All posts by patrickcrain73

Patrick Crain is a freelance writer living in Oklahoma City where he works a day job and sporadically contributes to various publications within the city. He is also a co-host of DAMAGED Viewing, a film society dedicated to cult and trash cinema the monthly meetings and film listening regarding which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/OkcFilmClub . Otherwise, he can be found in his theater room, hanging out with his any combination of his wife, stepdaughter, or his pets.

THE P.T. ANDERSON FILES: HARD EIGHT (1996)

By Patrick Crain

The screen is black and the opening credits begin. The first thing we hear is a dirge called Clementine’s Loop, composed by Jon Brion. The mood it pitches is stark and foreboding. The audience is immediately keyed in to the notion that the next 102 minutes will probably not be a reflection of the life-affirming highlights of the characters’ lives.

When the image comes up, we’re outside a Denny’s. Well, a reconverted Denny’s. The world of Hard Eight is one of unshakable reputations; it can say Jack’s Coffee Shop on the sign but it’s still a Denny’s that has been broken down, sold off, and is quietly functioning in its new skin. Walking towards this cafe is Sydney, a shadowy, yet direct man who, seemingly at random, offers to buy a poor stranded soul named John a cup of coffee.

It seems appropriate to note that, once upon a time, Peter Yates directed Robert Mitchum in a film called the Friends of Eddie Coyle which was not too dissimilar from Hard Eight. Set in the less-cinematic parts of Boston, that film chronicled the lives of the lowest-level functionaries in the organized crime business; bottom feeders who would feed on each other if need be. And in that film, everyone spoke with a clarity that ensured that whoever was listening understood what was said and what was not being said.

Hard Eight is very much like this world. In the earlier film, Robert Mitchum got to put the fear of God into a hot shot gunrunner by explaining why you never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. In Hard Eight, Sydney helpfully reminds John never to ignore a man’s courtesy. In both scenes, the veteran looks dog-tired and slow but you never once doubt his wisdom and respect the commanding way he delivers it.

In Hard Eight, Sydney is played by Philip Baker Hall and John is played by John C. Reilly. During the course of the opening scene, we will learn just enough about each character to want to tag along with them; Sydney is a well-dressed, professional gambler and John is a sweetly dim loser who only wants to win enough money in Vegas to pay for his mom’s funeral. Fifteen minutes into the film, we’re hanging on Sydney’s every word and John’s receptiveness to them. By the time sad-eyed cocktail waitress-cum-prostitute Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow) and reptilian casino security manager Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) are added to the mix, we slowly begin to see the ingredients of disaster come together and, like John, we look to Sydney for his guidance and trust his every movement. For there’s no doubt he’s seen disaster before.

What’s most astonishing about the debut film of Paul Thomas Anderson is how subdued it is, Made by a young man of 26, Anderson refuses to fall into the trap that 99% of nascent filmmakers do which dictates that one must be as flashy as possible by jamming in as many cinematic references and tricks that they can. In his first time out as a filmmaker, Anderson shows a real maturity in his restraint and his ability to approach material correctly and there is an amazing wisdom in the dialogue.

The film’s setting is interesting, too. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, Hard Eight takes place in the unglamorous world of daytime nightlife. Garish hotel rooms, eerily desolate roads, and the sparse, Wednesday afternoon crowd in dumpy Reno casinos are all writ large on cinematographer Robert Elswit’s wide canvas. And John Brion’s Hammond B3-laced score injects the right amount of lounge-lizard sleaze into the atmosphere. The characters and plot, a potent blend of a Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and an Elmore Leonard novel, mix with its harsh, cinematic world in such a way that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke on every frame of film.

To achieve this, a film has to be extraordinarily observant and meticulous in its details. Take, for instance, a scene in which Clementine, who has to leave town with John in a hurry, gives Sydney instructions for feeding her cats and how to unlock her apartment door with a key ring that is ridiculously overloaded with keys and trinkets. It’s not played for laughs and it doesn’t even call attention to itself. It’s simply a detail that serves as a reminder that Anderson knows characters like Clementine; someone who sadly, and in the name of basic survival, gives so much of herself away that overloading her keychain with goofy charms and ephemera seems like one of the few remaining frontiers of self-expression and individuality.

As well-realized its world and well-written its dialogue, Hard Eight is, above all, an actor’s film.
Philip Baker Hall, an actor who before Hard Eight was mostly known as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Secret Honor, got one of the biggest gifts from the gods with a role for the ages. Stoic and precise, Hall gets the immense actor’s pleasure of both being able to express himself with his stoney face and the right to spit hot-fire lines of dialogue like “You know the first thing they should have taught you you in hooker school? You get the money up front.” It’s a performance of masterful skill, immense control, and sheer perfection. I’ll fight the man, woman, or child that disagrees.

John C. Reilly can never get enough credit and is one of the finest character actors working today. In Hard Eight, he turns in one of his greatest performances as a truly pitiful lug who needs a hug and an emotional anchor. While Hall is tasked with the heavy lifting during the scenes of severe gravity, Reilly gets a few astonishing moments of emotional counterbalance, most especially during a telephone conversation in a key scene in the film’s third act. Also bringing the lumber is Gwenyth Paltrow who summons up the depressing cheapness that runs through her character while also making her vulnerable and human. It helps that her character is the hooker with a heart of despair and loneliness, not gold and half of the time her smeared lipstick makes her look like a clown that escaped a black velvet painting.

Fourth-billed Samuel L. Jackson brings fire to the film as the charismatic yet crudely loathsome security manager who knows everything that goes on in, and out, of the casino. With his wide grin, his maroon leather jacket, and his driving gloves, Jimmy is a study in someone who wouldn’t know class if he fell into it, yet is supremely lethal and projects a menace that, once he’s introduced, hangs like a pall over every remaining second of the film.

Hard Eight was marketed to capitalize on the then-red hot Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino vibe; an explosive, rapid-fire of witty banter, cool Vegas shenanigans, and gritty gangster action. To give the film more of that post-Rat Pack fetish vibe that washed all over indie cinema in the mid to late 90’s, the trailer assigned face-card titles to the characters (Gwenyth Paltrow is the Queen!). That the film had none of the aforementioned elements probably surprised the few that were able to overcome the distributor’s shameful mismanagement and were able to see it. For some, the surprise was likely a let down. Regardless of quality, there was, once upon a time, an audience that ate up every single post-Pulp Fiction-ish film indiscriminately. But, like a bunch of overstimulated, hyperactive toddlers, this crowd would write a film off as boring if it didn’t have that level of cinematic masturbation as a Tarantino picture (hence the lopsided, legacy love for absolute worthless garbage like The Boondock Saints). And while Boogie Nights and, especially, Magnolia are awash in dazzling visual arabesques Hard Eight, doesn’t traffic in them. Despite the use of a quick pan here or there and one tremendous tracking shot of Sydney moving like a shark across the casino floor, the film’s dynamism comes solely and bravely in its silences and what it doesn’t say. The electricity it emits is a slow burning charge that feels confident.

