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"How are you gonna write about life if you don't live it a little?"
I've always felt a real attraction to the early heyday of 1970s-80s television movies. Often, and perhaps at their best, they were adaptations of novels or screenplays deemed either too low-key for cinema or uncomplicated enough to manage on a small budget. Something like "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank" is an ideal example of both. It plays very much like a pilot for a TV series, and as far as family comedy/drama shows go, it would have made a very good one.
It's an easy film to believe, though everything is secondary to the roles of Carol Burnett and Charles Grodin. Burnett is busy channeling elements of everything she played on her 11-year variety show, and it works well in the framework of sarcastic dialogue. She plays it up a bit like a screwball comedy, but it works because she's just as believable in dramatic scenes. Grodin is convincing playing what tended to be a very typical role for him – the bemused, confused, slightly put-upon straight man. There's good humor in the gentle absurdity.
In fact, gentle absurdity would be a good enough summary of the film. It's not too sad or too funny, but it IS funny and it's familiar. There's a steady anxiety, and a lot of social humor. Like life in general, you laugh at what you know, and get on with things. While in no way being about anything big, "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank" convincingly shows you small slices of life – and at the risk of being sarcastic (though still keeping with the mood), some cut deeper than others.
Brother John (1971)
What about hope, what about love?
I stumbled over this film quite by accident. I've always been fascinated by Sidney Poitier for his stony dignified demeanor and Will Geer for his irrepressible amiability (even if playing the villain). When I saw that they'd both appeared together in this production, I was curious.
"Brother John" is an extremely eclectic film. The genre of drama/sci-fi just about says it all, all while saying next to nothing. Sure, that's basically what it is... a strange combination of small-town drama, mixed with a dark and murky undertone. The writing is completely honest to both ends of the spectrum, all while explaining less than it suggests. The screenwriter, Ernest Kinoy, tells a tale that is murky yet surprising straightforward. The qualities of racial tension (a common theme of Poitier films) and the aspect of striking workers (a recurring plot point of Will Geer's life) might explain what drew the two stars to the script, and that's the corporeal backbone of the story.
"Brother John" does not play at being a big film, and in spite of its incredible deftness in acting and direction, I'm not terribly surprised by its obscurity. There is no way whatsoever to pigeonhole the plot, and at times, even particularly understand what's going on. In a strange twist, I realized about halfway through that all of the vaguely fantastic elements could have been excised (even as late as in the editing room) and it still would have been a highly serviceable drama about life in the American south.
But, instead, "Brother John" takes a sharp left turn. The title character (played by Poitier) is painted as a strange harbinger of death, like a raven on a fencepost. His identity is never fully explained. Is he the grim reaper, the angel of death, some sort of globe-trotting serial killer? These questions were answered to my satisfaction by the conclusion, but other viewers may not be so pleased, and some will leave feeling completely unfulfilled.
What moved me most was, unexpectedly, the direction and cinematography. James Goldstone, the director, has a surprisingly comfortable relationship with his surroundings. There is little attempt to force framing, to relocate interfering objects, or to stage shots in an unnatural way. His actors move in-behind lamps, tree branches, and the camera makes little attempt to circumvent them, unconcerned at being anything but an observer. Just the same, Goldstone has a brilliant sense of composition in the way he slips into deep, almost uncomfortable close-ups, then back to wide, languidly casual views of the whole room or outdoor space. He seems to be letting his actors do what they please, whatever gets the feeling across most honestly. A lot of this hinges on the dim, comforting cinematography of Gerald Perry Finnerman, who underlights almost everything, getting across a strong sense of warmth.
You might call "Brother John" a mystery, and as I leave my thoughts on a film that few remember, I'm struck by the final questions in the dialogue. What about hope, what about love? Is it enough in the face of everything evil? Do we deserve what we've got? Well, we've got it, so it's up to us to live up to it... and maybe that's the real theme of this.
Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977)
The Capital of Canada is "C"
I grew up in rural Canada, in a small middle-class household that was a little bit on the old-fashioned side. Dramas like these were part of the experience when all you had was access to CBC television and a small selection of video tapes. Although I never caught this one in particular as a child, it would have been perfectly welcome.
