Once again, similar to that of a restaurant host/hostess, I just wanted to see If all of you dear readers are enjoying my Ken Russell posts so far? I will post my review of Always on Sunday sometime this week 🙂
According to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline (read here), The Debussy Film was originally intended to be director Ken Russell’s second feature film. Unfortunately, after the critical and commercial failure of his cinematic directorial debut French Dressing from a year earlier, Russell had to abandon this option. Left with no other alternative, he ended up selling it as a film for the BBC arts programme Monitor and the rest was history. Restricted to this period alone (1959-1965), The Debussy Film finishes up as the greatest of all his television films.
As with Elgar, The Debussy Film has director Ken Russell pushing the envelope on what could be allowed within the format of a television program. Unlike that earlier entry though, The Debussy Film is a completely different undertaking altogether. If Elgar played as something akin to a documentary on a beloved artist, then The Debussy Film plays out more like a film-within-a-film about one.
The Debussy Film opens with a filmmaker (Vladek Sheybal) giving directions to a child actor about his subject – He’s known hundreds of people in his life but because of quarrels and because a war was going on, there’s hardly anyone at the funeral. Furthermore, he states that France is about to collapse, and hardly anybody notices the death of a man who has now taken to signing himself “Musician of France”. His wife is there, of course, and Chouchou, his daughter, but hardly anyone else. Now, when the carriage gets there, to the end, I want you to run out into the road, look at the wreaths for the name, run back, and say to your mother, “it seems he was a musician”. Not too long afterwards, we cut to a background artwork painting of the Monitor episode’s subject with the title – The Debussy Film – and it’s subtitle – Impressions of the French Composer. Next, we get photographic stills in the background with voiceover/narration provided by it’s unseen British presenter. Here is what he says in his own words – Claude Debussy, born in poverty in 1862, died friendless in 1918. A film based on incidents in his life, his own words and his relationships – with Gabrielle Dupont, attempted suicide, Lilly Rosalie Texier, attempted suicide, Chouchou, died at the age of 13, Madame Bardac, wife of a wealthy banker, and the man who took most of these pictures, Pierre Louys, pornographer, novelist, photographer.
Beside casting himself in the role of Pierre Louys, the plot’s unnamed film director of this project casts four actors, who either go by the exact names of the characters that they are portraying – Claude Debussy (Oliver Reed) and Madame Bardac (Izabella Telezynska/Isa Taylor) – or at the very least, their nicknames – Gaby (Annette Robertson) and Lily/Lilly (Penny Service). Inevitably, throughout the production, reality (subtly or not so subtly) intertwines with fantasy, as Debussy – the actor – suddenly finds himself immersed in his subject of Debussy – the composer. This becomes clear in his relationships with Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the actresses – versus that of Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the lovers.
As to be expected from all (or at least some) of director Ken Russell’s shoestring works, The Debussy Film effortlessly overcomes every single limitation of it’s low-budget. A good portion of this arises from both Russell and his screenwriting partner Melvin Bragg’s decision to execute the scenario as a film-within-a-film. In addition, the two cleverly (If discreetly) reference Monitor’s use of voiceovers (think of Huw Wheldon’s narration in Russell’s Elgar) by using Vladek Sheybal’s filmmaker character as the occasional narrator of his very own subject.
To some extent, The Debussy Film comes off as an autobiographical/semi-autobiographical account of it’s filmmaker Ken Russell. If my argument is credible, then the plot’s nameless director could possibly serve as Russell’s fictionalized alter ego. Similar to him, Russell has always been fascinated by the lives of famous composers. Although the fictionalized character’s religious affiliation is never made clear, Russell (a converted Roman Catholic himself) is throughly fascinated with Catholicism like he is. Two notable sequences here include the filming of a woman being shot with arrows (a la Saint Sebastian) and another filmed one involving a mob of priests and nuns holding a life-size statue of both Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. Aside from statues, other examples come in the form of artwork throughout.
When it comes to individual set pieces, The Debussy Film features some of the most imaginative sequences that director Ken Russell ever conceived for television. Some of them are elegantly staged like the previously mentioned ones between Claude Debussy and his women (Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac); both within-and-out of the film-within-the-film. On the contrary, the climactic scene plays out like something from a German Expressionist horror film. Last, but not least, we get an inspired montage sequence set to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. In it, two people swing dance to Valkyries amid a mock duel between two actors. A push broom, a cane, toy dart guns and even hand-to-hand combat via (rather humorously) slapping are the weapons of choice. The action frequently cuts back-and-forth; from the aforementioned staged fight to two women playing with bumper cars at a carnival and then back again. The image of a cat quickly, albeit cartoonishly, jumping up and down – complete with sound effects – gives it an absurdist touch. With the exception of that last one, all of these scenes (as in Elgar) are accompanied by Debussy’s (the composer that is) musical compositions.
Elgar might have established Ken Russell as a fully fledged director, but The Debussy Film elevated him to that of a master filmmaker. The Debussy Film may not be my personal favorite of his television work (that honor goes to Song of Summer), but as a penultimate Monitor entry, Russell could not have delivered a better climax.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. since I could not find part 1 of this film on youtube, I had to go to dailymotion.com to find it. Here is a link below to part 1
Here is a youtube link to part 2
Here is a youtube link to part 3
Here is a youtube link to part 4
Here is a youtube link to part 5
Here is a youtube link to part 6
Somewhat similar to what a host/hostess typically does in a restaurant, I would like to know If all you readers out there are enjoying my Ken Russell posts so far? My next one will be The Debussy Film 🙂
Along with Always on Sunday, Elgar may be the most accessible of director Ken Russell’s television documentaries/docudramas on famous historical artists during his years at the BBC (1959-1970). Far from damning it with faint praise though, I am actually lauding Elgar as the perfect one for viewers to start with.
On the surface, Elgar plays out as a conventional television documentary on a celebrated artist. In this case, it would be that of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Throughout it’s 56 minute running time, we get all of the interesting details about him; courtesy of BBC broadcaster Huw Wheldon (1916-1986), who serves as the program’s narrator. Basically, the viewer is treated to everything from his upbringing to the last years of his life.
Like all of director Ken Russell’s television films, Elgar is a masterpiece of both form and content. Unlike a majority of his later work, Elgar sticks merely to the facts. At first glance, this approach may seem shockingly reverential for diehard Russell fans like myself. Fortunately, this fear is more than overshadowed by Russell’s visual approach to storytelling.
Aside from partly dramatizing British composer Edward Elgar’s life through a re-enactment (though with no dialogue whatsoever), director Ken Russell further celebrates it by employing his compositions as background music throughout. Russell’s use of dissolves and voiceovers evokes legendary American filmmaker Orson Welles back-to-back masterpieces of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). In fact, some of the techniques displayed in those last two titles, were borrowed from filmmakers associated with the French New Wave movement. One perfect example comes from esteemed French filmmaker Francois Truffaut in his 1962 classic Jules and Jim. Similar to Elgar, Truffaut employed newsreel footage, photographic stills and voiceovers to visually tell part of the story. Nevertheless, this is where Elgar’s similarities to Jules and Jim end.