But, finally, Tarantino fashioned the mood of Pulp Fiction after those deliciously chosen pop tunes with which he festoons his soundtracks. Anderson fashioned Hard Eight after a Tom Waits song; it’s a true broken boulevard of heartache and misery where, after an evening of carnage, one can merely adjust their coat sleeve to cover up the bloodstains and move about their day unmolested.

WOODSTOCK (1970) D. Michael Wadleigh

By Patrick Crain

The first person we see is Sidney Westerfield, a grinning, amiable tavern owner in “Mongaup Valley, New York State.” He is a man who has seen no small amount of years, so much so that he’s still calling movie theaters “the moving pictures.” The look on his face is both awed and grateful. His tone sets the table. “The kids were wonderful,” he says, almost wistfully. “Nobody can complain about the kids.” He also promises that whoever does see the film that has documented this phenomenon “will really see something.”

  It’s a little hard to fathom Woodstock in this day and age. In a time where everything from casual meetups to nationwide protests can be organized over a social media app on a phone, the thought of half a million kids caravanning from all over the lower 48 just to descend on the otherwise unremarkable town of Bethel, New York for a music and arts festival is kind of mind-blowing. Almost more astonishing than that was that so many of them just went on blind faith that they would somehow be able to get into the festival without tickets. And there were so many of these that, within hours, the fences were torn down and anyone who wanted in, got in.

  But I suppose the only thing in any of that that’s unfathomable is that it occurred in a time of AM radio, three network channels, and, usually, two editions of the daily newspaper. If my WiFi is down for an hour, I feel like I’m Henry David Throreau. But somehow these folks came from all over for a festival that was more or less pitched to residents of New York only.

Woodstock, the documentary film that was released in theaters in 1970, is the grand spectacle from the ground floor; a sunkissed narrative of a small nation-state of fired up young people who were doing their best to change the system for the good with peace, love, and music. And, indeed, director Michael Wadleigh (Wolfen) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (and, to some degree, co-director and co-editor Martin Scorsese) assemble the film as a beautiful ode to the power of communal spirit which netted an Oscar for Best Documentary and earned Schoonmaker her first Oscar nomination (a competitive technical Oscar nomination for a documentary is a RARE bird). From the opening montage of the unspoiled farm of Max Yasgur as the advance team arrives and begins to assemble to stage to the final moments of a very much changed landscape that has been worn down to its muddy foundation, Woodstock is an ode to lightning in a bottle; a monumental bacchanal that, despite the anniversaries and spin-off/knock-off festivals that actually eclipsed it in terms of attendance (the Watkins Glen Festival with the Grateful Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers drew a bigger crowd), remains its very own special chapter in American history.

The film more or less follows the three days of the festival, doing a masterful job of mixing the musical performances with the captured moments with festival goers and the citizens of Bethel. The practical concerns of the people who actually live there and are then forced to live through what turned into a disaster area butt up against the encroaching hippies who seem to wander in and out of the frame like the living dead in Romero’s rural Pennsylvania. But this is in the service of being even-handed. Woodstock, the film (and, by extension, its soundtrack), needed to be a hit to help offset the losses from the actual show and these folks weren’t going to make a bucket of money bumming people out by showing a three hour movie about a bunch of pissed off townies and farmers and their economic hardships during the Woodstock festival. No, Woodstock had to be first and foremost a concert film because, after all, that’s what was at the backbone of the festival in the first place.

And as for the performances in Woodstock, they’re mostly all pretty terrific. Standout moments belong to Richie Havens having the unenviable task of opening the whole affair and setting the tone with the electrifying “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom;” a pregnant Joan Baez bringing the vocal lumber to “Joe Hill” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the middle of a very cold night; Crosby, Stills and Nash pulling off a flawless “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes;” Joe Cocker overcoming his backing singers who seem to be lost in the sauce of a different key during a powerful, career making cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends;” Sly and the Family Stone mostly setting the stage on metaphoric fire with a version of “I Wanna Take You Higher” that will get you pregnant; and Santana’s rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” which contains a jaw-dropping and borderline ridiculously sublime drum solo by Michael Shrieve, then just barely 20 years old and the second youngest performer at the whole festival that will get you even pregnant-er.

And not completely undersold is the darker side of Woodstock. As mentioned before, it touches on the community unrest and the conflicts between the conservative mentality with the more progressive and lax townsfolk. And the film famously includes the inconvenient rainstorm which created a disgusting swamp of mud which, occurring on day three, was probably the last straw for some. There are folks on bad trips, people emotionally overwhelmed by the situation on the ground, and then Sha Na Na shows up for some fucking reason.

And a film as sprawling as Woodstock is going to be bound to be as famous for what DIDN’T make it as it is for what did. The end of Abbe Hoffman’s street cred was famously delivered by Pete Townshend when the former climbed up on stage to go on a typical rant about John Sinclair and the latter knocked him off of the stage. That’s not included. Credence Clearwater Revival, the first band contracted to play, drew such a lousy play time (12:30 a.m on Sunday following a set by the Grateful Dead that was capped with a fifty minute rendition of the Pigpen-fronted “Turn on Your Lovelight”) that John Fogerty disallowed the band’s appearance in the film or on the subsequent soundtrack citing a substandard performance. And touched upon but not really explored is just what a financial disaster all of it was. If organizers Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang’s “Far Outs” and “Outta Sights” were currency, then they might have broken even. But as they stand around with dopey grins on their face as their capitalistic venture gives way to socialism when the fences come down with a quickness and the paid festival becomes a free one, Lang and Kornfeld’s eyes look glazed over and in a certain kind of shock that belie their supposed antiestablishmentarianism.

Even more perfumed in nostalgia is the longer director’s cut which was released in 1994 to coincide with the festival’s 25th anniversary as it incorporates sets from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. In a lot of ways, these are mostly backwards glancing as the presence of Janis, who would die within two years of her performance, seems necessary if only to remember that, yes, Woodstock had an edge of loss that was felt a year after the film came out in the theaters. As joyous as the Canned Heat set is (most especially when a fan bounds onto the stage and bums a cigarette from singer Bob Hite), it lacks the dazzle of Schoonmaker’s split-screens and multi-angled coverage feeling more like raw footage thrown into the pool for a bigger party. And the longer cut also adds back to Jimi Hendrix’s performance, elongating the electrifying but incredibly sad end of the festival, forcing the viewer to perhaps reconsider the film’s denouement in the shadow of Altamont which, in 1970, didn’t mean the same thing to the Boomers as it did in 1994.