It's hard to picture why exactly a film like "Why Shoot the Teacher?" has been so well-forgotten over the years. Something in the lack of initial distribution no doubt, which seems to be the lot of nearly all Canadian films of this era. It's based on a book by Max Braithwaite, and it feels very much like a true story, though there's a chance I suppose that it isn't. Silvio Narizzano directs it to life with a looseness and a real live humanity.
The acting is undoubtedly what gives this film its energy, and Bud Cort is better than I've ever seen him. In a similar sense as Charles Martin Smith's character in "Never Cry Wolf" he portrays a truly charming combination of naiveté and forced confidence. It's that painfully forced bravery that saves him in the end. This film could serve as a lesson in how much difference overcoming even the smallest percentage of personal fears can make in your life.
There is a lightness to "Why Shoot the Teacher?", a faithful depiction with just enough weight to keep it all from blowing away. I felt it moving through me, lifting my head and softening my heart. It's something to be thankful for, this gentle little thing.
The Grey Fox (1982)
"You're not worth killing."
It's hard to describe the weight of silence. The early 1980s was a strong time for that feeling on film. Frank Tidy's cinematography here is somewhat reminiscent of what he did on Ridley Scott's "The Duellists". It's a world where the most meaningful things seem to happen on foggy mornings, during rain storms, and on cloudy days. It's a very dark film, this one. Not so much for its content, but for its visuals. It's muddy, damp, and late in the season.
The story itself is full of hope and longing. Everywhere you turn, there is sadness and joy, and the grand dark feeling of emptiness that fills a late Autumn day. Richard Farnsworth creates a character with a pained and gentle humanity. Bill Miner isn't some angry old man. He's the most calm and collected individual in any given scene. It's a depiction with far more truth and beauty than you would ever expect in the story of a train robber. Farnsworth got far too few chances at a stunning starring role, but this may be the best he ever had. He's something of a wonder to behold. Most of the other performances are adequate, but unspectacular. Jackie Burroughs stands out, though. She is deeply alive and engaged throughout.
Phillip Borsos never really got the chance to direct a film this good again, but his grasp of atmosphere turned "The Mean Season" and "Bethune" into something much better than they would have been in the hands of most. What he did here, at the age of 27, is both admirable and life-changing. The depth of understanding he displays about the human race is valuable, and I'm well-pleased to have had the chance to experience it.
The Nickel Ride (1974)
the shadows swallow your reflection
"The Nickel Ride" is all about mood. There's a nearly-constant feeling a dread in the air. From the first scene, you get the terrifying sensation that something bad is going to happen, and that anything to the contrary is a fleeting illusion. Cooper (played by Jason Miller) is supposedly a guy who everyone likes, but it soon becomes clear that no one respects him. Maybe it's because he stopped fighting a long time ago, back when his apathy buried his anger. There's a sense of hope in him, though, but that just makes him a target. He's in a line of work that perceives anything but the iron fist as a sign of weakness - and it's these desperate days that the opening scene drops us into. Out of a nearly-waking dream, like a mirror of Miller's first film "The Exorcist", he sees something coming that's more a thing of impeding doom than that of direct prophecy.
It's a somewhat atypical film for director Robert Mulligan. He was more one for straightforward dramas, rarely tackling a subdued loner-driven narrative like this. This is also an early original script for Eric Roth, who is certainly treading much more uncomplicated ground than on his later stories. He's written something that can be carried completely by performances. "The Nickel Ride" doesn't reach very far, so it's not totally capable of the sort of staying power that keeps other 1970s classics in our minds. But the powerful uneasy feeling and the performance of Jason Miller makes it something special. This is a curious, angry, scared little alleycat of a film.
The New Centurions (1972)
shot to the gut
Stacy Keach and George C. Scott star in this very gritty, very honest portrayal of early-70s police life. It's directed by Richard Fleischer, who usually worked on much flashier material than this. I've seen a lot of films that dug in and tried to paint a clear image of police life, but this story brings a level of realism that is somewhat missing in most cases - it was written by a cop (Joseph Wambaugh).
"The New Centurions" is a title that hints at a much deeper perspective into familiar territory. Even though all the suspected clichés are still somewhat in place, they're there out of reality rather than just filling space in a movie plot. George C. Scott's character is on his way to retirement, but instead of him not making it, he takes a much darker path. It's that darker path, and the sense of hope behind it, that informs both Scott and Keach in their fantastic performances. They're as good as they'd ever been here - deep, powerful, and incredibly personal. There's a real emotional vulnerability on display that can't be denied.
