raised by the Cheyenne after his family was massacred by the Pawnee. This gives him the perspective of both Caucasian and Native American life and gives him a unique view of America. In his experiences he encounters a wide variety of characters including General Custer who is portrayed as a mad racist before he gets wiped out at the Little Big Horn. The Native Americans are given a more sympathetic treatment than usual, and the US Cavalry are depicted as the villians. The film contains elements of satire and tragedy, and has a clear social conscious about prejudice and injustice. Little Big Man was directed by Arthur Penn who had made the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Faye Dunaway acts in both films and she will also go on to make other great films in the 70s including Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, and Network. Dustin Hoffman was also at his peak here after already being in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. The 70s would also see him in the excellent films Papillion, Lenny, Marathon Man, and All The President's Men.


A Clockwork Orange was directed by Stanley Kubrick and is based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. It features disturbing, violent images and deals with social, political, and economic subjects in a Britain of the near future. Malcolm McDowell plays Alex as a chrarismatic, psychopathic delinquent whose interests include Beethoven and "ultra-violence." He leads a small gang of thugs known as droogs and the film chronicles their horrific crime spree, Alex's capture, and his attempted rehabilitation via controversial psychological conditioning. Alex narrates the film in Nadsat, a fractured adolescent slang comprising Slavic, English, and Cockney rhyming slang. A Clockwork Orange is a stylish, shocking, and thought provoking work of cinema. 

SOLARIS (1972)

Solaris is based on the science fiction novel of the same name written by Stanislaw Lem. The Solaris mission has established a base on a planet that appears to host some kind of intelligence. The film moves in a slow hypnotic pace and is full of mysterious and hallucinatory imagery. The Ocean on the planet has the ability to effect the thoughts of the scientists and they start to question what is real and their own sanity. The film probes man's thoughts and conscience, and after a while the psychologist finds himself becoming attached to this alternate reality. Solaris is directed by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky whose works are characterized metaphysical themes, and contain long cinematic takes of great beauty, and lack a conventional dramatic structure. He also made The Mirror in 1975, and Stalker in 1979. Many consider his 1966 film Andrei Rublev to be his masterpiece.


Aguirre, The Wrath of God takes place in the 1500s and follows a group of Spanish conquistadors moving down the Amazon searching for the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. It is based on historical facts, but works more as a metaphor for man's thirst for power, the need to conquer others, and the madness and folly of trying to dominate nature.The film was shot in the Peruvian rainforest, and starts with a long shot of the expedition moving down a mountain in the clouds. Throughout the film the camera lingers on images of natural beauty in the rainforest. Aguirre, becomes the ruler of what is left of the expedition as they move down the river, slowly starving and suffering from hallucinations Klaus Kinski plays him with an intensity and snarl that makes him frightening and intimidating as he descends into madness. The director Werner Herzog emerged from the New German Cinema in the 1970s which included the filmmakers Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, and Margarethe von Trotta. Herzog has always made both narrative features and documentaries. The strength of Herzog's work is in the layering of image and music,  creating an emotional experience and drawing the viewer into the film. His characters or subjects are often eccentric individuals and there is often dark humor in the dialogue or narration. He produced several films in the 70s including The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Nosferatu the Vampyre, and Woyzeck.


Last Tango is a powerful, emotional, and profound statement about the relationship between men and women. The film deals with the themes of love and sex, fear and desire, anger and betrayal, and how we deal with both the ecstacy of love and the intense pain when it all comes down. Anyone, who had ever been in love and experienced the pain of a failed relationship can relate to this film. Last Tango was directed by the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, and the film was controversial when it came out because of the graphic sexual scenes between Marlon Brando, who was 48 at the time, and Maria Schneider, who was only 19. Bertolucci's films push the envelope and often deal with sexual taboos. There are powerful, disturbing scenes in the film and both actors later said they felt manipulated and exploited by Bertolucci. The film's visual style is astounding as it is shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. There is a great use of warm colors especially yellows and reds and a magnificent play of light and shadow that is reminiscent of Rembrandt. Bertolucci also made the amazing films The Conformist and 1900 in the 70s.