Not unlike most of director Ken Russell’s work, Elgar (in some ways) unofficially feels like a semi-autobiographical account of Russell himself. While he may not have been born and raised as one, like British composer Edward Elgar was, Russell did convert to Roman Catholicism during the 1950’s (read here). Even with all of the cinematic influences he carried around with him (Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch), Russell (like Elgar) was professionally self-taught. Even though this can’t be confirmed with any kind of authenticity, Russell (as with Elgar) may have detested large-scale wars as well; or at least war for war’s sake. Though still horrified by the prospect of World War I (1914-1918) itself, Elgar did compose a few patriotic pieces for the effort (read here) and joined the Volunteer Reserves on the side. Though, as the war went on, Elgar became disillusioned with it. During this time, he had also hoped that A.C. Benson’s nationalistic lyrics for his composition of Land of Hope and Glory would get axed (read here). Russell, on the other hand, joined the Royal Air Force and was a merchant marine during his teenage years (read here). Neither of these stints lasted very long though. A perfect example of Russell’s unconfirmed anti-war position comes during a battlefield sequence. Here, a large number of soldiers are getting killed and wounded set to the music of Elgar’s well-known Pomp and Circumstance Marches. The uplifting tone of the composition is intended to sharply contrast with the horrors of war being presented to the viewer. This may be Russell’s way of thumbing his nose at imperialism. Russell’s view can also apply to that of both America’s involvement in both Vietnam and Iraq. Even though both Elgar and Russell were more or less appreciated in their time, this is only to an extent. Germany may have been the first country to recognize Elgar’s genius, but the British press did finally catch up; even If it seemed more muted when he was alive (read here and here). Nevertheless, while Elgar was at least knighted during his lifetime, neither of Russell’s films have ever been truly appreciated by the majority of critics. As of 2019, Women in Love serves as the only film of his to have earned a spot on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list. While far from completely alike, Elgar and Russell both came off as reclusive (or semi-reclusive) artists, who were actually gentle at heart. Despite the way he is often portrayed in the press (read here), which include, but not limited to, his appearance on Big Brother, Russell actually comes off as a very articulate and intelligent man based on his interviews alone.
Director Ken Russell may have gone on to make even better films within and out of television, but If you are looking for a rather fitting introduction to his cinematic resume, Elgar is not a bad place to start at all. Visually, we are treated to only one of many important aspects of his style, while at the same time, witnessing how one important artist of the past century personally connect to that of another.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. If you are interested in watching the whole film, here are four links to it below:
The link to the first part
The link to the second part
The link to the third part
The link to the fourth part
Originally, I was going to post a review on another film, but I am currently suffering from a case of writer’s block on that right now. In the meantime and in an attempt to get my mojo back (so I can finish that review), I am going to post reviews on something a little more simpler, but no less complex. In this case, a series of TV bios on famous composers (among other types of giants).
When anybody hears the name Ken Russell (1927-2011), the first words that come to mind are either flamboyant or controversial. A majority of the time, one could say that both terms can apply to him all at once. According to wikipedia’s entry on legendary British filmmaker Ken Russell (read here), these are at least two proper descriptions that can be applied to him. Nevertheless, let us rewind the clocks back to 1959 – 10 years prior to his 1969 breakthrough film Women in Love – a critically acclaimed adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s equally controversial 1920 novel of the same name. From 1959 to 1970, Russell made documentaries/docudramas on celebrated composers (among other figures) for the British Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a. the BBC – read here). He directed at least 22 of them for Monitor (1959-1965) and 3 of them for it’s official/unofficial successor Omnibus (1967-1970). In between his last for Monitor (Always on Sunday) and his first for Omnibus (Dante’s Inferno), Russell contributed one for BBC’s Sunday Night (Don’t Shoot the Composer) and another as a stand-alone TV film (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World) in 1966. The following year, he would helm his second feature film (his first was the 1964 comedy French Dressing) entitled Billion Dollar Brain – a British Spy thriller for the American-based studio United Artists. Two days after Billion Dollar Brain’s American premiere (December 20, 1967 – read here), Dante’s Inferno (Russell’s first for Omnibus) premiered for UK television viewers on December 22 of that same year. Based on my calculations alone (read here), Russell directed at least 27 television bios for the BBC. Out of the 27, only 6 of them (at least to my knowledge) are available for home viewing in North America. They are in a 2008 DVD collection entitled Ken Russell at the BBC (read here). The available titles are: Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967) and Song of Summer (1968). The first three were for Monitor and the last two were for Omnibus. As I mentioned earlier, Isadora Duncan was a stand-alone TV film for the BBC. Russell’s last work for Omnibus during this period entitled Dance of the Seven Veils is not included in the box set. That last title incited a huge ton of controversy due to it’s portrayal of famed German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) as either a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer (read here). This angered the Strauss family so much that they withdrew the music rights for it. Apparently, the ban expires sometime this year in 2019 (read here). Currently, the only way one can watch it is on a faded print posted on youtube.
Famed U.S. film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) once said of late master filmmaker Robert Altman, that he could make film fireworks out of next to nothing (read here). This sentiment can also be applied to that of director Ken Russell. Compared to Russell’s more outrageous later work (The Music Lovers, The Devils and Lisztomania to name just a few), the style of his early television films may initially come off as subdued on the surface. Deep down though, each of the available six films prove to be every bit as radical (albeit different) to those previously mentioned titles. Even with their low-budgets, Russell amazingly managed to break the rules on what was widely accepted within the documentary format. Instead of traditionally relying on still photographs and old film footage alone to tell his story, Russell would not only dramatize it through a re-enactment, but he would also (in the case of Elgar) use different actors to portray the lead character as he/she ages (read here and here). And this only marks just one of Russell’s many talents at successfully making the most out of very little.
My full review of Elgar – the first of director Ken Russell’s six films in the aforementioned 2008 DVD collection – should be up sometime by tomorrow.
I just want to wish all of my dear readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 🙂 I will be posting new blog entries after 2019 begins 🙂
To celebrate the wonderful Christmas season, I would love to give two links to two of my many favorite Christmas songs and they are both performed by the great Johnny Mathis 🙂
Here is the first link below:
And here is the second link below:
Warning: The following review contains potential spoilers. If you have not yet seen Nashville, I would strongly advise you readers to not read any further. If you are interested in the film, please check it out first and then read this review. Why do I say this? The reason is because it is such a complex film.
Now, after years in the making, Robert Altman brings to the big screen
the long-awaited Nashville, with 24 of your very favorite stars!
David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty
And the fabulous performances of Karen Black, Ronee Blakely!
Timothy Brown in Nashville,
along with the spectacular Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin!
With Robert Doqui in Nashville!
And the exciting appearances of Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield!
Henry Gibson in Nashville!
And the fantastic Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum! Barbara Harris
Not to mention the terrific David Hayward, Michael Murphy!
Allan Nicholls in Nashville!
And the all-time great Dave Peel! Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen
Plus the incredible Lily Tomlin!
Gwen Welles and Keenan Wynn
Be the first on your block to marvel at the magnificent stars… through the magic of stereophonic sound and living-color picture… right before your very eyes without commercial interruption.
These are the lines enthusiastically uttered by an unnamed announcer, who is trying to convince us (the audience) that Nashville is one of (If not) the greatest film ever made. His method of persuasion is akin to that of your stereotypical snake oil salesman, who (among other tactics) uses the media (i.e. television ads) to garner the attention of the American public at large. Contrary to how most of these schemes play out elsewhere, in Nashville, the hype is actually and arguably justified entirely by design. Unlike what peddlers of snake oil sell, late master filmmaker Robert Altman (1925-2006) has always sold us something genuine, whether it was a hit-or-miss product. As a huge fan of Altman’s work myself, I adore every single film of his (read here) and this alone, quite possibly elevates me to that of an Altman apologist – a title that I would gladly accept. Theatrically released during the exciting era of the New Hollywood (1967-1982) (read here), Nashville not only serves as the crowning achievement of director Altman’s most experimental period, but it also happens to be one of my top 10 favorite films of all-time. Along with The Godfather, Chinatown and Taxi Driver to name just three of many examples, Nashville is often cited (and deservingly so) as one of the key films of the 1970’s.