"Ham, Eggs, and Coffee"
It's surprising how "Alambrista!" has slipped into near-total oblivion after being shown at Cannes and receiving some measure of admiration there. But it seems to have never enjoyed a release on VHS, and hasn't appeared on DVD until quite recently. It's a shame, because this film serves as a very piercing, close-up examination of the life of an illegal immigrant.
Robert M. Young has made a number of daring and unusual films in his career, off-center stories with characters most people wouldn't notice. In "Short Eyes" it was a young pedophile in prison, and in "Dominick and Eugene" he focused on the everyday life of a mentally retarded man. Here, he takes a deep trip into the underbelly of American society, a side most of us will never come close to seeing. "Alambrista!" is a basic tale, one that Young penned himself (it was the only film he'd ever both write and direct). It's uncomplicated, but not untrue. There's a familiar 1970s documentary approach, up close and personal, and it serves things well. Also doing his own cinematography, Young is very much in on the action.
Domingo Ambriz plays Roberto, a quiet and not entirely bright Mexican man. He's very kind, but completely innocent of cities and American life. It's a heartfelt performance, and it has to be. Everything hinges on his believability. Linda Gillen is very good as the waitress Sharon, also a rather innocent personality. The characters come almost secondary, because we don't get too far beneath their skin. This isn't an internal, mental film - it's a silent observation of things. Take a close look.
the sound of death knocking
Not a lot of people have seen this one. It's like a lot of other films about teachers in an uphill struggle against apathetic or difficult students. They all seem to be set in inner-city environments, but "Conrack" has a different approach - it takes you down south, out to an isolated island just off the coast of South Carolina. It helps that this is a true story (or as true as a film adapted from a book adapted from real life can be).
Martin Ritt was a very good director, known mainly for "Hud", which he did about ten years prior. Jon Voight has never been more charismatic than this, he's like a shining beacon of inspiration throughout the film. You really believe that he believes every word he is saying, and that adds a ton of weight to his character. I really enjoyed Hume Cronyn here, he's somehow mischievous without being friendly, serious and a little bit mean. It's a great characterization.
The passion in Voight's sparkling eyes seems to be more than what carries the film. It's a great story, and a fantastic reflection of Pat Conroy's writing. The story is powerful, convincing, and exceptionally inspiring.
People vs. Politicians
A documentary film about one of the endless and countless failed attempts at attaining the presidency wouldn't normally catch my attention. But I bought this one on a whim a couple years back and finally decided to watch it today. It turns out that Shirley Chisholm wasn't your typical politician out there vying for control of the country. I don't mean that in the sense that she was both black and female (though it certainly factored significantly in 1972), but in a purely ideological respect. She didn't have much interest in the standard nonsense, the buying and trading of votes, and totally rejected the notion that you should support anyone but who you believed in. In her world, there were no compromises for the greater good, there was just the good and that's that. It's that purity of approach which has made it impossible for anyone with a similarly deep conviction and honesty to ever be elected to the highest American office.
From a documentary film perspective, it's the content and not the direction that makes "Chisholm '72" stand out. The approach is clean and well-researched, and everyone of importance gets their chance to speak. That doesn't necessarily give it enough strength to stand out to anyone not personally interested in the subject matter, but it was enough to draw a casual observer like myself. This film really captures Shirley Chisholm in her all her glory as the total antithesis of modern politics.
Murder in Coweta County (1983)
How powerful is the man who can't control himself?
Johnny Cash never got much opportunity to prove himself as an actor, but he always rose to the occasion when given the chance. With this film, and "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" (1981), he was given a pair of roles that had a depth of character he could really do something with. "Murder in Coweta County" is certainly the better of the two. Both films were directed by Gary Nelson. Besides Cash, there are two very good performances in Andy Griffith and Earl Hindman. Griffith is incredibly slimy and menacing here, playing way, way out of type. It wasn't his style to play the bad guy, but he does it marvelously here. The late Earl Hindman is excellent as well. Hindman was a character actor who is both remembered and nearly forgotten for the very same role - that of Wilson on the "Home Improvement" TV series. Remembered for his memorable performances, forgotten because his face was always at least partially hidden. June Carter Cash is fantastic and almost unrecognizable as the fortune teller.
