Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Can’t Wear ‘Em Out

Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Michael J. Pollard

When times are tough, the tough watch movies. I’m hardly the first to say that movies can be comfort food. Sometimes a new one just won’t do and you feel that conservative urge to re-watch an old film. But that familiarity can lead to fresh insights, too, as you see in a new way the themes, images, dialogue, camera angles and so on. Any first-rate movie will continue to be new, of course, but even an old fave that has no claim on posterity will reward multiple viewings. It’s all about a personal connection. The late film critic Andrew Sarris once said he didn’t think Psycho was a great film, but he’d seen it thirty-three times nevertheless. He did, as it happened, teach it in a film course at New York University. Still-33 times! I have more than a sneaking suspicion he liked it more than he let on.

For a long time I’ve wanted to share my heavy rotations with the public in a more organized and formal way. So here they are (some, anyway). Each entry ends with an estimate of how many times I’ve seen the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Over the years many have used to the word “hypnotic” to describe the Star Gate sequence toward the end of this movie, but to me the whole film is one long trance story, a safe and reliable altered state of consciousness. Silence, Gyorgy Ligeti’s choral clouds, judicious use of slowness-these and other ingredients produce a pleasurable, meditative state with an admixture of awe. For the first time the language of avant-garde films was injected into a major motion picture and millions were gobsmacked. Did you know that an Alabamian from Huntsville was the chief technical advisor? About 12 times.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Couldn’t be more different than the last one. Hyperkinetic, unrelenting, loving its speed all the way. And yet punctuated with reflective scenes. My favorite line: C.W. Moss’ “Dirt in the fuel line. Just blowed it away.” The final crossfire scene is easily the equal of the Odessa steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin. Is it true that violence, as Kubrick said, can be beautiful? And that beauty isn’t always linked in the mind to what is good? And that that is one of our human flaws? About 8 times.

Barry Lyndon (1975). Stanley Kubrick again, and again hypnotic. Many have said it’s too slow, but that slowness is key to its success-it’s the director’s way of putting the viewer in the pace of late-18th Century life. Like 2001, it’s another total immersion experience, and the stately pace adds to this. Round about 10 times.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989). The trials and tribulations of drug addiction and hence marginalization, and how the leader of a drug crew leaves the life, or tries to, with uncertain results. It’s also very funny, with the best stoner humor I’ve ever come across. Approximately 8 times.

Ed Wood (1994). A few key years in the life of the man who is, by common consent, the worst film director of all time. In the 50s in Hollywood, you could financially squeak by making terrible movies few people watched. Hilarious, brilliantly scripted and endlessly quotable for those who’ve caught the bug. I’m saying 10 times.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). A group of desperate Americans in Mexico in the early 20th Century takes a last chance-gold prospecting. This entirely compelling story was beautifully filmed on location. The natural beauty is in sharp contrast to a panoply of emotions from the dark side of humanity and how they threaten to engulf all. “We don’t need no stinkin’ repeat viewings!” Yes, I do. At least 8 times.

The Godfather, Parts I and II (1972, 1974). Is this movie (admittedly an artificial construct-where’s Part III?) the best American movie ever? It’s almost impossible to start it and not go through to the end, even on, say, the seventh go-round. The Corleones are immersed in evil, but you care about them intimately. That is a very strange paradox. It’s a pleasure to see evil at a remove, up there on the screen. And yet you’re drawn to that screen. The family, every one of them, are fully-formed, non-stereotypical hoods. That makes them impossible to dismiss or ignore. About 12 times.

Citizen Kane (1941). Or is this? I don’t agree with Pauline Kael about much of anything, but she was right when she said that, of all the great films, Citizen Kane was the most fun to watch. No, it shouldn’t have been shoved down to number two in the Sight&Sound Greatest Films Poll, giving way to Vertigo. Vertigo is a rapturous masterpiece, but it’s not even my favorite Hitchcock movie. Back to Kane, though. A waking dream about the shadow side of the American myth, it surprises you over and over with its daring, ravishing multiplicity and sureness. Roughly 10 times.

Psycho (1960). This is where we came in. So is this my favorite Hitchcock? Or is it The Birds? Or North by Northwest? Or Rear Window? I’m sorry, I can’t make that decision. I love Hitchcock’s movies too much to ever give up part of this family. Psycho is highly watchable, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it—or any movie—33 times. Menace, loneliness and emotional retardation have seldom been as compelling as they are in Psycho. Bernard Herrmann’s zero-degree score is inseparable from the visuals-you can’t think of one without the other. (The same has been said of 2001 many times). A true fusion of minds, Hitch and Herrmann, working together almost telepathically. I’d say 8 times.

And I haven’t even gotten to Lawrence of Arabia, Beetlejuice, The Shining, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Aguirre, The Wrath of God and so on down the pleasurable path of memory, celluloid and digital discs. Maybe next time.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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