But, honestly, it’s probably best to remember Woodstock as a golden memory and not as the realistic, muddy sump hole that left starving hippies gnawing out the last bit of watermelon as if they had been banished to a weird kind of hell on earth. No. The kind of grim reckoning that was upon America was but weeks away on the other side of the country when The Rolling Stones would get over their skis. On the contrary, Woodstock drives most scenes to an upbeat ending and presses the point by focusing on the goodness of everyone (the Port-O-San Man is a national treasure). And it’s in this spirit that, before snapping back to the pristine Yasgur farm to begin a recap montage over which the closing credits will roll, the last moment we see in Woodstock is an aerial view of the festival at its most swollen; a massive and unthinkable dream come true. It actually happened and you’ll always have the memories. It’s a beautiful snapshot of the determination and boundless energy of the young.

Regardless of the sociological ramifications of the Woodstock generation and the kind of cynical thought process that naturally occur when one luxuriates into middle age, my mind still likes to think about Woodstock in terms of the open-faced, plaid-clad girl who pops up to talk about being asked to tell a stranger about his wild eyes. Her revelation that she has to get her sister back home in time for court seems like quite a task but her follow-up that reveals that her sister got lost somewhere in the crowd during Richie Havens makes one’s eyes widen. After all, this is now a sea of people and Richie Havens was the first performer. How in the world will this even realistically happen? Will the communal spirit that drove all of these people to Woodstock in the first place be the thing that will draw these two siblings back together through the thick of the throng? Perhaps that’s the most fitting thing that can be said about the prevailing spirit of Woodstock. Regardless of its inherent naïveté, somehow, someway you kind of figure that she’s going to find her sister and, as John Sebastian said, “everything is gonna be all right.”

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: M*A*S*H (1970)

By Patrick Crain

And then there was M*A*S*H.

Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the flute-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely gave a shit. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.

Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.

And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.

It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).

The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but the film wants to make sure that it’s though not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are fucking, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are fucking. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.

So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick he was.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

By Patrick Crain

On a random chilly day in Vancouver, a wealthy woman of undetermined age named Frances Austen spots a boy, teetering somewhere between his late teens and early twentes, sitting on a park bench adjacent to her home. The day grows colder and is then is finally saturated by rain, yet he doesn’t budge from the bench. Frances observes this from her window and for reasons either of benevolence or simple, piqued interest, the woman invites the boy, who first appears to be mute, into her home. From here, an unorthodox and obsessive relationship begins.

Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is a movie about sex though not necessarily in the way you’d expect from the description above. More specifically, it’s a tragic and mysterious film about a woman whose unmoored sexual blossoming combusts with her rigid repression. Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen is almost a zombie of ritual who lives in a sarcophagus of high-class privilege occupied by the waxy specters of her late parents’ peers. We know little about her other than what we get by way of light expository dialogue and her direct yet taciturn demeanor. Her daily activities don’t seem to include any kind of employment but, instead, are spent entertaining, shopping, listening to selections from her utterly square record collection, and playing bocce ball with people twice her age. It’s as if her entire reason for being were awarded to her through a probate judgement along with her house and its servants.

This is juxtaposed with the life of The Boy, credited as such and played with a certain bright and impish charm by Michael Burns. Detangled from his large, overwhelming family we glimpse in one masterful exterior shot of his cramped, multi-level home that reveals multitudes while saying very little, he seems to float on a wave of pure life, his only real connection being that of his free-spirited sister who squats in a docked, derelict boat with her hippie boyfriend. It is with her that we learn that he is not, indeed, mute but is instead a curious observer with some rather eccentric tendencies.

In Altman’s first film to really put a real examining glass to human nature, That Cold Day in the Park lives in a very uncomfortable space where sex is never something joyous, exciting, a good time, or expressive but where it is a commodity, a disgusting biological necessity with frightening and painful ramifications, or an unreachable and twisted curiosity. There is always a heavy dichotomous swing between the awkwardness of not knowing anything or, in the case of The Boy, possibly knowing far too much. And while it doesn’t decry healthy sexual freedom, it looks on in sadness at unhealthy sexual identities which leaves the emotionally crippled without any alternatives or outlets.

With her downward-turned smile, librarian hair, and muted earth tones, Sandy Dennis’s Frances is as sharp and as emotionless as a clock and it is next to impossible to imagine that Dennis was but 32 years old when the film was made. Only when she eats some pot-laced cookies gifted to her as a gag by The Boy do we see her melt into a soft-focused thing of beauty, lifted into the ether by the tremendously gorgeous camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. Like Sissy Spacek’s Pinky in Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women, Sandy Dennis’s Frances literally transforms into another character in front of the audience’s face and it a thing of true wonder. As the scene slowly relaxes forward, we begin to vibe with her and pick up on the fully sexual being that she clearly would love to be if situations and forces unknown wouldn’t have stifled her. And like many an Altman woman that would pop up in his filmography, we get that her life has been robbed somewhere of a natural joy. Little wonder that when disappointment strikes, Frances snaps back into her discomforting comfort zone. And boy, does she snap back hard.

Also dividing the film in a rather bold way is the way it splits its time between the controlled environment of Frances’s apartment and the exterior world. As in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Frances’s apartment becomes a controlling space just as Susannah York’s two homes do in Altman’s Images, a film which would come three years later. In both films, the women are mostly trapped in cloistered environments are either inescapable or out of which it’s impossible to exist as the characters are constantly met with chaos and confusion and an inability to navigate through reality. And as That Cold Day in the Park marches toward its conclusion and moves more and more away from the confines of Frances’s apartment, Altman really cuts loose with his observations utilizing his signature style of messy sound design meant to give the audience the sensation of being a casual observer. For all the ink spilled about the following year’s M*A*S*H being the birth of the specific thing we’d eventually define as “Altmanesque,” I’d ask that the clock be turned back a bit and present this as an alternative Exhibit A. Here, it’s used not only as an engaging participatory device for the audience but also as an overwhelming sensory overload to Frances as a character as moments in the very chatty waiting room of a gynecologist and a pitiful attempt in a bar by Frances to procure a prostitute attest. In both scenes, she is entirely out of her element and rudderless and her anxiety is palpable.