"Murder in Coweta County" is a true story, and that information driving the script forward helps it keep from dipping too far into cliché. There are elements that feel a little standard, but nothing too distracting from the drama. The characterizations get under your skin, especially Johnny Cash is what might be the best performance he ever gave. It's a great little southern police/crime movie.
The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1981)
running away from words
Watching at old TV movie is sometimes like digging through a dead relative's closet. There's some air of familiarity to it, memories coming to the surface, and this odd feeling of discovery. Through the 70s and 80s, countless TV movies were filmed and aired in much the same way as early cinema - watched once, then forgotten forever. "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" is like something you might find in the back of a dusty drawer. But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.
I've always liked Johnny Cash as an actor. He was never really given the chance to pursue it on a deeper level, just a handful of televised roles - most of which went widely unseen. But he's always had a very dark and mysterious persona, and makes you believe every word he says. Here, he sings several songs for the soundtrack as well - one of which (Moving Up) he wrote. It's fascinating to see Eli Wallach, playing an elderly man here (he was only 66). Interesting to note that he is still alive over thirty years later (!), nearly a decade after the death of Johnny Cash.
The storyline of "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" is fairly standard TV movie fare. There's the sick child, the troubled youth, the awkward love interest, and so forth. But it's the main issue of illiteracy that makes things somewhat more unusual. The interplay of the characters is believable, especially between Cash and Wallach. They're the backbone of this story, and everything that holds it together. As far as I know, the only edition out there is a really dirty, unrestored film transfer. Hopefully it will be released in a higher quality edition at some point. It's not a great film, but it's worth the time.
there's nothing for you to fear
I've seen just about every film directed by Richard Pearce. There's something in his understanding of actors that always brings out the best in them. That's especially evident in films like "Country", "A Family Thing" and "The Long Walk Home". It's hard to walk that thin line between heartfelt personal stories and overwrought melodrama. "Plainsong", however, isn't completely successful in avoiding the latter. The story itself has a lot in common with other Hallmark films, a way of unfolding that is a bit more predictable and/or comfortable than you might see in an average theatrical film. The TV movie feeling is the main, and only real thing holding "Plainsong" back.
I'd noticed America Ferrera before, like I suppose most people have. But the only thing I'd actually seen her in was her first film, "Real Women Have Curves". She's so quiet here that it's almost like she's not there at all sometimes. That's not a bad thing, it reminded me of myself for a good part of my teenage years. She gets across the lost and confused feeling so well. The most fascinating and accomplished performances are those of Geoffrey Lewis and William Andrews as the elderly farmer brothers, and Marian Seldes as the lonely shut-in. They are so real, so believable. Rachel Griffiths and Aidan Quinn, whom many will be familiar with, are actually of much lesser interest than the younger and older actors. Nonetheless, they give very good performances.
In all, "Plainsong" doesn't reach so far as it might. It stays on the outskirts of anything truly intense, but the feeling of gentle reality still bubbles to the surface. I'm truly glad I saw it, and I can't see how anyone couldn't take at least something away from the experience. I recommend that you pursue more of Richard Pearce's films.
The Glass House (1972)
"The Glass House" is very much a ground level, heavy-hearted film. I've seen far more than my fair share of prison movies, and after a while, you start to grow bored of all the easy clichés. But instead of reminding me of other stories I've seen, "The Glass House" brings to mind documentaries of prison life. The dark side of just how unlivable things can be. This isn't about escape or change or anything at all positive. Just finding yourself in a situation where there's no way out and no right answer. The fact that they filmed in a real, active prison adds a level of reality you can't just dream up.
People like Alan Alda, Vic Morrow, and Billy Dee Williams were quite familiar to me, but they find a different approach here. There's a kind of subtlety that they wouldn't always get to employ in other films that is very convincing here. Everything seems real, and that makes for a powerful, frustrating, and ultimately heartbreaking story.
O Pioneers! (1992)
I won't ride with the dead.
There are several very good points to "O Pioneers!" that are partially drowned under miscasting and stilted dialogue. Heather Graham (who plays the younger version of Jessica Lange's character) is the worst of the lot. Even the more talented actors sometimes struggle to get the words out. There are far too many cases throughout where unnecessarily complicated lines are forced to be delivered in a way that is anything but natural. It's too bad that this is the only major flaw, because the constant re-occurrence of the issue is the only thing that keeps "O Pioneers!" from being a great film.