The story is set in the city and state of Nashville, Tennessee, during a five-day period, leading up to a political rally for unseen Replacement party presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), whose speeches can occasionally be heard from his campaign van’s loudspeakers throughout the film. Afterwards, we cut to a studio, where country music superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is recording a patriotic song to coincide with the then upcoming United States Bicentennial (read here) with a band of musicians, whose talents leave a lot to be desired in his opinion. After this, we are introduced to quirky British BBC news reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), who is said to be in town filming a documentary on the place. Since Haven is annoyed by her presence, his son Bud Hamilton (Dave Peel) decides to give her a brief tour of the studio. Bud takes Opal to the next room where a recording session is taking place between gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) and her all-black choir. Linnea is married to lawyer Delbert “Del” Reese (Ned Beatty), who just so happens to be the local organizer for Walker’s campaign. Del and Linnea are also the loving parents of two deaf children, who go by the names of Jimmy and Donna. Later on, Haven and his companion Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) go to the city airport to greet famed country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who had been receiving medical attention at a Baltimore hospital following a burn injury reportedly caused by a fire.
Inside the airport, a large entourage of fans await Barbara Jean’s arrival; among them is Vietnam War veteran Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), whose mother was responsible for saving her life in that previously mentioned fire. Glenn would later tell this story to the aging Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), who is awaiting the arrival of his teenage niece Martha/L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) so he can take her to the hospital to visit her unseen sick Aunt Esther. Nevertheless, Martha/L.A. Joan spends most of her time there getting rides from a silent Tricycle man (Jeff Goldblum) to see male musicians. One of them is the womanizing Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), who autographs a record of his that she owns. He is in town to record an album with his folk rock trio that consists of him, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) and Mary (Cristina Raines), though he aspires to go solo at the same time during his stay in Nashville. Bill is unhappily married to Mary, but this is partly due to her affair with Tom, whose sexual relationships with other women have been either brief (Opal) or ongoing (Linnea). During their time in Nashville, Bill, Mary and Tom are driven from one destination to another by the amiable Norman (David Arkin), who sees them as friends, whereas in return, they see him as just a hired hand.
Shortly after arriving on the runway, Barbara Jean passes out due to the sweltering heat, which prompts her overprotective husband/manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) and other handlers to rush her to the hospital for medical attention. Following this unfortunate event, her fans and other people get in their cars to leave the airport. Soon enough, a pile-up occurs leaving everybody on the road stranded. While stuck in the traffic jam, an argument breaks out between aspiring country singer Albuquerque/Winifred (Barbara Harris) and her grouchy husband Star (Bert Remsen), which ignited due to his refusal to take her to the Grand Ole Orpy for the following night (read here). After running away from Star, Albuquerque/Winifred meets up and starts a conversation with loner Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), which abruptly ends after Star shows up with his truck to look for her. As Albuquerque/Winifred runs off, Kenny hitches a ride from Star to make his way around town.
Later on that night at Deemen’s Den (a small country music club/bar), airport restaurant waitress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) goes on stage to perform an original song for a jeering crowd. Sueleen aspires to be a country singer, but unlike Albuquerque/Winifred, she remains blissfully ignorant of her terrible singing skills. Sueleen’s African-American friend and fellow co-worker Wade Cooley (Robert DoQui) tries to remind her of this fact as he is worried that she will be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, Del and smooth-talking political consultant John Triplette (Michael Murphy) are planning two separate events in the form of a fundraiser and concert gala for Hal Philip Walker’s campaign. Aware that the two are in desperate need of talent, Deemen’s Den club manager Trout (Merle Kilgore) recommends Sueleen to them for the former based on her sexy outfit alone; inevitably confirming all of Wade’s warnings. The following day, John tries to convince the politically ambitious Haven to perform at Walker’s gala by promising him that If he agrees, Walker will support him as state governor If elected as U.S. President. Haven tells John that he will give him his final decision after he performs at the Grand Ole Orpy later in the evening. Aside from himself, other highlights there include two other country singers in the form of the African-American Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) and country music diva Connie White (Karen Black), who is substituting that night for the hospitalized Barbara Jean. On the fourth of the five days, Barbara Jean is discharged from the hospital early in the morning; just in time to perform for her fans; not only at Orpyland USA (read here), but also the next day at the Parthenon (read here), which is when Walker’s political rally will finally take place.
Along with other critics (read here), I too view Nashville as the cinematic equivalent of a mosaic, but this observation alone, only justifies half of what makes it so unique. Deep down, the film is also a lyrical, subtly moving, thought-provoking and witty epic, satire, semi-musical and social commentary blended all into one. Despite being set in the state of Tennessee (it was also filmed on location there), one could easily relocate Nashville’s setting to that of Los Angeles (read here) or New York City (read here) (among other places in the U.S.) and the finished result would still remain intact.
On every single level imaginable, Nashville has a lot to say about not only certain aspects of it’s title city, but also that of America as a whole. Based on his songs alone, country music superstar Haven Hamilton could easily be mistaken as a man of moral fiber, but behind that image, reveals somebody who is the complete opposite. For example, near the beginning when he is recording a patriotic song in his recording studio, he notices frequent errors on the part of his musicians and as a result, the frustrated Haven utters dammit and dammit to hell. Despite going to church, Haven worships the almighty dollar first, and God second. In addition to that, he donates a large sum of money to political candidates of both parties (Republican and Democrat alike) and could care less If they support his views. Haven does not even mind accepting bribes either. But hey, he does hate “bad” hairdos – you get your hair cut. You don’t belong in Nashville!. Sarcasm aside, he does know rudeness when he sees it and in this case, it comes from Opal, the female British reporter from the BBC. He usually solves this easily though by shooing her away. Haven is basically a phony and this fact coincides perfectly with how the managers (or lack thereof) of the Grand Ole Orpy pander to their audience with a word from their sponsor, which in this case comes in the form of Goo Goo Clusters (read here). The lyrics of it’s corny jingle go a little something like this – Go get a Goo Goo. It’s . . . good. Judging from the artificial farmhouse in the background and the red dress worn by Connie White, this Grand Ole Orpy concert subtly resembles that of a slightly pricier high school pageant. One character sums up my view best as he is commenting on Connie’s dress – last time I saw a dress like that, I was headin’ to the junior prom.
As far back as the year our country was founded (1776 in this case), American celebrities like Haven Hamilton have existed along with it. Nevertheless, for each decade that has passed following Nashville’s initial theatrical run in 1975, their existence seems to have only become more and more obvious since then. Regardless of where people like him lean politically (Right or Left), his behavior is typical to that of our politicians, superstar political pundits, religious preachers and Hollywood producers (among other elitists), who operate within our society. Though it is still extremely problematic, I personally see this as neither a good nor bad thing; it is just how the system works. Phony or not, they are still human like the rest of us.