Aided by Gillian Freeman’s beautifully delicate screenplay (based on a novel by Peter Miles), Altman’s third time at bat is an astonishing and effective film that gets lost in the conversation regarding his greatest works. While it lacks the jolts of Images and it can’t conjure the deliriously impenetrable and mysterious gossamer of 3 Women, That Cold Day in the Park reflects an artist interested in the marginalized and the outcast; people who aren’t given much serious study but who are indeed out there, doing their damndest, and putting their whole heart into it, regardless of consequence.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: COUNTDOWN (1968)

By Patrick Crain

“Why not just send the Voice of America up there and do it right? Or send some babe with big beautiful teeth and a stack of pop tunes?”

Robert Altman’s filmography is one that lacks heroes in the conventional sense. What it is in no short supply of are people who stumble upwards into some sense of accomplishment or peace. Sometimes it happens a little too late, but it happens nonetheless. For Altman was less interested in the white-hatted good guys who made up the myths found in the American history books; he wanted the stories of the regular schmoes who sometimes lucked into greatness or, as was also the case, those who stood on the wrong side of greatness and peered longingly at the other side.

So it is that Countdown, Altman’s big budget theatrical debut, would have such a concern at its center. Eleven years before Tom Wolfe blew the lid off the painstaking work that went into the myth-making of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff and a whole year before Apollo 11 made traveling to the moon a reality, Altman got an early crack at both; the bureaucratic handwringing and hustling with elements of the human, home-based drama that got the short shrift in all of those “astronaut wife” profiles Life Magazine churned out around the same time.

Countdown is a film about a fictional race to the moon between the Russians and the United States. Far ahead of the game, the Russians are planning to send an engineer to the moon while the US is still working on its own plans to launch. As the Russians’ plan becomes known, the US throws together a dangerous, breakneck scheme to send a man to beat the Russians to the punch. This causes a rift between Chiz (Robert Duvall) and Lee Stegler (James Caan) as the former is disallowed to go given his military rank and the latter is an untested young hothead. Eventuallly, Chiz becomes Stegler’s backup during his punishing training and preparation while the stress of Stegler’s home life begins to take its toll.

Countdown, at its most basic, is a serious-minded affair that is something between science fantasy and science fiction; I’d be tempted to pitch it as science-fact, but that’s not quite right. For amid the scientific jargon, the gadgets, and the impressive amount of detail, Countdown can’t quite shed its thin, stagey, soap operatic flourishes when it focuses on the domestic world of the Steglers. Chief among the issues is the character of Mick Stegler, Lee’s long-suffering wife. Joanna Moore turns in a fine performance and does what she can with the role but the screenplay gives her no real depth. In a film more daring, Altman would have allowed for Moore to act independently as her emotional void becomes exacerbated by Lee’s work. Mick Stegler is relegated to wear the cloak of the dutiful, robotic wife who more or less has to absorb every decision with a grin. These scenes go through the motions of hitting the right notes where they should in the story (the uncertainty, the fear, the boredom, “what’ll we tell little Stevie?”, etc.) but each domestic situation feels like it was recycled from a benign television drama of the day, exactly the kind of tin-type and shallow patriotism Altman would later skewer with bottomless glee.

But Countdown really shines in those moments where the film focuses on the mission and all of the dressing around it. Altman’s military service gives him a keen understanding of Air Force culture and when the movie settles into the wood-paneled military offices and yawning lecture halls where decisions both good and bad are shouted over each other, the film has a certain immediacy. And, really, to a layman, all of the dialogue and the ephemera sounds pretty buyable, most especially for the time. Hell, “His eyes will have been bathing in oxygen and he’ll have bilateral conjunctivitis” sounds like something I might quote at a party to sound smart if I were in a conversation about astronauts and was three glasses of wine into it.

Under-remarked, too, is just how much pure chemistry is apparent in the debut match of James Caan and Robert Duvall who would find themselves paired in four more films in the following seven years. The naturalism of their rivalry/friendship is a true thing of beauty and it is really on high display here, especially given the nature of the roles and the story.

Countdown is far from a perfect film and it’s very much a product of its time but it’s also not exactly NOT “Altmanesque.” While his particular style of casual observation of the mundane and the messy sound design that’s immediately recognizable as Altman’s would have to wait until his next film, Altman does give it the old college try by having heavy chunks of dialogue to crash and topple on another during a number of the scenes. It’s a technique that would make him famous by 1975 but, in 1968, got him fired from the picture by studio chief Jack Warner and, unfortunately, led to reshoots that jettisoned Altman’s darker, more opaque ending in favor of something with some positive closure.

Due to the studio interference, Countdown is ultimately an impersonal work but Altman’s deconstructive dark streak really finds a way to make its debut here as the film cannily tracks his fascination with the sloppy beauty of America and its ability to achieve great things in spite of itself. How does a man beat the odds, go to the moon, and become the All American Boy? According to Altman, with lot of meetings, nervous political decisions, goofy luck, faulty technology, and a bunch of uncomfortable familial damage.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: The Delinquents / The James Dean Story (1957)

By Patrick Crain

When we think about the social unraveling that occurred in America, we seem more or less fixated on the mid to late sixties, a psychologically fragile time in which our great compact seemed to fissure as stress upon stress was laid atop it and harder and harder scar tissue began to form in the place of the great, gaping wounds. The seeds of this, of course, were sown in the postwar years in which men came home from overseas with psychological issues and then created children who would then have to deal with the silent trauma in their own way by dropping out and tuning in just as the sixties began to ripen.

But floating between these two extremes were those of the Silent Generation who, too young to serve their country themselves, watched their fathers go off to war but then had to grapple with the reality of the absent parent who, in some cases, would not return, or, in other cases, would return in a form almost unrecognizable to the people who stayed behind. World War I was the first war in which medical advances allowed us to reckon with the physical damage of combat and World War II was the first in which we had to confront with the difficult sociological damage of combat. That it was met with relative silence and was internalized in such a way that it often resembled a pressure cooker was a definite contributing factor in the fracture between the generations that occurred later.

To the young men drifting through those times, Elvis Presley and James Dean were identifiable outlets; figures who cut through a lot of social layers and captured the imagination and set the cultural tone. But James Dean filled this gap better than Elvis. Maybe it’s because Dean didn’t seem quite as beamed in from another planet like Elvis did or maybe because Dean remained forever young, perpetually romantic and frozen in time; an almost perfectly preserved artifact of his time. By turns dangerous and sweet, sexual and brooding, Dean was the perfect icon due to the ability for men to see him through whatever prism they chose.