Jessica Lange is certainly the best thing here. The emotion and power with which she imbues her character is palpable. David Strathairn, who is one of my favorite actors, is given much less to work with. He tries his best, but the character is written too coldly to truly come to life. The absolute stand-out performance, however, is that of Tom Aldredge. His depiction of Ivar is amusing, alive, deep and absolutely human. Most of the other actors live up to standard, save for the aforementioned dialogue issues.
Glenn Jordan directs quite nicely, but it's less his sensibility than the eye of cinematographer Dick Bush that makes "O Pioneers!" so visually appealing. Bush captures a washed-out world of warm-pale greens, blues, and sepia tones that fill you with a sense of longing and overwhelming calm. This film has something in common both visually and thematically with Jordan's film of the previous year, "Sarah, Plain and Tall". That movie is ultimately more consistent and satisfying that this one. I couldn't say there's any reason for me to watch "O Pioneers!" a second time, but it was a meaningful experience in spite of the flaws. It has much to say about contentment and the search for home. You should gain something from it.
Diary of a Hitman (1991)
"Diary of a Hit-man" is something more than the average entry into the neo-noir genre of many such films produced in the 80s/90s. They usually hold a similar trashy appeal, more style than substance, and not too much in the way of quality performances. Forest Whitaker helps to make this an exception from the mold. Here, playing a variant of his later role in "Ghost Dog", he lets you into the mind of a conflicted, controlling, somewhat neurotic hit-man.
This film was adapted from a play by Kenneth Pressman, and the middle act pays testament to that. A series of scenes in a small apartment capture a real depth of emotion, both from Whitaker and his target (played by Sherilyn Fenn). It seems almost claustrophobic, but there's a power to it. Roy London doesn't show a lot of experience in his direction, but he does express a good deal of humanity. This is a grounded film, personal. There's no cheap exploitation feel, nor is there any sense of big budget Hollywood.
The acting is the real reason to watch "Diary of a Hit-man". Even the small roles have something to offer. I particularly liked the two doctors, one a psychiatrist (John Bedford Lloyd), the other an optometrist (Ken Lerner). James Belushi and Sharon Stone show up briefly, but aren't given a whole lot to do. This isn't an overly complicated or particularly far-reaching film, but the narration lets you under its skin, and there's no terrible overacting or delusions of grandeur. The title might seem cheap, but "Diary of a Hit-man" has a lot more to offer.
Tiger Warsaw (1988)
the only sin is forbidding someone to love you
It's hard to honestly express the virtues of a film that is generally regarded as sub-par without going too far in the other direction. It's not that "Tiger Warsaw" is a complete success, indeed, there are many things that just don't quite work. Patrick Swayze, though his top billing is certainly the only reason this film has reached its relatively small audience, never quite fills out his character believably. That, and the somewhat low key feeling of the overall production, serves to play against the very same things that most potential viewers are looking for.
But there are very many good points. This is an exceptionally beautiful film to look at. Robert Draper's cinematography is cold, aching, with a powerful understanding of light. These scenes feel like real life of the kind we all know, not some imitation or expression of style. The director, Amin Q. Chaudhri (who made the similarly quiet drama "An Unremarkable Life" the following year), pulls back from his actors in the best possible way, observing their simple actions rather than trying to be over-dramatic. The story is well-realized in execution, but not entirely well-written. Roy London has a certain understanding of dialogue and character that is evident, but his plotting leaves something to be desired. There are avenues taken that seem unlikely, and others left untouched that could have been effectively explored.
But this is a real film. There's no over-acting, no showing off. There's a lot of humanity, and some heartbreaking performances. Piper Laurie is incredibly human, fully alive in her role. She might be remembered for more extreme roles like in "Carrie", but it's films like "Rising Son" and this production that show her depth.
I recommend this for its visual beauty, and its quiet understanding.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
You can't get an address without an address
I made a solo journey of my own in the summer of 2007. Unlike Wendy, I was on a bicycle, and didn't bring a dog. But I did break down more than once, and found myself in an unknown place at the mercy (and otherwise) of strangers. This is a story of that frightening feeling of finding yourself out on the road without anyone to turn to, including even yourself. But this isn't a thriller or a horror film. "Wendy and Lucy" is about friendship, fleeting human contact and the search for something better. It's the perfect strangers that make travel hard, and worth it.
