Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The main thing I learned from A Man for All Seasons is that a slew of very talented, very interesting people made a film about a talented, interesting person who I find admirable, and yet whose conscience dictated loyalty to something most of us would not agree with—the corrupt Catholic church which at the time faced reforms both inside and out. This actually does not lessen the impact of the script, written by Robert Bolt, which (like Lawrence of Arabia) uses one man's struggle to illuminate the broader themes Bolt was interested in exploring. Like Lawrence, Thomas More is streamlined even if he remains complex, those facts which do not support Bolt's thesis (More as the ultimate man of conscience) stripped from the action. Like Lawrence, he is one man caught in Great Events of History, who rises to the challenge though not without personal cost. (The use (or misuse) of historical figures for a writer's personal aims should probably be addressed elsewhere; for me, it often depends on the particular use and the skill with which it's been accomplished.)

Also like Lawrence..., a fantastic performance is the centerpiece of the film. Paul Scofield, of impeccable reputation perhaps because of his short list of credits, seems born to play this role. He is steady, likable without being overtly attractive, and possessed of an amazing voice. He embodies Bolt's idea of More perfectly, appearing eternally upright and benevolent as the only man to oppose Henry VIII's breaking an entire country away from the Pope on a whim. One cannot imagine this More condemning heretical Lutherans to the stake, but that's not the point; Bolt's themes are anti-authoritarian and pro-conscience, regardless of whether he believed in More's cause. Indeed in the film, More's response to anti-Catholic sentiments in his prospective son-in-law is to forbid him to marry, but not from seeing, his daughter, until he gets his mind right and becomes merely an anti-corruption Catholic.

Bolt's script is witty and to the point. One thing I admire about Bolt's screenplays is how little fat there is in them, though they rarely feel stagy. The supporting players all do a fine job as well, especially Robert Shaw's Henry, who is endearingly ridiculous as the moody, virile, and self-satisfied king. Orson Welles has a cameo as Cardinal Wolsey, looking corrupt and bloated by power; John Hurt appears as the soon-corrupted Richard Rich, and Wendy Hiller as the steadfast Alice More. My major complaint is about the photography itself; for whatever reason, many scenes end with a fade that seems to come too hard on the heels of the last line and draws attention to itself. Otherwise it is uninspired, and the film is of primary interest for its script and acting, both of which are sufficient cause for seeing it. One should, however, be prepared to listen a great deal. With Scofield speaking, I myself did not find that a tall order in the least. Read more!

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Based on the true story of a bank robbery gone bad in 1972 (“30% true” the actual perpetrator, Sonny Wojtowicz claimed), Dog Day Afternoon is, like Network, one of Sidney Lumet's best films an a fine evocation of media paranoia in the 70's. Taking place during one afternoon and evening during a heist-turned-hostage situation, the film unfolds as the heat builds and the would-be robbers, Sonny and Sal, grow more desperate.

This is my favorite of Al Pacino's performances, and it falls before the Pacino-playing-Pacino era. Sonny is a complicated character, a Vietnam vet who can't get a job, a man with a high-running temper who doesn't really seem to want to hurt anyone, a “misfit” who responds surprisingly well to anyone who pays him attention. Early in the film, the head teller turns on him and asks if he had any kind of plan at all, or just did this on a whim. He falls silent, like a chastised boy.

The teller has a point, and illustrates one of the great things about this movie; the characters emerge as their own people, quirky but not too quirky to be believed. I find Sonny's relationship with the police detective assigned to the situation, played by Charles Durning, to be oddly affecting. Sal, played by John Cazale, is also arresting and reminds me what a pity it was he wasn't around longer. These performances are in keeping with the film, as well, which feels very “real” without going too far in the pseudo-documentary direction and thereby drawing attention to itself. The camera movements are many, but not invasive, and the locations and atmosphere consistently depicted. Larger themes are mentioned without being the point of the film, and this nearly real-time event has been used to illustrate the contradictions of one life without seeming to draw any conclusions about it. Sonny is likable even though he's clearly got problems and you probably don't want to be involved with him, and his problems are never traced back to any one aspect of his character or past. (Criticism has been leveled at the film for sensationalizing certain aspects of the case, and while I can see that in the larger context of Hollywood in the 70s, I don't feel that way about the film's text viewed on its own.)

Dog Day Afternoon is a surprising film in the best way; it takes a worn premise and surprises you without throwing you out of its own world. It's neat without being pat, and its topical without being overly self-conscious of that fact. The overall consistency of tone, acting, and camerawork, too, mark it as a classic and it's especially interesting when viewed in conjunction with Network, a more self-conscious treatment of themes touched upon in this film. Read more!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Boys in the Band (1970)

The problem with a film like The Boys in the Band, William Friedkin's film adaptation of Mart Crowley's hit off-Broadway play about a birthday party of New York City gay men, is that it looks different depending not only on which political stance you take but what year you're looking at it from. It was gay men, after all, who lined up to see it; it was likewise gay activists who railed against it for years because it traffics in every stereotype known to 70's homosexuality: promiscuity, effeminacy, self-hatred, self-medication, and a tendency for every conversation to be about being gay. Revival in the 90's implies that it has been rehabilitated somewhat, but I actually picked it up because of its prominence in the book and documentary The Celluloid Closet which holds it up as an example of how not to portray homosexual characters.

The truth, for me, is a little more complicated. Crowley, a gay man, wrote this script based on his own experiences and dedicated it to two of his friends who inspired characters in the play. The main character, bitter drunk Michael, is admittedly based on him—a very unflattering self-portrait. So an argument can be made, and I think it's a valid one, that the stereotypes exist for a reason, and that what's wrong with The Boys in the Band is not that it's inaccurate in its portrayal of these gay men, but that in 1970 it was the only Hollywood portrayal, not to be remedied for some time, if it has been at all.

As a film, it betrays its roots on the stage in the dialogue and the fact the action mostly takes place in Michael's apartment. But Friedkin is clever enough in his directing that it doesn't look or feel like a play, just sounds like one. The acting is mostly enjoyable as well, and it's refreshing that all of the characters were played by the actors who created them in New York and don't look like movie stars. Some of the stereotypes are, in fact, uncomfortable to watch. But at the same time, they're a sort of historical document, even if they cannot and should not be taken to speak for the entire homosexual experience, in 1970 or any other time. While a great deal of the plot and conversation is about their homosexual experience, it's still a play about specific people with problems many can relate to. The kind of vitriolic self-hatred displayed in the film would be uncomfortable in any context. In the end, I think the The Boys in the Band is neither as bad as its detractors suggest nor amazing on its own merits. Absent its political baggage, it's a decent film, no more nor less. At this point, going on forty years later, it stands as entertaining but primarily of interest to those curious about the portrayal of homosexuality in cinema. In which context, it is indeed a landmark, of sorts, even if no other filmmakers seemed to want to follow it at the time.

And it's not nearly as offensive as Friedkin's 1980 film about gay culture, Cruising. Read more!