The spirit of James Dean hangs over Robert Altman’s debut feature, The Delinquents, like an unwelcome ghost. Shot in 1955 but not released until 1957, two years after Dean’s death, the enterprise was the result of a local Kansas City producer wanting to cash in on the juvenile delinquent movies that were printing money out in Hollywood and local talent Robert Altman wanting to move from the industrials he was making for the Calvin Company to actual feature films. Whether Altman was ready for such a thing is another call entirely as the Delinquents is a movie that feels like two parts of an educational film that you might have seen in junior high in the late 50’s. It concerns itself with the doomed romance between Scotty and Janice (pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin and KC local Rosemary Howard, respectively), two high school kids who are having trouble taking their relationship to the next level due to Janice’s square parents feeling that a girl of sixteen is far too young to be going steady and forbids them to see each other.

Enter a gaggle of rough young thugs, the ranks of which contain Eddie (Dick Bakalyan) and led by Cholly (Peter Miller). After involving innocent bystander Scotty in a drive in rumble, Cholly hatches a plan to help his new buddy out. He’ll pose as Janice’s date and will bring her to Scotty after picking her up. And, of course, this leads to all kinds of trouble which includes a police raid on a house party, a lot of booze, a gas station robbery, an attempted assault, and, finally, a knife fight.

Containing a mix of passable and stiff performances, a lurching narrative, and a helplessly terrible and moralizing wraparound monologue, the Delinquents more or less banished Altman to the world of television where he honed his skills, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Whirlybirds. It is also notable for the weirdly intense performance Tom Laughlin gives, clashing with the helpless Howard in the same way that predates the exact same awkwardness that would materialize when he would insist on casting Delores Taylor, his non-actress wife, in gigantic, difficult roles in his worthless Billy Jack movies.

I suppose there is a camp quality to be had with this kind of thing. After all, deep in the third act, Laughlin’s method acting gets so out of hand that it looks like he permanently damages Dick Bakalyan’s cervical spine when he drags him down to the ground in something that looks like a headlock that would get you thrown out of most wrestling matches. And in the film’s climax soon afterward, a hotted up Laughlin gets into a fight with Peter Miller’s character that looks like it wasn’t completely covered or cut correctly. The result is a lot of jagged editing which has Laughlin oscillating between looking like he’s going to either destroy or vomit all over Peter Miller before finally coming to a head with Laughlin Popeyeing Miller to the moon against the side of a refrigerator.

Add in some fun Kansas City locations, a painless running time of just around 75 minutes, and the tacked-on monologue regarding morals and American values and this MIGHT just be someone’s cup of tea. And, regardless of the result (which isn’t unwatchable and was good enough to land him a job with Hitchcock) it’s also hard to ignore that Altman beats Cassavetes to the big screen by two years with his independent feature and netting writing, producing, and directing credits. For every independent filmmaker who owes a debt to Cassavetes, some of that gratitude should be directed toward Altman.

James Dean factors in more appropriately and explicitly in Altman’s next outing which was assembled and created during the editing phase of the Delinquents. Also released in 1957, the James Dean Story has the regional, documentarian feel of a Charles B. Pierce film though it also curiously enough seems to veer a little towards the style of an Errol Morris documentary at times as the film is mostly pieced together with solemn narration and the unvarnished and raw takes of some talking heads, some secret recordings, and sprinkled with brooding passages about misgivings, griefs, and the inability to conform.

But the James Dean Story is really a telling little piece of material from the time that might just be a little more reflective and dour than it was envisioned to be. Sure, the subject matter had perished in a terrible car crash and died far too young but, for 1957, it’s just a little honest and just a tad unflattering which showed that the postwar generation were more interested in getting down to just who they were more than they wanted a magazine on film that sold the image of Dean that might not tell the whole story. Buried in all of this was the generation expressed existential angst; who are we?

One thing that Robert Altman really seemed to understand is that celebrities do oftentimes come from humble beginnings and that they are as much a part of the American portrait as steel workers, teachers, and farmers. And while watching this piece, one sometimes wonders how much Altman identifies with James Dean as he was only six years older than Dean and likewise sprung out of the middle of America. Both nonconformist iconoclasts, it’s hard to imagine that Altman didn’t see a lot of himself in Dean. Over time, he would revisit Dean’s legacy, most explicitly in his 1982 adaptation of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean as he examined the nature of celebrity, pop culture, and the empty promises that come with investing in the memories of people you really don’t know.

Robert Altman would disappear into Hollywood hack work for another decade before reemerging in 1968 with his first big studio picture, Countdown from which he was fired by Jack Warner. A literal quote from the James Dean Story reads “the more they criticized, the more he refused to change.” This is said, of course, of James Dean but it could also be as easily said of Robert Altman.

Black Christmas

By Patrick Crain

Sometime deep in December, my wife and I park in front of the TV and spin Black Christmas. This has been a tradition for the past ten or so years and it’s as much in our normal holiday rotation as White Christmas is for some decent Americans and Die Hard is for showboats who feel arguing the point of Die Hard being a Christmas movie is some sort of personality trait. It should be said that Black Christmas is not on my annual schedule in the same, ironic way that, after consuming one too many glasses of wine and overtaken with the insatiable desire to feel colossally stupid, 1984’s loveably dreadful Don’t Open Till Christmas finds its way into my programming schedule. And neither does it occupy the same nostalgic space as Roland Neame’s Scrooge from 1970, a film so formative that after forty solid years of viewing, two or three frames of it have probably somehow and someway become part of my actual DNA code. Instead, outside being just a damn fine horror film, Black Christmas earns such a vaunted position precisely because of the film’s tactile production detail which makes it feel more or less what Christmas from our collective youth felt like.

Don’t get me wrong. As we both grew up in Del City, Oklahoma where we violence right out in the big bright open while using our real names, my wife and I never spent a childhood Christmas in the film’s native Canada while being stalked by a killer. And as far as having any clear memories of 1974, the year the film was made, my wife was barely two and I was less than one so it’s unlikely that we would possess any. But there’s something intoxicating in the film’s production design, most of which looks like it could have been purchased in a TG&Y. The dark interiors of the sorority house, draped with department store tinsel, are routinely punctuated by candy-colored C5 Christmas bulbs that, as any 70’s kid knows, would indiscriminately show no mercy in burning the entire hell from you if you touched them. Mostly lost to time is the prevalence of things such as holiday carolers, rotary phones, and cross-hatched windows all which factor into the look, feel, and function of Black Christmas. Beyond those details, Black Christmas also plays on a theme of physical, disconnected isolation, a feeling and a sense that was available in abundance once upon a time but is almost impossible to fathom today.

For the uninitiated, Black Christmas is the story of a group of sorority sisters who are stalked, terrorized, and picked off by an unknown killer who routinely punctuates his moments of violence with some of the most unsettling prank calls ever committed to popular fiction. At the center of the story is Jess (the radiant Olivia Hussey), the plucky, raven-haired Brit who is the girlfriend of Peter (Keir Dullea, sporting a Klute haircut and mostly looking like he spent the night in a bus station) a temperamental music student. On the peripheries of their domestic drama is the search for Claire Harrison, a sorority sister who vanishes ten minutes into the film, and a further subplot regarding a missing girl from the town.

