Archive for Smile

Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

The Sunday Panty-Title: “…And That Girl Had a Wooden Foot”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by dcairns

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I wanted to call my thoughts on Michael Ritchie and Jerry Belson’s SMILE (1975) by the title SMARM, in honour of one of the great essays of recent times, but Fiona insisted I use the inspirational anecdote delivered by Michael Kidd. Also, the movie is structured around the days of the week, as announced by what turn out to be Annette O’Toole’s panties.

Somehow I’d never seen this film until last week. Did I have some kind of trepidation about it? Maybe because it seemed like it would be an Altman copy. And though I love a good Altman, a bad Altman can wear out the will to live faster than a bad almost anything. Fortunately, the aspects of this which are Altmanesque (and the girl with the braces smiling at the start seems like something Altman himself lifted for A WEDDING) are really cool — the movie knows what it’s aiming at, and is scathing without being unwarrantedly vicious, altogether misanthropic, or self-important. When your subject is a beauty pageant, how outraged can you get? And even if you use that for a kind of state of the nation address, a bit of gentleness is warranted.

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Also, much of the film doesn’t play quite like Altman at all — much of the footage has a sly, caught-on-the-hop quality, as if Ritchie really did set up a scenario, leave it to play out naturally, and capture it documentary-style. But I don’t think the dialogues is  improvised — we have people like the great and insanely hot Annette O’Toole who ALWAYS seems to be behaving rather than acting, in anything she appears in. Anybody who can seem like they stepped off the street and into CAT PEOPLE or SUPERMAN III must have an in-built sense of truth, justice and the American way, a kind of faultless naturalism compass. And she smiles like Veronica Lake… sigh.

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The film’s star is Bruce Dern, in a performance that supplies the centre of his career and screen personality, something I now realize I was missing all these years I loved him. (In Telluride, I nearly got handed his luggage by mistake, suggesting a potentially awesome alternative reality where I go on to live his life and collect an Oscar nomination for NEBRASKA while he slinks back to a tenement in Leith and a pitiful existence ranting on the internet about unbelievably obscure movies.) He plays a sort of happy idiot, a used car salesman who’s SINCERE, I suppose a guy who believes all the lies, and likes it. He’s unable to help his depressed friend (Nicholas Pryor, also great) except by making him laugh occasionally, and in fact the friend manages to chisel a chink in Dern’s armour of sunshine, and the poor man nearly withers on the vine as he suddenly sees beyond the veil of acceptable optimism and into an existential abyss. Being indefatigable and all-American, he soon slams the door on THAT unwelcome insight.

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Michael Kidd plays the pageant’s choreographer — a great dancer and choreographer himself, he made intermittent movie appearances, including a star turn in the superb IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, and so this is a relatively rare chance to see him act. Great face, great voice, and the greatest portrait of a hard-bitten, essentially decent, dogged professional in any profession that I can think of right now. Just superb work. You don’t get near-heroes like that in Altman.

Oh, and Geoffrey Lewis practically doing a Pangborn, something I never expected to see.

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I think the other reason I never hurried to see this was that I got to know Michael Ritchie’s work via FLETCH (inoffensive but very minor) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (whaaaa?). One can’t judge a filmmaker by their worst projects, but it seemed from that perspective that Ritchie was minor, and already washed-up, a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy. But now I’m of a mind to try THE BAD NEWS BEARS, PRIME CUT, THE CANDIDATE, SEMI-TOUGH. From this fresh perspective, it may be that Ritchie enjoyed quite a nice little run.

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