There's not a definable plot to this film, just solo travel and what it's like. And I know all too well that this here is it. Michelle Williams is the closest I've ever gotten to watching myself. It's not a mirror of your finer points, but rather who you become when you lose your peace and sense of humor. When things get too hard to smile through, and hope is what slips through your fingers instead of what you once held tight. If you sit back and absorb the purity, the humanity, the quiet, the scenes begin to speak to you. It's a hard thing, it's a good thing, it's alive.
Off the Map (2003)
benevolent and malevolent forces
I wasn't looking when I found "Off the Map". It was the afternoon following a major power outage, and I was headed to Chicago to visit my love only a few short days later. I'd gotten the DVD from my local library, and was debating whether or not to watch it before it had to be returned the following day. I can't express how glad I am that I took the time when I did.
Like many of my favorite films, a young person is at the center of things. Bo (played by Valentina de Angelis) is tied up in all the ideas and possibilities of growing up, lost into her own world where few people live, and none anywhere close to her own age. This is a film fully populated with great actors giving wonderful performances. I loved Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, and Jim True-Frost for the humanity they get across here. How they interact is unpredictable and constantly believable. The director (Campbell Scott) gives them a ton of breathing room. The scene where Joan Allen's character stands naked in the garden staring down a coyote happens seemingly outside of time, a triangle between her, the animal, and the arrival of a stranger who is shocked to find her in this state. This all happens in total silence until a bee sting ends the moment.
It's small scenes of beauty like these, perfectly photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchía (who also shot "The Stone Boy"), that keeps the rhythm flowing, like large stones in a winding river pushing the film along. When "Off the Map" reached its end, I was in tears. Not because of a single sad thing that occurred, but for the final emotional release. I was set free in watching this. Lifted up and brought back to life. I owe this film all the beauty of one dark December day I'll never forget
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
Music to my fears
Much like "The Secret Garden", this is a film about the unlikely combination of everyday reality and pure magic. The character of Fiona (played by Jeni Courtney) is like every free and beautiful little girl that you've ever encountered rolled into one. She has such a wonderful outlook on life; honest and serious, faithful and fanciful. This is an improbable film for director John Sayles, an American filmmaker who usually sticks much closer to home. More pleasing still is the fact that he takes an honest, unfiltered view of the Irish culture that is so intrinsic to the story being told.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" is about storytelling, from an inner and outer perspective. Each character is deeply concerned with sharing his or her own tale or take on local folklore. The script takes all sorts of beautiful sidelines into the tales of Fiona's relatives and anyone else who happens to pass by. Particularly fascinating is the performance of John Lynch, whose character tells the legend of the Selkie (played by his sister, Susan Lynch). The images of the seal woman are breathtaking, painful in their uncertain waking beauty.
The final result of the film is something between the purity of childhood and the trust of self. I was taken in not only by the overwhelming sense of the unknown, but by everything fearful and wonderful in the making known of the same. This is one of the most enrapturing motion pictures I've ever seen.
Alice in den Städten (1974)
the spaces between self-discovery
I might have been Alice. Or was I too fearful, too cared for, too lost in myself? Was I born at the wrong time? When I watch this film, I'm reminded of a line from another of director Wim Wenders' films: "Life is in colour, but black & white is more realistic". I'm still not sure if I believe that, but there are memories that seem more a thing of light and shadow than of colour. And this is, after all, a black & white film. "Alice in the Cities" is as much about its other main character, Philip Winter, as Alice herself. Him, I have been. Lost out on the highways of New Brunswick and Maine, lonely hotel holidays all by myself with no one to comfort or to talk with. I wanted to smash that television just as he does in an early scene, but it was my only companion through the long night ahead.
"Alice in the Cities" is the first of three consecutive films by Wim Wenders about the open road, each starring Rüdiger Vogler as a similar, if not identical character. The second, "The Wrong Movement" (Falsche Bewegung) (1975), is an incredibly difficult slog of total human alienation. The third, and much better than the second film, "Kings of the Road" (Im Lauf der Zeit) (1976) is similar to this one, as Mr. Winter continues his journeys through the German countryside.