For years, Black Christmas (initially released in America as Silent Night, Evil Night) languished in a kind of semi-obscurity, slowly finding a wider and wider audience as home video accessibility collided with word of mouth which eventually led to the internet elevating its profile to a degree where it’s now damn near impossible to ignore. In fact, the film has become so popular that it remains one of the only horror films of its generation to have been remade twice. 

But in a world in which we’re so connected, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary rework could mimic the specific, time-specific isolation that gives the film its most sinister power. Black Christmas was no doubt something of a subversive idea back in 1974, a year when the oldest of the baby boomers was not yet thirty and, like most of the long-standing customs of the generations before theirs, the idea of turning Christmas upside down was something with which to experiment. So here was a Christmas film where, instead of the standard familial coming together in the spirit of the season, the characters do their level best to achieve the inverse.

This is a film that tracks each character’s desire to temporarily escape their situations (Jess from the controlling Peter, Claire from the abrasive Barb, housemother Mrs. Mack from anything that’s not booze) and then masterfully moves its characters into scenarios where their temporary escapes are isolated death traps. Almost paradoxically, it’s only the brusque, streetwise Barb (a fantastic Margot Kidder) who emerges as the loneliest character in the film and who also does not crave isolation; a ribald wild child who would be 10/10 hot if she weren’t 15/10 pitiful.

Director Bob Clark also manages to generate a sly sense of tension, as well (helped along by an unnerving score by Carl Zitterer that sounds closer to musique concrète than anything hummable). Almost like an episode of Columbo, the search for sorority sister Claire Harrison (the engine that drives a ton of the plot) is sort of a MacGuffin as the audience has already watched her fall victim to the killer and likewise knows she’s stashed in the attic. Similarly, the big reveal to a horrified Jess that the prank calls that have become more amplified and disturbing as the film has worn on have been coming FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE is already known to us. The “who” is still relevant, but Clark curiously doesn’t set up a myriad of red herrings, despite there being enough of a character pool to justify doing so. Instead, the central mystery wisely becomes a question of “yes or no” and it is smartly complicated by both impossible-to-deny circumstantial evidence and frustratingly real spatial incongruities. But by immediately establishing that the killer is in the house and can slip unnoticed from room to room, we’re never once at ease and there is a slow choking sensation that begins to become apparent when Jess’s orbit rapidly shrinks in the film’s final third.

Christmas movies evoke all kinds of memories and feelings and, for the most part, my Christmas schedule is festooned with titles that bring the requisite, seasonal laugh and tear. But in the quest of that visceral sensation of being utterly isolated, for my money, there’s nothing that pierces the deadly quiet of a Christmas Eve night quite like Jess hopelessly screaming for Phyl and Barb to answer her. Among all of the nostalgic tchotchke embedded in the mise-en-scene, her palpable fear serves as a chilling reminder of that time so many years ago when one could feel truly alone and the terror that could come with it would freeze you into place.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

As it limped out of the 1980’s with a notoriously ridiculous entry in which Jason somehow takes a boat adventure out of Camp Crystal Lake and winds up in Manhattan, it was sort of up in the air if Paramount’s Friday the 13th franchise would survive. After its purchase by New Line Cinema, its three additional entries and then the inevitable post-9/11 remake kind of beg the question as to whether or not it really did.

But nostalgia being what it is, Friday the 13th has gone on to become one of the most beloved franchises in the horror genre. A once taboo series of films that gave Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert the absolute vapors, there is probably a small section in your friendly neighborhood Target that is now stocked at this very minute with some Friday the 13th tchotchke,

Within the fandom of the franchise, almost every title is sacrosanct and has its hard core fans. The folks that run horror conventions can always fill space by booking obscure cast members from any one of the Friday the 13th films with the assurance that a good number of folks will show up to give them money for a picture and an autograph. Hell, even Ari Lehman, the dude who played Jason as a boy in the original film, travels all over this land, gauntlet-adorned hands grasping a machete-shaped keytar while fronting a middlebrow rock band called First Jason which makes absolutely no sense but thrives regardless.

That the Friday the 13th fandom is so hardcore should be of little surprise to anyone since one has to be a shameless apologist or in serious denial to even consider any of these films in the first place. Sean S. Cunningham’s first entry, sometimes misremembered as a good movie, was a hack rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween with a cheat whodunit thrown in for good measure. Part 2 wisely dispatches almost everything from the first film and uses its climax as the setup for its tale even if, in doing so, it boxes itself into a logistical trap of utter nonsense that it could give two shits about solving. And Paramount bet that audiences wouldn’t care either. And it bet correct.

Friday the 13th Part 2, as everyone who has seen Scream knows, is the first entry in the series in which the antagonist is actually Jason Voorhees, hockey-masked psychopath that has become an iconic piece of the American experience. But we’ll have to wait until the awful next installment (in 3D, because two dimensions of terribleness weren’t enough) before he acquires the mask. So, yes, there is an underrepresented Jason out there while hockey-masked Jason and showboat Ari Lehman are soaking up the glory. Who will stand up for Warrington Gillette’s backwoods Jason, clad in plaid, covered in denim, and donning a sack over his head? After all, from a horror film standpoint, he is the most effectively creepy-looking Jason.

But wait just a dang minute! How is Jason even alive? Didn’t he drown back in the 50’s, as told by his mother during the ridiculous climax of the first film? And when doubt is cast upon his fate in that film’s denouement, as he pops up out of the water to deliver one final cheap scare to the audience, isn’t he still, inexplicably, a boy in 1980? I mean, sure, it’s chalked up to a possible dream sequence but his existence as a man who somehow survived the drowning and then just lived in the woods alone is utterly absurd. In fact, so risible was this setup that Tom Savini, SFX artist for the first film, refused to even entertain lending his services to the production, packed up his gear and went down the street to work on The Burning. Of course, it mattered not since gun-shy censors bowdlerized the majority of the gore effects on this one as they had the first one.

But in stringing the logic of the pre-credit sequence out, we have to wonder just how Jason is even able to track poor Alice (Adrienne King), the weak final girl from the first entry, to her home in the first place? Do audiences even want to entertain the implausible idea that this grotesque creature likely had to sit on some kind of bus, taxi, or semi cab just to make it to civilization? Or is it that they just relieved that Alice is getting an ice pick to the temple and they’re not going to be asked to accept her shrieking at the top of her lungs in her JC Penney wardrobe and Cathy Rigby hair for the remainder of the film? Given that the film burns about 12.5% of its total runtime on this sequence and nobody seems to give a flying fuck, I like to think that folks just wanted to say “goodbye and good riddance” to Adrienne King.