Satirical comedy aside, Nashville is at heart, a social commentary on the cult of celebrity amid an era of chaos and confusion. While the 1973 Case-Church Amendment (read here) may have ended further U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War, which had officially concluded close to a month before the film’s initial theatrical release in 1975 (read here), the political and social turmoil that shaped the then past 12 years was still fresh in the minds of every single American citizen. As the decades have gone by, I would argue that nothing has really changed since then. Our hero worship of political leaders (American or otherwise) was bad enough, but when our target of adoration comes in the form of a popular entertainer, this practice can’t help but come off as slightly more pathetic by comparison. One only has to look at our unhealthy obsession with Rudolph Valentino (read here), Elvis Presley (read here), The Beatles (read here) and Michael Jackson (read here) among many other celebrities, to understand my point. Now I adore Rudolph, Elvis, Michael and The Beatles just as much as the next person, but worshiping them as If they were deities, is just taking it way too far. In Nashville, this is exactly how the townspeople (or lack thereof) of that film’s title city treat celebrated country music icon Barbara Jean. Each and every one of her diehard fans worships her in different ways. For example, Pfc. Glenn Kelly is visiting the place to see Barbara Jean perform not only as an honor to his mother (a devotee), but for himself as well. He even sits on a chair in her hospital room until a female nurse notices his presence and hilariously tells her that he must have been in the wrong room. As for Albuquerque/Winifred and Sueleen Gay, they just want to sing at Hal Phillip Walker’s political rally with Barbara Jean, who is also performing with Haven Hamilton, Tom Frank, Bill, Mary and (along with her choir) gospel singer Linnea Reese. Contrary to her public image, Barbara Jean’s personal one resembles that of an emotionally unstable woman. While hospitalized, Barbara Jean whines to her manager/husband Barnett about all of the pity she is receiving. At the same time, she implicitly expresses her insecurities concerning rival female country music singer Connie White, who is temporarily substituting for her at that Grand Ole Orpy concert. This is the scene that enables us viewers to see her as a human being instead of a goddess. Most importantly, all of this is revealed before the character of Barbara Jean sings not only for her dyed-in-the-wool admirers, but for the audience as well.
Not unlike certain other great films, Nashville’s unresolved ending can be interpreted in many ways. The climax in question comes in the form of the assassination of country singer Barbara Jean by loner Kenny Frasier. Why did he do it? Maybe he did it to even things out? After all, he was staying in a house owned by Mr. Green, whose teenage niece (Martha/L.A. Joan) kept getting distracted from visiting her sick Aunt Esther. In fact, Martha/L.A. Joan seemed more interested in hanging out with musicians than seeing her Aunt. Even worse, Martha/L.A. Joan seemingly did not attend the funeral for her Aunt, prompting an infuriated Mr. Green to walk off during the service to find her, so she can pay her respects to Esther. Kenny follows Mr. Green to the Parthenon, the place where Martha/L.A. Joan is apparently hanging out at. Coincidentally, Barbara Jean was released from the hospital on the same morning Mr. Green’s beloved wife died and shortly after hearing the bad news, Pfc. Glenn Kelly cheerily tells him the story about how his own mother saved Barbara Jean’s life; completely unaware of the tragedy that has just affected Mr. Green. Saddened by the pain that Mr. Green is recently feeling, Kenny decides to shoot Barbara Jean to deprive everybody of their happiness at the concert/political rally. In other words, he wants them to be sad as well.
Contrary to that first theory of mine, my next one blends the personal with the political. Even 5 years before the December 8, 1980 murder of renowned Beatles musician John Lennon (read here) at the hands of Mark David Chapman (read here), Nashville was already as relevant as ever during it’s initial theatrical release in 1975. Perhaps the most serious consequence of celebrity worship lies in it’s capability of attracting the wrong kind of person. A perfect example of this occurred 12 years earlier (coincidentally) on December 8, 1963 with the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. (read here); son of iconic American singer Frank Sinatra. The mastermind of this plot was Barry Keenan and even though he released him safely back to Ol’ Blue Eyes a few days later, the story behind it is so strange that even I can’t do justice in explaining it (read here). The character of Kenny Frasier comes off exactly as the kind of wrong person that I am talking about.
To borrow the words of wisdom from director Robert Altman himself (read here) – these people are not assassinated because of their ideas or what they do. They’re assassinated to draw attention to the assassin. To put it in other words, Kenny wants to achieve infamy by assassinating country singer Barbara Jean. Continuing on, Altman states that in political assassinations, in their sort of warped minds, they know that they are going to have a certain amount of people who said ‘that son of a bitch [the politician] should have been shot,’ because there’s such heat about it. But actually what they are doing is killing somebody who’s in the public eye and is some sort of an icon. Because this feeling that by, doing that, committing that assassination they draw the attention to themself, and they make themselves consequently important. This is the part of Altman’s theory where the personal is linked with the political. Barbara Jean may be performing at a rally for Replacement Party nominee Hal Philip Walker, but it is she (the entertainer) not he (the presidential candidate) who is assassinated. Though it is never made clear, Kenny may be a Hal Philip Walker supporter based on the sticker of him on his guitar case that he carries around (hard to make out though) and various other campaign material that can be found in his car. Unlike Barbara Jean, real life U.S. president John F. Kennedy was no entertainer, but similar to her, people seemed to lionize both he (read here and here) and his wife Jacqueline (read here and here). Believe it or not, prior to 1961, this kind of treatment for a politician was considered very unusual (read here). Needless to say, not unlike John F. Kennedy (read here), the fictionalized Barbara Jean is also a victim of assassination. As with celebrities, there are (or were) as many people who adore politicians as there are those that despise them (and plenty still do).
The motives of assassins can sometimes be made clear (Mark David Chapman), unclear (Lee Harvey Oswald) and a little bit of both (John Wilkes Booth and Sirhan Sirhan). With the exception of the patsy, we all know that a decision (or two) made by their intended targets is what may have incited Booth, Sirhan and Chapman to assassinate U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in 1865, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and Beatles musician John Lennon in 1980 respectively. Based on what I have observed, the character of Kenny Frasier seems not so much driven by a want to assassinate country singer Barbara Jean as he is by a need. Not once, but twice, we witness Kenny getting emotional while watching Barbara Jean perform. This comes in the form of two songs – Dues at Orpyland USA and My Idaho Home at the Parthenon. Kenny does not want to sacrifice her, but he must, because in his sick mind, he would be achieving “The American Dream.” And what does this debased version of “The American Dream” offer that is beneficial to Kenny? Nothing except infamy. Think about it. Shortly after Kenny emotes during Barbara Jean’s singing of My Idaho Home, a huge image of the American flag appears onscreen. Coincidentally, Kenny assassinates Barbara Jean at a rally for a presidential candidate and political activists are sometimes (or often) assassinated due to the assassin’s intense hatred of that particular person. Either that, or the assassin desires to be worshipped by rabid haters of that politician (or activist), who either can’t do it or are just not that crazy.
In the aftermath of country singer Barbara Jean’s assassination, a non-fatally wounded, but panicky Haven Hamilton tries to calm down the shocked audience with a reminder that this isn’t Dallas (read here) and continues with it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville! Let’s show them what we’re made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!. Haven randomly hands the microphone to Albuquerque/Winifred, who is able to unite the frantic audience with her rendition of Tom Frank’s It Don’t Worry Me. This reaction is a far cry from that of the then previous decade of the 1960’s, in which every new chaotic event that unfolded, arguably ended up dividing America more and more. Strange, considering that close (but not too close) before the unexpected climax, an uncredited song played in the background about some of the problems the United States was currently facing at the time. One example that was singled out was the 1972 Watergate scandal (read here) during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974). This scandal would lead to Nixon’s resignation two years later in 1974 (read here). Then again, maybe the past 12 years of American society had been turbulent enough, that (regardless of class) every American (as depicted here) came to the conclusion that there was nothing else left to do but unite. Though it has been reported from various sources that It Don’t Worry Me was written as a Nixon era protest song, I personally think that it’s message can be interpreted in different ways for the 21st century via the 2000’s and 2010’s respectively. The title itself can even be viewed as a philosophy closely or loosely linked to our reactions to recent events both at home and abroad. While this may be based more on emotion rather than on fact, the ordinary American may read about Brexit (read here) and It Don’t Worry Me would be his/her response If asked what he/she thinks. It Don’t Worry Me may even be the reaction from the average Brit concerning the 2018 U.S. midterm elections (read here). Nevertheless, this sentiment has been avoided as many (If not more) times as well. Unity is one way to sum up how Brits responded to the 2001 September 11th attacks in the United States (read here) and Americans with the 7 July 2005 London bombings in the United Kingdom (read here) to name just a few of many examples.