This is a film about childhood relationships - not those we have with our peers, but those of a greater age. This makes perfect sense to me, as I would without fail seek out the company of an adult over the fleeting fancies of ones closer to me. To me, anything past fully grown would blur together, all except for the very old. Philip isn't comfortable with children, just as I have become over time. It is a hallmark of those who feel that they have never outgrown their own childhood, who feel so lost inside the adult world that the past feels foreign to a present that will never fit. Their belief that living in the future is futile keeps them grounded in today, their only salvation from a life spent dreaming.
Reality is harsh in "Alice in the Cities". The release comes where life lives. The precious and precocious sensation of human interaction runs like a vein through the center of everything. This is a story suitable for anyone, not because it holds back, but because it is all in. In love with the very same world it fears, holding the hands of the same dream on whose feet it steps on. Like we all do in life. This film feels exactly like those first two or three years of your earliest memories. If you let it, you'll be taken further back than you'd have ever imagined.
Days of Heaven (1978)
You're a peripheral character in someone else's dream
Days of heaven is exactly what this is. The magic hour (when much of the film was shot), those moments before dawn and after dusk when everything is indirect, dreamlike, breathless, heartwaking. There's no real story, as such. Sure, there's a general plot line which should satisfy any casual viewer. This isn't, after all, a hard film to follow. It is simply that the environment is the main character as opposed to the human elements. Linda Manz's young character narrates the story sporadically, like a sleepy traveler beside the campfire telling you of half-forgotten memories, and wonderful, casual observations that will seem clearer in the morning light, but no longer worth mentioning. Her voice is halting and uncertain, belying a personality that is confident in all other respects. Other actors, good (Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard) and not-so-good (Richard Gere) blend in perfectly. Their performances are so understated that you forget they are actors playing characters. Even Richard Gere, who never learned subtlety and would never again employ it, is almost invisible here.
This is not a long film. For all its leisurely pace, ninety-six minutes is all it needs to tell its tale. Terrence Malick is out for sight and sound. There is nothing lost to unneeded expression, nothing not shared in the space in front of you. That leaves cinematographer Néstor Almendros with the freedom to photograph, to observe without opinion whatever seems to be happening most openly before him.
When I first finished watching "Days of Heaven" it felt like waking from a dream. I couldn't be sure how much time has passed. It seemed so long, but the silence was the same, and little had changed outside my window. Nothing but the heavy quiet was all around me, and I felt the desperate desire to move. Everything beneath my feet felt moving, quietly slipping past and all I had to do was put soles to earth and start walking. This is a film of photographs, images of the purest sort. Open your eyes.
Tender Mercies (1983)
I was afraid because I wasn't in love
There's an scene in "Tender Mercies" that captures a small hotel, home, and gas station isolated in a desolate field. This image brings to light the underlying melancholy sense that carries along beneath the surface of the film. Bruce Beresford, who directed another of my favorite films, "Driving Miss Daisy", brings together just the sort of humanity that comes to the surface if only you'll let it. There are two great actors that I've been familiar with for most of my life at the center of this story. Robert Duvall and Tess Harper feel and act like real human beings. Imperfect, but not in a movie script way.
The down-and-out country music star plot line has been done several times before and since. Most recently, in "Crazy Heart" (which also features Duvall, in a small role). But this is usually on a large scale, and music the larger focus. In other films, the singer goes from rags to riches (and often repeats the cycle a second time). In "Tender Mercies", the character of Mac Sledge has had a moderate level of success, some radio play, but will never play stadiums. He is merely seeking some minor return to form, to recapture what he loved doing. This provides some relief for those who, like myself, are not really country music fans. You don't get anything too far from the basic honesty of a man and his guitar. This isn't, after all, a glorified music video vehicle for an established country star - it's a quiet film about real people.
The look and feel of "Tender Mercies" falls in close to what the title promises. Love, anger, joy, peace, even hate are represented in the understated way that a certain kind of people not commonly depicted on film express themselves. There's a humanity here in Horton Foote's writing. It's the exact kind of words that sound so natural from the mouths of the right actors. And this film has all the right ones. Wilford Brimley, one of my favorite character actors (also excellent in "Country" and "The Stone Boy") shows up briefly, as well as many others you might recognize from similar midwest dramas. "Tender Mercies is such a pure experience.