And what a good stroke of luck that is for audiences because director Steve Miner (who would go on to put his head all the way up his ass helming the aforementioned third film), scored a major coup with Amy Steel whose relaxed, charming, and intelligent performance as Ginny elevates her to the greatest final girl of the entire franchise. Sure, she’s not given much to do because, after all, this is a Friday the 13th movie, but she brings a spunk where King brought a plunk. She’s sunny, warm, thoughtful, and resourceful and, as an audience, we’re with her 100% during the climax where, in the original, we merely watched it unfold while simultaneously wondering how Sean Cunningham escaped getting sued by John Carpenter.

And it’s not just Steel that brings a higher authenticity to the proceedings. John Furey’s Paul makes for a much more appealing and less stuffy male lead than Peter Brouwer’s downmarket Marlboro Man Steve Christy did in the first film. In fact, it must be said that the entire cast of the sequel at least APPEARS to be populated with actual people who are having something of a good time and all of the romantic couplings, while eye-rolling and predictable, seem pretty natural. This is most especially true for the romance between Marta Kober’s Sandra and Bill Randolph’s Jeff who are, without question, the hottest Friday the 13th couple of all and who also look like they absolutely could not keep their hands off of each other during the entire shoot.

Friday the 13th Part 2, by most metrics, isn’t a great movie but with its likeable cast, smart plot progression, creepily abrupt and open-ended finale, and some fine homages to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, it’s a very good Friday the 13th movie. In fact, if it weren’t for the truly hilarious and superior sixth entry, it would likely rank as the best Friday the 13th movie. And I guess that counts for something.

– Patrick Crain

Hey, speaking of Mario Bava, next week I’ll engage in some financial terrorism with John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell in Bava’s groovy, color-splashed Danger: Diabolik. Until then, if you see a ramshackle hut in the woods, don’t go in it. Or do. Whatever…

Meatballs (1979)

“You make one good friend a summer and you’re doing pretty well.”

You wouldn’t know it today by how little it’s discussed but, believe it or not, there was a time in which Meatballs seemed to be playing all the time and was completely ubiquitous in the experience of a kid cresting ten in the early eighties. This was a time, of course, in which John Belushi was still alive and the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live had the muscle to burn up the box office. This was also a time in which HBO would shamelessly play, ad nauseam, anything that had achieved a PG rating throughout the day for the latchkey kids who had to entertain themselves before Mom and/or Dad came home to make dinner.

But Meatballs has sort of given way to history in the way that, say, the Groove Tube has. Most mark Bill Murray’s performance in Caddyshack as their earliest favorite if they can even see beyond the gigantic horizon that is Ghostbusters. Even a cult item like Where the Buffalo Roam, with its built-in interest due to the ever-widening legend of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, seems to get more ink these days than Meatballs.

And, to be sure, Meatballs is a complete trifle. Even as a summer hijinx movie, especially one co-written by the wittily acerbic Harold Ramis and directed by the equally irreverent Ivan Reitman, it’s pretty soft and inoffensive. Everything is kept tasteful; a quick mention of periods in the girls’ cabin, some innocuous riffing on how a girl can and can’t get pregnant, and some on-screen kissing that seems more wistfully sweet than something that could raise the temperature in the room. There is absolutely no hint of nudity and the most dangerous anatomical reference is in aid of a movie-ready softball strategy in the third act. Little wonder that the target audience of Meatballs recalls it a little more hazily than, say, National Lampoon’s Animal House or Stripes (both co-written by Ramis and the latter of which was directed by Reitman), two films that delivered the goods on the sex and the nudity.

But what Meatballs lacks in terms of the ribald excesses of its peers, it has more heart than any of those films combined. This is due, in large part, to Murray and Chris Makepeace, both making their film debuts. Without Makepeace’s Rudy Gerner, an awkward twelve year-old victim of shape-shifting puberty, Bill Murray’s Tripper Harrison would be nothing but a loud, immature wisenheimer. But in Gerner, Murray sees a pained, wounded kid who is understandably bad at soccer and whose dad is absent at Parents’ Day. And the way Murray takes him under his wing is truly the heart of the film. It is in those scenes that we see Makepeace workshopping for a similar turn in the following year’s My Bodyguard and Murray showing the kind of tenderness that would surprise audiences again and again throughout his career. And while it is all perfunctory and there are absolutely zero surprises anywhere to be found in Meatballs, there is something so special in the relationship between Murray and Makepeace that I’m completely charmed every time I put it on.

There are other things to admire in Meatballs. Kate Lynch’s Roxanne makes for an unusual and interesting romantic foil for Murray even if her character isn’t given much to do, and only a person with a heart of stone could dislike Harvey Atkin’s hapless camp director, Morty Melnick. All of the romantic couplings, while no better than sketch ideas, are handled with the right tone and temperature for the piece and the location, Ontario’s Camp White Pine, an actual functioning summer camp, lends some authenticity to the film. But mostly, I’ve just always been keen on how much Meatballs loves its characters which is likely one of the reasons it retains its charm 40 years later. Nobody is awful, nobody hits below the belt, and none of the outcast characters are really treated with scorn. And, ultimately, who can resist the film’s creaky-yet-effective populist bent with the scrappy underdogs of Camp North Star taking on the rich snobs of neighboring Camp Mohawk? These are the reasons why, when I want to kick off summer with a film that is a celebration of the kind of youthful magic that is only possible during the summer, I immediately go to Meatballs.

I may very well be on a quixotic quest to try and loftily immortalize this film. Watching it now, I can fully understand where Murray’s then-awkwardness as a performer having to star in his first vehicle can land him in very smug and unlikeable territory for some viewers. I can also agree that much of Meatballs is simply a vague series of ideas that are strung together just enough to make a movie. I can also appreciate how much of it would strike anyone raised on bawdier affair as old-fashioned pap; a film that never even attempts to get to first base. But for a slowly shrinking number of folks of my generation, Meatballs will be a forever young ode to adolescent awkwardness and as sweet as any great memory that was created therein. And that’s all it was ever aiming for.

Now I think I’ll go off and listen to Terry Blacks’s Moondust, thank you very much.

– Patrick Crain

Next week, I’ll look at the downside of summer camp with Friday the 13th Part 2. Stay safe, Camp North Star campers!

Hard Eight: A review by Patrick Crain

 

The screen is black and the opening credits begin. The first thing we hear is a dirge called Clementine’s Loop, composed by Jon Brion. The mood it pitches is stark and foreboding. The audience is immediately keyed in to the notion that the next 102 minutes will probably not be a reflection of the life-affirming highlights of the characters’ lives.