Theories aside, there is one other important major character in Nashville and that would be Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker. Even though the townspeople of Nashville are enthusiastic about him, the message of his campaign is consistently overlooked throughout the film. Whether his views are wacky or not, viewers have to admit that Walker makes several valid points. For example, he is often confronted with the statement, “I don’t want to get mixed up in politics.” Or, “I’m tired of politics.” Or, “I’m not interested.” Almost as often, someone says, “I can’t do anything about it anyway.” How does Walker remedy this? With these following two points. Let me point out two things. Number one: all of us are equally involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And number two: we can do something about it. When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that’s politics. Also worthy is Walker’s take on lawyers – Who do you think is running Congress? Farmers? Engineers? Teachers? Businessmen? No, my friends. Congress is run by lawyers. A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only. To clarify – that’s one. And to confuse – that’s the other thing. He does whichever is to his client’s advantage. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he? Ever ask a lawyer how to get to Mr. Jones’ house in the country? You got lost, didn’t you? Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress? No wonder we often know how to make a watch, but we don’t know – the time of day. Walker further elaborates on his view of lawyers by throwing the U.S. National Anthem into the mix – Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it. I suppose all the lawyers supported it because a lawyer wrote the words and a judge wrote the tune. Well, Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Maryland and Washington D.C. for four decades (read here), so Walker is correct on that part. However, he is wrong If he believes that British composer John Stafford Smith (read here) was a judge. But then again, that is part of what makes his views so odd to people like Mary – he’s a little crazy, isn’t he? To which Bill replies – well, they’re all a little crazy, Mary. As for this viewer, I think Walker’s outside political consultant John Triplette said it best concerning Bill’s reply to Mary – I’ll drink to that.
Undoubtedly, people like Hal Philip Walker have always existed within U.S. politics, but in the 43 years following Nashville’s original theatrical release in 1975, their popularity has only increased. Since at least the early 1990’s, populists as varied as Ross Perot (read here), Ralph Nader (read here), Ron Paul (read here) and Jill Stein (read here) have lost presidential elections, but at the same time, their ideas have arguably survived among a sizable number of Americans (ordinary and otherwise) across the nation. Populism played a major role in our 2016 United States presidential election with two populists as contenders – Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (read here) on the left and New York businessman/television personality Donald J. Trump (read here) on the right. The former ran as a Democrat and the latter ran as a Republican. Sanders may have lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Trump managed to not only win the Republican nomination (read here), but on November 8, 2016, he won the presidency as well (read here). On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as our 45th President of the United States. On the night of the November 6, 2018 United States midterm elections, populism was granted another victory in the form of Justice Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (read here), who will assume office on January 3, 2019 as the U.S. Representative-elect for New York’s 14th congressional district.
At least half the number of films on director Robert Altman’s resume are qualified ensemble pieces, but out of all of them, only Nashville and Short Cuts doubly qualify as epics. As with his other films, Nashville is driven less by it’s plot and more by it’s characters. For starters, Altman achieves this by encouraging his actors to improvise and last, but not least, he records the results and uses them for his finished product. A perfect example of this occurs in scenes involving Altman’s trademark use of overlapping dialogue. Major standout set pieces here include the aftermath of a multiple-vehicle collision and Haven Hamilton’s pre-show house party, which like the former, features many of the characters holding numerous discussions at once. Similar to how he stages the action during the nightclub sequences, Altman ingeniously cuts from one conversation scene to the next and the one after that and from there on, the process repeats itself.
Judging from it’s running time of 160 minutes alone, Nashville officially or unofficially comes off as a cinematic epic, whose status as such, lies not so much in it’s form as it does in it’s content. Thematically, Nashville is about many things all at once. Initially, it deals with the seemingly self-satisfying marriage between celebrity and politics as philosophized by country music superstar Haven Hamilton – You understand we give contributions to ever’body. And they are not puny contributions. In addition to that, Haven’s semi-alcoholic companion Lady Pearl reveals that the Only time she ever went hog-wild, around the bend, was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different. Pearl tearfully elaborates on her obsession with the two Kennedy brothers (John and Robert) to Opal later on at the Grand Ole Orpy – It’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Well, he, he took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky. And there’s a reason he didn’t take Tennessee but he got 481,453 votes and the asshole got 556,577 votes. She is right about that (read here) and “the asshole” she was referring to, was obviously then recently former president Richard M. Nixon. Continuing on, Pearl states that Tennessee’s biggest problem lies in it’s anti-catholicism – These dumb-heads around here – they’re all Baptists and whatever, I don’t know. Even to teach ’em to make change over at the bar, you gotta crack their skulls, let alone to teach ’em to vote for the Catholic just because he happens to be the better man. Here is Pearl on the assassinations of both John (in 1963) and Robert F. Kennedy (in 1968) – All I remember, the next few days was us just lookin’ at that TV set and seein’ that great fat-bellied sheriff sayin’ ‘Ruby, you son of a bitch.’ And Oswald. And her in her little pink suit. – And then comes Bobby. Oh, I worked for him. I worked here, I worked all over the country, I worked out in California, out in Stockton. Well, Bobby came here and spoke and he went down to Memphis and then he even went out to Stockton California and spoke off the Santa Fe train at the old Santa Fe depot. Oh, he was a beautiful man. He was not much like John, you know. He was more puny-like. But all the time I was workin’ for him, I was just so scared – inside, you know, just scared. Pearl’s worst fears were confirmed when Robert was assassinated 7 years earlier. To top it off, Pearl has a portrait of John F. Kennedy hanging on the wall by the bar area inside the “Old Time Picking Parlor” – a country music nightclub that she owns. Aside from the Camelot Era (read here), Lady Pearl remains cynical about everything including politics itself.
When it is not touching upon themes related to celebrity and politics, Nashville is occasionally about the relationship between the natives and visitors in Tennessee. For example, visiting singer Tom Frank seems to be disgusted with politicians altogether when being offered a Hal Philip Walker pamphlet – I don’t vote for nobody. His justified anger quite possibly stems from America’s involvement in the Vietnam War based on his still inexcusable remark of How you doin’, Sarge? You kill anybody this week? to veteran Pfc. Glenn Kelly. Later on at Lady Pearl’s “Old Time Picking Parlor”, a drunken Wade Cooley insults musician Tommy Brown by referring to him as the whitest African-American (not his word, mine) in town! That marshmallow, he oughta drink some of that milk. It fits his personality! The shallowness of teenager Martha/L.A. Joan baffles the elderly Mr. Green (her uncle) at first – She’s from California – to annoyance when she does not attend her Aunt Esther’s funeral – as I mentioned earlier, he walks out during the service to find and bring back Martha/L.A. Joan so she can show some respect to Esther.