Until the world deserves them
This film is one of three made in fairly close succession about the possible consequences of worldwide nuclear war, and certainly the most well-realized of them. The other two range from cheesy America TV movie hype in "The Day After" to extremely dark British horror with "Threads". The latter of the two has something to offer where the first has little, but of the three it is "Testament" that tells the balanced, down-to-earth experience that the majority of us would be only too likely to experience.
There's no mushroom cloud here, no special effects. Just a flash of light in the distance, and an ever-building sense of dread. The characters are written like true, believable people in other similar 1980s dramas. I cannot stress enough how real this movie feels. If you go in looking for action or thrills, this is not for you. This is a tragedy, a drama, a film of real humanity. It would survive unhindered without the horrific elements that provide the backbone of the script, because it is not interdependent on them. The characters don't exist simply to fill out the plot points. They have depth. And that's where "Testament" draws its power. This is not a disaster film, populated by varying degrees of cannon fodder. This is a true "what-if". What if my small town, the one where I've grown up and spent the bulk of my life, became the victim of nuclear fallout? I saw my childhood in this film. The young character of Scottie (played by Lukas Haas) reminds me of myself, his mother (Jane Alexander) of my own. I saw all too many hints of those I grew up with, my neighbors, my siblings in the scenes of "Testament".
This film broke my heart, and if you let it, it just might do the same to you. It's the face behind killing, the human factor, the cost of collateral damage. But, most of all, it's a warm yet intensely painful story of a mother faced with the unavoidable and imminent death of her loved ones. "Testament" is a dirge, a march to the end through all the purity and life of our fading memories. It holds you close like a dying friend, hoping that an embrace will keep the soul from escaping. This is life at its most precarious.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Bound for a ticket without a train
This is one of two films by Wim Wenders that focuses on a child. "Alice in the Cities", the earlier film, focused on the relationship of a young child with a depressed wanderer, but "Paris, Texas" is more about the wanderer himself. This time, he (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is more than just lost, having gone into the wilderness in an apparent amnesiac stupor. He is found by his brother (Dean Stockwell), who brings him somewhat back to reality. The kid (Hunter Carson) is a central, meaningful key bringing everything together. He is the innocent victim of a confusing circle of jealously and violence that only becomes clear in the final scenes of the film.
"Paris, Texas" is a quiet, quiet film. Sam Shepard wrote a script that is more about actions than dialogue, which makes it all the more curious that the final twenty-some minutes of the film feature little but conversation. The final scene between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski drags on into the heart of darkness, the deeply painful memories of two terribly broken individuals and how they go on with life. This isn't a quick interaction that draws tears to the surface and lets you continue with your life. It dives in deep and doesn't come up for air until every last inch of emotion is pulled to the surface.
Robby Müller, the cinematographer who worked with Wenders on many of his films, helps to make "Paris, Texas" one of the most breathtakingly beautiful visual experiences ever. The colours are so vibrant yet stunningly realistic. For all of its emotional depth, this is a thing of great surface beauty. Inside and out, it is achingly powerful film.
Leaving yourself behind
This is somewhere between documentary and photography. It has neither a script nor actors, and there is no narrator, no interview, and no still images. This is a moving picture, in the purest sense. The major focus is the time lapse cinematography of Ron Fricke, who also serves as director. That, and the soundtrack by Michael Stearns, is the sum total of "Chronos".
There are deeper meanings to some, intended and accidental, but I won't cheapen things by speculating on what those are. The main drive is the battle of slow versus fast, city versus nature. Much of the time lapse goes by at what appears to be the same speed, but what moves blisteringly fast in the city seems to go by without change or notice in nature. Only the slow march of shadows is apparent across rocks and old ruins. These passages are full and heavy with the weight of time. They pull like the moon on the tides, dragging you back into long forgotten history. It comes like a slow, shallow breath between trains hurtling down tracks to uncertain destinations, and the bleeding blur of strangers up escalators.
I've watched "Chronos" in many different contexts. It's been a relaxing background to the end of a long, tired day, or the full focus of my attention as I appreciate its depth of artistry. At forty-three minutes, it's neither too long to drag or too short to feel cut off. Each time after watching it, I find myself out of place with the speed of things around me. I feel the need to step back and breathe, to run faster, to walk slower. Somehow, some way, "Chronos" changed the way I see time.