Chinatown is a neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanaski, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It also has John Huston portraying the cold-blooded, corrupt, megalomaniac father of Dunaway's character. Chinatown has a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. It is set in Los Angeles in the 1930s and was inspired by the California Water Wars. With superb acting and a wonderful rendering of 30s LA, Chinatown also has shocking plot twists that lead to a disturbing and tragic ending.


The Passenger stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider and takes a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and mankind's desire to escape oneself. Nicholson plays a journalist making a documentary about post-colonial Africa. He is trying to interview rebel fighters involved in Chad's civil war, but gets his jeep stuck in a sand dune on the way to a meeting. When he returns to the hotel he finds another man he befriended dead and swaps identities with him. Nicholson's character is tired of his work, marriage, and life, but in his new identity he is an arms dealer which will lead to tragic consequences. Schneider plays a young architecture student whom he encounters. The film ends with a climactic seven-minute tracking shot. The Passenger is directed by the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni who made Blow-Up and L'Aventura in the 60s, which were also about the illusive nature of identity and reality and present mysteries that can't always be solved.


I first saw the film Taxi Driver when it came out in 1976. I walked out of the theater in a daze. At the time it was shocking for its graphic depiction of violence and its up close look at prostitution and a world most of us never experience. The film is directed by Martin Scorsese who was from New York and had already captured the city's texture in his film Mean Streets which also starred Robert DeNiro. The film opens with a shot of and old checker cab emerging through smoke to the ominous soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann. The night cinematography by Michael Chapman uses the cab's window and rear view mirror as a frame for the ever shifting city. In the opening few minutes, the film renders the streets of New York in a dark and beautiful way. There are shots from the point of view of the cab moving through the city. The crowds move at different speeds and the colors and forms are constantly moving in and out of focus. Until I saw Taxi Driver, I basically looked at movies as entertainment, but this film made me see cinema as a medium that could be artistic and reflect and make strong statements about our culture. Scorsese would go on to create the great films Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990).

NETWORK (1976)  

Network is a brilliant, outrageous, satirical, absurd, and disturbing film about the power of television on the masses and capitalism run amok. Howard Beale played by Peter Finch is a long-time network anchor who announces on the air that he is going to commit suicide. He is fired at first but allowed to come back to bow out with dignity, but his breakdown continues on air, causing a huge positive spike in the ratings. The network decides to exploit this and keeps him on the air where he rants "I am mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." The film stars Finch, William Holden as a voice of conscious, Robert Duvall as a network bigwig, and Faye Dunaway as a network programmer, who is just looking for hit shows. The success of Howard Beale leads her to produce shows with an urban terrorist group, and leads to an absurd and tragic ending. Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet who also made Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon in the 70s, both starring Al Pacino.


I am a huge Woody Allen fan and Annie Hall is one of my favorites as it is his first film that introduces a level of seriousness into his work that was absent from his earlier comedic farces. It sets the standard for the romantic comedy. It uses flashbacks to tell the story of the relationship between Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). There are hilarious sequences from childhood and about past relationships and events from their experiences. It contrasts the differences between New York and LA. Allen also becomes a complete filmmaker by using Gordon Willis as his cinematographer. Another excellent film by Allen is Manhattan which came out in 1979 and is beautifully photographed in black and white and contains more hilarious and insightful scenes about the conflict between men and women, while also being a valentine to his beloved city.