In addition to all of the above, Nashville also works as an insightful and poignant story about two female aspiring country singers – one who makes it (Albuquerque/Winifred) and the other who does not (Sueleen Gay). As for Sueleen Gay, her singing draws a crowd of boos while performing at both “Deemen’s Den” and later on, a bar serving as a fundraiser for Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker. In the case of the latter, Sueleen is jeered at because her all-male patrons are only there to see her get completely nude. Despite all of this, both lawyer Del Reese and political consultant John Triplette reassure Sueleen that all she simply needs to do is to strip totally naked for her audience and that is all. Disillusioned that she was not hired for her singing skills, Sueleen reluctantly performs the striptease much to the satisfaction of her all-male customers. To paraphrase Del, it is true that Sueleen can’t sing a lick, but at the same time, we find ourselves sympathizing for her when she personally feels debased. On the contrary, Albuquerque/Winifred finally gets her big break (more on that later) after suffering many setbacks earlier on. One of them came in the form of her being denied entry inside the Grand Ole Orpy. At other times, Nashville briefly touches upon struggling marital relations. The first comes in the form of Del and Linnea Reese and the other between insecure country music sweetheart Barbara Jean and her long-suffering manager husband Barnett. On the side, we get little moments from minor characters like Bud Hamilton and Norman (Bill, Mary and Tom’s chauffeur), who both try to impress female BBC reporter Opal to no avail. Bud tries to wow her with a song, but she gets sidetracked (not to mention excited) by actor Elliot Gould’s appearance (he plays himself here) at Haven’s pre-show party. Norman tries to interest her with a tour of other areas around Tennessee, but she declines the offer; implicitly due to a lack of interest.
According to director Robert Altman, the character of zany BBC News reporter Opal serves as the film’s connective tissue (read here); when it comes to introducing us viewers to the film’s large cast of characters. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Nashville myself, I agree completely. Right or wrong, her analogies are truly hilarious. While walking through a parking lot of school busses – The buses! The buses are empty and look almost menacing, threatening, as so many yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes. I wonder how many little black and white children have yellow nightmares, their own special brand of fear for the yellow peril… Damn it, it’s got to be more… positive. No, more negative! Start again. Yellow is the color of caution. No. Yellow is the color of cowardice. Yellow is the color of sunshine. And yet I see very little sunshine in the lives of all the little black and white children. I see their lives, rather, as a study in grayness, a mixture of black and… Oh, Christ, no. That’s fascist. Yellow! Yellow, yellow, yellow. Yellow fever. While walking through a junkyard – I’m wandering in a graveyard. The dead here have no crosses, nor tombstones, nor wreaths to sing of their past glory, but lie in rotting, decaying, rusty heaps, their innards ripped out by greedy, vulturous hands. Their vast, vacant skeletons… sadly sighing to the sky. The rust on their bodies… is the color of dried blood. Dried blood. I’m reminded of… of an elephant’s secret burial ground. Yes. Cette aire de mystère. Cette essence de I’irréel. These cars are trying to communicate. O cars, are you trying to tell me something? Are you trying to convey to me some secret. During the multiple-vehicle collision – I need something like this for my documentary. I need it. It’s… It’s America. Those cars smashing into each other… and all those mangled corpses. On Haven Hamilton’s country house – This is Bergman. Pure, unadulterated Bergman. Of course, the people are all wrong for Bergman, aren’t they? After waking up from a one night stand with musician Tom Frank – God, I thought I was in Israel. I don’t know why. Certainly not the decor, was it? Must have been dreaming. I was there for about a year on a kibbutz. I was feeling very romantic about that kind of socialism at the time. I thought I’d like to have a bash at it. On Black Gospel Choirs – Look at that! That rhythm is fantastic. You know, it’s funny, you can tell, it come down in the genes, through ages and ages and hundreds of years, but it’s there! And take off those robes and one is in… in… in darkest Africa. I can just see their – naked, frenzied bodies, dancing to the beat of – Do they carry on like that in church? Even funnier is Bud Hamilton’s response to her question – Depends on which church you go to. Nevertheless, one opinion of hers is bound to strike a serious debate – I have a theory about political assassination. You see, I believe that people like Madame Pearl and all these people here, in this country, who carry guns, are the real assassins. Because, you see, they stimulate other people who, are perhaps innocent, and who eventually are the ones who pull the trigger. Whether it was improvised on the actor’s part or not, a significant portion of credit still belongs to the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who made all of this dialogue possible through her multilayered original screenplay.
Similar to many other films that use music as it’s subject matter, director Robert Altman’s Nashville is not so much a pure musical as it is a spiritual one. For example, whenever any of the characters burst into song, it comes off as anything but spontaneous. To put it in other words, the original songs here are presented in a manner akin to that of a live concert show. Regardless, each and every one of them are performed with gusto. What makes it even better is that some (If not all) of the songs were written by the actors performing them. With the exception of One, I Love You (her duet with Henry Gibson) and Bluebird (written, but not performed by her), actress Ronee Blakley sang and wrote all of her character’s songs. Two of her three songs focus on love relationships in different ways. Whereas. the upbeat Tapedeck in His Tractor covers the positive aspects of it, the heartbreaking Dues deals with one hitting rock bottom. Her character of country singer Barbara Jean climaxes with the poignant My Idaho Home and considering that this is where Blakley actually hails from (read here), it would be interesting to know whether or not this song was intended to be slightly autobiographical at the very least. Timothy Brown’s singing of Bluebird may be the work of a singer-for-hire, but one would never guess it judging from the high level of enthusiasm he puts into it. When viewers take into account the grade school pageant-like stage background that musician Tommy Brown (his character) is performing it on however at the Grand Ole Orpy, we discover that this is by design. To paraphrase the title of a song by country singer Wynn Stewart – Another Day, Another Dollar (read here). The character of country music superstar Haven Hamilton (as played by Gibson) performs two of his three songs there also – For the Sake of the Children (written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg) and Keep-A-Goin (written by Baskin). As for 200 Years (written by both Baskin and Gibson), Haven sang that earlier near the beginning in a recording studio. The first two songs are about the importance of upholding marital fidelity and remaining optimistic at all costs. In the case of the third song, that one is about blindly supporting every single decision made by our U.S. politicians down in Washington D.C. or elsewhere. Haven may preach morality, optimism and patriotism in his songs, but behind closed doors, he is only human and nothing more. As with Ronee Blakley, actress Karen Black wrote and performed her own songs as well and appropriately enough, her character of Connie White serves as Barbara Jean’s onstage (and maybe even offstage) rival. Whereas Memphis centers around one’s desire for confidence and stability, Black takes a proverb (rolling stone gathers no moss) and uses it as the main metaphor for her succeeding song entitled Rolling Stone. Even though she shares the same stage as Haven Hamilton and Tommy Brown, Connie White’s songs, in contrast, actually come off as deeply personal whether she is performing in front of an artificial background (as with Memphis) or not (as with Rolling Stone). Aside from Since You’ve Gone (written by Gary Busey), in which he performed alongside Allan F. Nicholls and Cristina Raines, actor Keith Carradine wrote and sang his own songs for the film. I’m Easy won him the Oscar for Best Original Song and in the film, musician Tom Frank (his character) uses it to serenade Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) during a scene taking place at a music club. Out of all the women Tom has slept with, she seems to be his favorite considering that he called her on the phone twice earlier in the film. The opening lyric of it’s not my way to love you just when no one’s looking arguably confirms this. Though viewers can hear snippets of Carradine singing It Don’t Worry Me early on in the film, it is actress Barbara Harris, who gets to perform a rendition of it for the film’s showstopper of a finale. Taking into account that Albuquerque’s/Winifred’s (her character) ambition was to become a country singer, it only makes perfect sense that this unofficial anthem of unity, would coincidentally, also serve as her breakthrough.
Each and every one of director Robert Altman’s 1970’s films are masterpieces, but If I were allowed to single out only three of them from that period, I would choose McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and this one, which is Nashville. In addition to that, I personally believe that Nashville is the number one greatest film of that aforementioned decade. If I may go one step even further, I would also place Nashville somewhere between numbers 1 and 5 on my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me. Director D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance did for Silent American cinema in 1916, what Altman’s Nashville does for New Hollywood era filmmaking. To put it in other words, it serves as a prime example of it’s type.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
Julie Christie as herself
Vassar Clements as himself
Elliott Gould as himself
Howard K. Smith as himself
-Possible Real Life Connections-
– Henry Gibson’s character of Haven Hamilton may be a composite of Roy Acuff, Hank Snow and Peter Wagoner (read here, here, here and here).