When the image comes up, we’re outside a Denny’s. Well, a reconverted Denny’s. The world of Hard Eight is one of unshakable reputations; it can say Ray’s Cafe on the sign but it’s still a Denny’s that has been broken down, sold off, and is quietly functioning in its new skin. Walking towards this cafe is Sydney, a shadowy, yet direct man who, seemingly at random, offers to buy a poor stranded soul named John a cup of coffee.

It seems appropriate to note that, once upon a time, Peter Yates directed Robert Mitchum in a film called the Friends of Eddie Coyle which was not too dissimilar from Hard Eight. Set in the less-cinematic parts of Boston, that film chronicled the lives of the lowest-level functionaries in the organized crime business; bottom feeders who would feed on each other if need be. And in that film, everyone spoke with a clarity that ensured that whoever was listening understood what was said and what was not being said.

Hard Eight is very much like this world. In the earlier film, Robert Mitchum got to put the fear of God into a hot shot gunrunner by explaining why you never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. In Hard Eight, Sydney helpfully reminds John never to ignore a man’s courtesy. In both scenes, the veteran looks dog-tired and slow but you never once doubt his wisdom and respect the commanding way he delivers it.

In Hard Eight, Sydney is played by Philip Baker Hall and John is played by John C. Reilly. During the course of the opening scene, we will learn just enough about each character to want to tag along with them; Sydney is a well-dressed, professional gambler and John is a sweetly dim loser who only wants to win enough money in Vegas to pay for his mom’s funeral. Fifteen minutes into the film, we’re hanging on Sydney’s every word and John’s receptiveness to them. By the time sad-eyed cocktail waitress-cum-prostitute Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow) and reptilian casino security manager Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) are added to the mix, we slowly begin to see the ingredients of disaster come together and, like John, we look to Sydney for his guidance and trust his every movement. For there’s no doubt he’s seen disaster before.

What’s most astonishing about the debut film of Paul Thomas Anderson is how subdued it is, Made by a young man of 26, Anderson refuses to fall into the trap that 99% of nascent filmmakers do which dictates that one must be as flashy as possible by jamming in as many cinematic references and tricks that they can. In his first time out as a filmmaker, Anderson shows a real maturity in his restraint and his ability to approach material correctly and there is an amazing wisdom in the dialogue.

The film’s setting is interesting, too. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, Hard Eight takes place in the unglamorous world of daytime nightlife. Garish hotel rooms, eerily desolate roads, and the sparse, Wednesday afternoon crowd in dumpy Reno casinos are all writ large on cinematographer Robert Elswit’s wide canvas. And John Brion’s Hammond B3-laced score injects the right amount of lounge-lizard sleaze into the atmosphere. The characters and plot, a potent blend of a Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and an Elmore Leonard novel, mix with its harsh, cinematic world in such a way that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke on every frame of film.

To achieve this, a film has to be extraordinarily observant and meticulous in its details. Take, for instance, a scene in which Clementine, who has to leave town with John in a hurry, gives Sydney instructions for feeding her cats and how to unlock her apartment door with a key ring we never see, but can hear is ridiculously overloaded with keys and trinkets. It’s not played for laughs and it doesn’t even call attention to itself. It’s simply a detail that serves as a reminder that Anderson knows characters like Clementine; someone who sadly, and in the name of basic survival, gives so much of herself away that overloading her keychain with goofy charms and ephemera seems like one of the few remaining frontiers of self-expression and individuality.

As well-realized its world and well-written its dialogue, Hard Eight is, above all, an actor’s film.

Philip Baker Hall, an actor who before Hard Eight was mostly known as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Secret Honor, got one of the biggest gifts from the gods with a role for the ages. Stoic and precise, Hall gets the immense actor’s pleasure of both being able to express himself with his stoney face and the right to spit hot-fire lines of dialogue like “You know the first thing they should have taught you you at hooker school? You get the money up front.” It’s a performance of masterful skill, immense control, and sheer perfection. I’ll fight the man, woman, or child that disagrees.

John C. Reilly can never get enough credit and is one of the finest character actors working today. In Hard Eight, he turns in one of his greatest performances as a truly pitiful lug who needs a hug and an emotional anchor. While Hall is tasked with the heavy lifting during the scenes of severe gravity, Reilly gets a few astonishing moments of emotional counterbalance, most especially during a telephone conversation in a key scene in the film’s third act. Also bringing the lumber is Gwenyth Paltrow who summons up the depressing cheapness that runs through her character while also making her vulnerable and human. It helps that her character is the hooker with a heart of despair and loneliness, not gold and half of the time her smeared lipstick makes her look like a clown that escaped a black velvet painting.

Fourth-billed Samuel L. Jackson brings fire to the film as the charismatic yet crudely loathsome security manager who knows everything that goes on in, and out, of the casino. With his wide grin, his maroon leather jacket, and his driving gloves, Jimmy is a study in someone who wouldn’t know class if he fell into it, yet is supremely lethal and projects a menace that, once he’s introduced, hangs like a pall over every remaining second of the film.

Looking back on how Hard Eight was marketed, it must be said that the trailer for the film is ridiculous. Obviously cut to capitalize on the then-red hot Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino vibe, the film was marketed as a explosive fire of witty banter, cool Vegas shenanigans, and gritty gangster action. To give the film more of that post-Rat Pack fetish vibe that washed all over indie cinema in the mid to late 90’s, the trailer assigns face-card titles to the characters (Gwenyth Paltrow is the Queen!). That the film had none of the aforementioned elements probably surprised the few that were able to overcome the distributor’s shameful mismanagement and see it in a theater. For some, the surprise was likely a let down. Regardless of quality, there was an audience that ate up every single post-Pulp Fiction-ish film indiscriminately. This, by the way, is how the noxious Boondock Saints, the Sublime of the Pulp Fiction wannabes, ever became the hot property it did. If a film didn’t have that same pop, slash, and burn, it was chucked as boring. And Hard Eight doesn’t have that pop. Despite the use of a quick pan here or there and one tremendous tracking shot of Sydney moving like a shark across the casino floor, the film’s dynamism comes solely and bravely in its silences and what it doesn’t say. The electricity it emits is a slow burning charge that feels confident.

But, finally, Tarantino fashioned the mood of Pulp Fiction after those deliciously chosen pop tunes, Anderson fashioned Hard Eight after a Tom Waits song; a broken boulevard of heartache and misery where, after an evening of carnage, one can merely adjust their coat sleeve to cover up the bloodstains and move about their day unmolested.

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