Another film that emerged in 1977 from the New German Cinema was The American Friend. It was directed by Wim Wenders and was loosely based on the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith. The film moves with a slow burn and has a dark, tense atmosphere where the characters wander through a no-man's land of deceit. It is a serious film with a suspenseful plot. It is the coming together of a German art film with American Film Noir. Dennis Hopper plays Tom Ripley as an existential American cowboy. The film opens with him arriving in New York at the loft of a painter who forges work that Ripley traffics back to Europe. The painter is played by Nicholas Ray who was the director of Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar among others. The film also has other directors including Samuel Fuller playing gangsters. It takes place in New York, Hamburg, and Paris and deals with the American influence on post WWII Germany. It also stars the great German actor Bruno Ganz. The American Friend is a rich cinematic experience about spiritual isolation and moral ambiguity in a world where we must make difficult choices to deal with the problems that confront us in life. Wenders also made the wonderful films The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road in the 70s.


Days of Heaven is a poetic, and dream-like film. It has Biblical undercurrents in its plot, as the main characters go on a transformative journey from a hellish Chicago factory to a paradise of endless land and sky in the panhandle of Texas. The central character Bill (Richard Gere) has committed a crime and along with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz) they flee the city for the open fields of America where they find work on the harvest on the land of a wealthy farmer played by Sam Shepard. In the end, a swarm of locusts leads to a tragic conclusion where the images are consumed by flames. This is the second work by Terence Malick. He made Badlands in the early 70s about the serial killer Charles Starkweather and after Days of Heaven he would not make another film for 20 years. Malick's films are unique because they put a visual and aural emphasis on a vast natural world that would just be a backdrop for most filmmakers. Man is just a small part of a world full of life and death. Days of Heaven creates a beautiful, strange, and haunting cinematic experience. 


Another product of The New German Cinema, Maria Braun was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and stars Hanna Schygulla. Fassbinder made over 20 films in the 70s alone, but Maria Braun was his most critically and commercially successful film. His work was influenced by theater and Hollywood melodrama and in his later films he puts everything together artistically. The title character is an ambitious and strong woman who finds her self separated from her husband at the end of WWII. She dreams of a happy existence with him, but does what is necessary to survive and succeed. The film serves as a parable for the West German economic miracle and the story of manipulation and betrayal parallels Germany's post-war economic recovery and deals with the Americanization of Europe. Other great films by Fassbinder are Ali, Fear Eats The Soul (1973), and two that would come later in the early 80s - Berlin Alexanderplatz and Veronika Voss.


Volker Schlondorff was another German director to make a monumental work in the 1970s. The Tin Drum was based on the novel by Gunter Grass and is centered around the life of a young boy who refuses to mature into one of the miserable specimens of grown-up humanity that he sees around him. He throws himself down the stairs to stop himself from growing. Whenever the world becomes too much for him he hammers on his drum, and if anyone tries to take it away from him he emits an ear-piercing scream that can shatter glass. As Germany evolves towards Nazism, Oscar continues to beat on his drum and only starts to grow again after the war ends and the Nazis have been defeated.


Apocalypse Now was the fourth great film in the 70s to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The others were The Godfather (1972), The Godfather II (1974), and The Conversation (1974). Apocalypse Now is an epic Vietnam War Film that is haunting, hallucinatory, and visionary in its depiction of the madness of war. It is inspired by the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and bears a relationship to Herzog's earlier Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The films central character is Captain Willard played by Martin Sheen who is sent on a mission to kill Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando. Kurtz has gone insane and has resorted to "unsound methods" in his execution of the war. Sheen and his men move slowly up river to find Kurtz and encounter various obstacles along the way. A large part of the film centers around the journey of these five soldiers. The others are Clean (Larry Fishburne), Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Frederick Forrest), and Lance (Sam Bottoms). There are also great supporting performances by Robert Duvall who plays a megalomaniac commander who is obsessed with surfing, and Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist who has come under the spell of Kurtz. The film is beautifully photographed by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and uses an amazing soundtrack by Carmine Coppola and uses rock music from the era. The beginning is a like a masterful experimental short film in itself as it uses the song The End by The Doors against the image of the jungle being lit up by napalm. Apocalypse Now is a surreal and powerful experience.

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