– Ronee Blakley’s character of Barbara Jean may be loosely based on Loretta Lynn (read here and here).
– Timothy Brown’s character of Tommy Brown may be loosely based on Charley Pride (read here and here).
– The working relationship between Allan F. Nicholls character of Bill, Christina Haines character of Mary and Keith Carradine’s character of Tom Frank may be loosely based on that of Peter, Paul and Mary (read here and here).
– The married couple of Bill and Mary may bear a loose resemblance to that of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert of later day Starland Vocal Band fame (read here and here).
– Tom Frank may be loosely based on Kris Kristofferson (read here and here).
– Karen Black’s character of Connie White may be loosely based on Lynn Anderson (read here and here).
A head’s up from Mitchell of The Discreet Bourgeoisie for implicitly giving me the idea to remind one about Jan Stuart’s widely read (at least by film fanatics) book about the making of this 70’s classic entitled The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (read here).
Here is a link to the title sequence I was elaborating on above:
Here is a link to the original theatrical trailer below:
Warning: The following review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, than I strongly advise to not go any further.
Filmed in black-and-white on a low-budget reportedly consisting of $114,000 dollars, Night of the Living Dead proved to be a success with both audiences, and eventually critics nationwide. In addition to all of that, it not only served as George A. Romero’s directorial debut, but at the same time, it also cemented his reputation (and deservedly so) as a master of horror amongst devotees of the genre like myself.
During a visit to their father’s grave at a cemetery, siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner) notice a dazed looking man walking awkwardly. When he tries to attack Barbra, Johnny intervenes by fighting back. Nevertheless, this backfires as the man fatally throws Johnny against a gravestone. Running for her life, Barbra seeks shelter inside a farmhouse that looks as If it has been deserted. Upon entering the upstairs area, Barbra discovers a seemingly devoured corpse leaving her terrified and ready to leave. Suddenly, an African-American by the name of Ben (Duane Jones) enters the place and defends it by killing two of the monstrous strangers with a tire iron. Although, Ben is able to persuade her to help him board up the entire house, Barbra’s mental state has deteriorated considerably due to everything that she has just witnessed. Semi-ignorant of her current state of shock, Ben tells Barbra that he first witnessed all of his chaos while passing by a local diner. In his words, he talks to her about how he went inside an abandoned truck so he could listen to the radio and remain informed on the current situation. While in there, he saw a bunch of these strange people chasing after a gasoline truck, which drove right through a billboard resulting in the driver’s death. Afterwards, Ben looked around and realized that he was allegedly the only person left alive and to survive, he would seek solace in someplace that was safe. Barbra summarizes everything that happened to her at the cemetery prior to hiding out in the farmhouse that she is currently sharing with Ben. Under the false impression that her brother Johnny is still alive, Barbra tries to convince Ben to go out and look for him. Ben quickly dismissed this idea by simply stating that your brother is dead resulting in a hysterical Barbra to reply back with No! My brother is not dead! and after slapping him, he smacks her back intending to shake some common sense into her, but ends up leaving her incapacitated.
Armed with a hunting rifle that he had found in the farmhouse, Ben uses it to fend off attacks from the outside while listening for the next radio report. Unexpectedly, the cellar door opens awakening Barbra and slightly startling Ben, who discovers that a few others have survived. We are introduced to a teenager named Tom (Keith Wayne) and an arrogant and unhappily married father/husband by the name of Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who is unrelated to him. Tom’s teenage girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) is in the cellar assisting Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) in any way she can with her and Harry’s ailing 11-year-old daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who was bitten by one of the attackers. Harry and his family are hiding in the farmhouse because their car was turned over by the same freaks encountered earlier on by Barbra and Ben. Tom and Judy sought refuge in the house after hearing about the recent string of murders from a radio report via an emergency broadcast from earlier. Shortly after discovering a television set somewhere in the house, Ben turns it on to listen to the next report with most (If not all) of the others and learns that this nationwide epidemic of murderous mayhem began when the deceased unexplainably came back to life and started feasting upon human flesh. One scientist thinks that this recent outbreak may have originated from a Venus space probe that exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to a local Sheriff, the most effective way to kill these reanimated corpses is to aim for the head with either a gun, a club or a torch. As the number of zombies become more widespread, Ben fends them off while simultaneously plotting an escape route with the full cooperation of everyone around him with the exception of the selfish Harry.
Director/co-writer George A. Romero may have cited Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (read here, here, and here) as an inspiration, but it would be unwise for anybody to sum up Night of the Living Dead as a pastiche of past horror fiction (cinematic or literary) since the result is the complete opposite. In terms of plot, it is most notable for being the first film to depict zombies (read here) as flesh-eating monsters. Succeeding Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and preceding Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch both by a year, the violence in Night of the Living Dead (like the former and the latter) was noticeably more graphic than anything else viewers had seen in the past. Unlike those first two titles however, this one was an independent film distributed by the lower-profiled Water Reade Organization (read here), a once high-profile movie theater chain. Aside from a considerably gory stabbing, a crushed skull and the decomposed face of a corpse, we also get zombies completely devouring human beings.
At heart, Night of the Living Dead also works as a biting satire on the political and social turmoil that ended up shaping the 1960’s as a whole. Not unlike The Wild Bunch, Night of the Living Dead’s display of graphic violence (strong for it’s day at least) was symbolic of the American news media’s daily televised depictions of the ongoing Vietnam War overseas (read here), which the United States was heavily involved in at the time. Taking into account the continued escalation of U.S. involvement (read here) during the then presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), one can’t help but possibly see this as a fitting metaphor. One could also potentially see a parallel between the killings of the zombies and the protest activity that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (read here and here) with the posse of armed men in the roles of the police officers upholding law and order by physically restraining them. While privately understanding of their anger, the police (alluding to the posse) feel that it would be a dangerous mistake for protesters (alluding to the zombies) to let that emotion influence them to cause chaos and destruction. If Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds served in part as an allegory of the decline of the nuclear family (read here), than director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead symbolically serves as one about it’s demise. For example, Harry and Helen Cooper’s marriage is obviously an unhappy one judging from Helen’s remark to Harry of we may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything. According to Helen, it is important for her egotistical husband to be right and for everybody else to be wrong. Fairly or unfairly, it seems that dysfunctional families like these have only become more common since the passage of no-fault divorce the following year in 1969 by then California governor (1967-1975) and future 40th U.S. President (1981-1989) Ronald W. Reagan (read here and here), who would later reportedly cite this as the biggest mistake of his political career. By 1985, all except one state had some form of it and by 2010, New York would become the last state to pass a no-fault divorce law (read here). Explicitly, the already insecure Harry resents taking orders from Ben, who (along with Helen) hates him due to his arrogance and bullying. Implicitly, Harry harbors a racial hatred for the African-American Ben, who is almost killed by the zombies when Harry purposely locks him outside. Later on, Ben gets his revenge by shooting him with the hunting rifle. Open or closeted, Harry’s racism was typical to that of extreme critics of the Civil rights movement (1954-1968) (read here). By the end, just as it looks as If Ben is going to be the lone survivor, he is unexpectedly shot in the head long range by a posse member, who had mistaken him for a zombie. This ending resembles the pessimism that drove the mood of the nation following two 1968 assassinations on political leaders in the form of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year (read here) and then New York senator turned Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (read here) two months later on June 5. The eerie music that plays during the closing credits foreshadows the two turbulent events that followed in the guise of the King assassination riots (read here) and the aforementioned protest activity that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of that same year. Romero’s vision of a radically changing America is made all the more terrifying when one comes to the realization that most (if not all) of these incidents were taking place between early April and late August of that year; prior to the film’s premiere during that month of October.
