Friday, December 08, 2006

Three Movies

I've had a Netflix account for a few months now, but the last three movies I've received from them are maybe the most interesting I've seen so far. One I've seen before (although it's been too long), but the other two were new (and long overdue for a view).

The one I've seen before is The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's intermezzo between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II -- and the first release in his annus mirabilis of 1974. The most amazing thing about this movie -- and there are a lot of amazing things about this movie -- is that Coppola had actually finished the screenplay in 1969, five years earlier. Amazing because it so perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 1974, a nation wrapped in the tight embrace of Watergate and all its revelations of secret tapings and eavesdropping ne'er do wells.

Consumed by paranoia, Gene Hackman's Harry Caul is still helpless when his paranoid fantasies come all too true. As a professional survellance specialist, Harry is used to silently cataloguing the lives of his targets. By the end of the movie he's become a tool in the service of larger conspiracies -- conspiracies by which he is now silently watched, listened to and engulfed.

The most paranoid of movies, made in the midst of the most paranoid of times, but its themes of secretive forces at work never seem to go completely out of style.

The second of the three was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, by the recently departed Robert Altman. Like The Conversation, it is a product of a time that is unlikely to ever be seen again -- the true golden age of Hollywood. From its beginning in 1967 with The Graduate, to its death in 1977 with Star Wars, those ten years saw a flowering of wide-release movies with the aim of actually speaking to adults. Just about every one of my very, very favorite movies were made during these 10 years, and the great ones from that period all share an ability to understand that humans are complex creatures, with a myriad of motivations to undertake any number of actions, and everything doesn't always turn out OK. These sorts of movies still get made, but they're a hell of lot harder to find, aren't they?

McCabe is a miniature tale -- man (Warren Beatty) comes to an outpost of 19th century Washington (the state) to build a new tavern & brothel. It becomes successful when a fiery British opium addict (Julie Christie) takes over as madam, leading to an offer by the railroad to buy him out. When he decides to try to jack up the price, they rescind the offer and send an Old West hit squad to take him out of the picture. In time they succeed, and we're left with the titular hero slowly expiring from his wounds and the cold in the middle of a mountain blizzard, while the madam hits the pipe in the local Chinatown.

Need a happy ending? Not in this Chinatown, either.

The third was a little more recent, although I'm probably the last one to see it.

Fight Club was released in 1999 -- and quite frankly it's hard to imagine some of its scenes of public mayhem being released by a major studio after 9/11. Its themes include the need for men to break free from the grip of women and materialism, and the way to do this is to have the crap beaten out of you. Beating the crap out of someone else is good, but the point of the fight club in Fight Club is to feel the pain. Eventually, this need to break the grip leads to the final solution of destroying all records of debt, leading to chaos and a more atavistic lifestyle.

Now, the thing is that hidden within that shit-pile of a plot are a hell of a lot of interesting thoughts and dialogue and acting (disclaimer -- yes, I am most definitely a Brad Pitt fan. I know this is an unpopular position, but there it is).

And then they decided to explain the plot.

Oh, man do I hate when they do that. Case in point was Vanilla Sky, a fine and nice little Cameron Crowe movie which had some interesting things to ponder and figure out...up until the moment that Noah Taylor is forced to describe the key to the entire plot because, well, you know, it might be too hard or interesting for us to figure out on our own. Kind of like that point in 2001 when HAL explains to Keir Dullea that the black monolith is actually a transmitter that indicates when man has evolved to the point where we're exploring the moon and ... what's that? He doesn't explain it? What did we do, figure it out on our own or something? Really? No way.

Anyway, in Fight Club the part of Noah Taylor is taken by both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, but the idea is the same. Explain the key to the entire plot because, well, how else would we know?

Regardless, all three are worth watching, and The Conversation is worth watching (and listening to) again and again.


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