While I personally feel that director George A. Romero would surpass this one 10 years later with the gorier and wittier Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Night of the Living Dead is still truly deserving of it’s status as an influential cult classic. Even at the tender age of 50, it feels every bit as scary and timeless now as it was in 1968. To put it in other words, Night of the Living Dead is a horror film with a lot on it’s mind.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
Hello my name is John Charet and I am the owner of this website Cinematic Coffee and today, I will be welcoming back Pamela Lowe Saldana, who is the owner of the website All Things Thriller. Today, we will be discussing the films of Kathryn Bigelow. We will discuss Bigelow’s style and themes as well as our personal five favorite films directed by her 🙂
PLS: Hi John. I’m settled in with a cup of coffee now and I’m ready to discuss when you are…
JC: Alrighty, let us get started. Kathryn Bigelow’s first film as director was one she co-directed with Monty Montgomery from 1981 entitled The Loveless. Both also wrote the script. The film was a biker drama starring a young Willem Dafoe with a conventional plot about a motorcycle gang causing trouble within a small town. It was good even though it suggests that better things were to come. The most interesting aspect of it for me was the neon look of it that foreshadows Near Dark. What is your take?
PLS: Yes, I looked this one up and watched it on YouTube. I liked it, though it had an amateur feel to it. It felt like it was unfinished. I liked the neon vibe to it, but it was very slow. I don’t know about you, but I thought The Loveless was more or less a new wave version of The Wild One, though not as good. But the slow burn and build up to a sudden blast of violence is definitely a Bigelow signature.
JC: It did feel like that in many ways which is why it can never be labeled a true classic. 6 years later in 1987 though, Bigelow directed and co-wrote Near Dark, which I consider to be her breakthrough film. Unlike a lot of vampire films of the day, Near Dark plays out like a combination of a Neo-Western and a horror film with elements of a crime drama thrown in for good measure. The rural Oklahoma settings prove my point and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography gives it that atmosphere. Also, let us not forget Tangerine Dream’s equally atmospheric music score.
PLS: I think she hit her stride quickly with Near Dark. I hadn’t seen it before, never heard of it. I can see where it has become a fan favorite and a cult film. It’s very atmospheric. The lighting is great and she ratchets up the tension and violence. In fact, I thought the violence was over the top–kind of a splatter-fest while the rest of the film is artsy and romantic. It was cool to see such a young Bill Paxton. I have an affinity for him, but he kind of over did it with the uber villain.
JC: The violence most certainly was over-the-top like a splatter-fest as you say. One perfect example of that comes in the bar shootout with John Parr’s song Naughty Naughty playing in the background. Whenever I hear that song, I think of Near Dark 🙂 Interesting enough, the word vampire is never uttered in the film based on my knowledge unless I missed something. The romantic relationship between Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright) is fascinating because it does not come off as cliched. The strangeness of this film is what makes it so brilliant. The Lost Boys may have been more popular that year (it was released two months earlier), but Near Dark stands out for me as the superior film. Nowadays when it comes to discussing vampire films, people talk about how underrated this is and they are totally right.
PLS: Well, I’m a big Lost Boys fan…I really liked Near Dark and I agree that it’s the superior film, but it doesn’t have the humor or sweetness of The Lost Boys…at least not to me. But, yeah, the bar scene is awesome and the whole contrast of light vs dark is very interesting and though it should feel like a cliche, it doesn’t. I think this is a stellar film.
JC: The Lost Boys is not a bad film and it is an interesting take on the vampire sub-genre, but Near Dark is just so enthralling in how it dissects it all. This does not completely feel like a horror film as I implied earlier. The blending of elements relating to the Western and the crime drama with those those of a horror film concerning vampires is just so intriguing and it is all executed perfectly here.
PLS: So, the first film from Katheryn Bigelow that I saw was 1990’s Blue Steel. She put a feminist twist on the action/thriller genre. To me, this is the film where she established the great opening film sequence and her realistic cinematography as film signatures. The convenience store sequence is riveting cinema. I love the tension and the camera work. I love the cinematography…and yet the film feels flat to me. Too contrived. She set me up with a great beginning but I was disappointed with the meat of the film. Though the ending was tense and suspenseful. There’s the signature violence and her preoccupation with rape, all heavy feminist themes but I thought Blue Steel was a let down.
JC: Blue Steel is the first Kathryn Bigelow film to feature a female protagonist as it’s lead. Camera work, cinematography and that opening shootout are all fantastic as you imply. If the film feels flat, that is possibly because it plays out like an unpretentious B-thriller. I will say that compared to her previous film Near Dark, Blue Steel feels like a slight letdown, but standing on it’s own, it is anything but. I also agree that it’s “preoccupation with rape” is most certainly a feminist theme and Bigelow has tackled possible elements of feminism occasionally in future works.
PLS: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ronnie Montrose, he’s a classic rock act. He had really great intros to his songs. They rocked, but then the rest of the song just never equaled the intro. That’s how I feel about Blue Steel. It has all the ingredients, I just don’t think Bigelow put them together effectively. I liked the Jamie Lee Curtis casting, but I didn’t like Ron Silver as the bad guy.
It’s a completely different film than Near Dark. But the cinematography and action sequences are familiar ties that bind the films together. I didn’t like this one as much as you do, but I see it’s potential.
JC: I have heard Ronnie Montrose and I love his music. The following year, Kathryn Bigelow directed Point Break with Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze. Unlike those last three films, Bigelow only directed this one. As with Blue Steel, it plays out as a B-action-thriller, but this one is a whole lot more fun. I love the action sequences whether it involves surfing or shootouts and the chemistry between the two leads could not be better. Gary Busey is just a riot as that head FBI agent. Your thoughts.
PLS: I love Point Break and I avoided watching it for years. Why? I’m not a big fan of Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze. This was before Bigelow was a big thing so I didn’t know that I was watching one of her films. All that said, I was pleasantly surprised and riveted by the camera work. Spectacular filming of surfing. My gosh, it’s gorgeous. Another thing that stands out to me about that film is the foot chase scene. It was really different. Here you had Reeves–a good looking, incredibly fit guy, and he’s huffing and puffing as he’s running, he barely gets over a fence and he’s clearly exhausted…I loved the realism of it. That juxtaposition against the gorgeous surfing and ocean shots…And then the parachuting scene…Wow! It’s a great action film.
JC: I will say that it is madly entertaining. Point Break was also the first Bigelow film to be both a commercial hit and a cult classic. That same year, Kathryn Bigelow and fellow director James Cameron divorced (1989-1991). Nevertheless, this did not stop BIgelow to revive a 1986 screenplay by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks co-writing the final product) resulting in 1995’s Strange Days. At the time, it was Bigelow’s most expensive film to date ($42 million). The film was a commercial flop, but has since gone on to become something of an overlooked gem. According to Wikipedia (read here), Bigelow wanted to explore themes of racism, abuse of power, rape and voyeurism within a science-fiction film blended together with that of a film noir. Bigelow also made allusions to the Lorena Bobbitt trial and the 1992 Los Angeles riots (read here). At first, it might look like Bigelow’s most compromised film to date given the fact that Cameron wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, but after viewing it all, it feels like an ambitious neo-noir that resembles the work of a partnership. While it does come off as Bigelow’s most polished work to date, it is also occasionally uneven like the majority of her previous work (with the exception of Near Dark). It comes close to being as masterful as Blade Runner, but it does not quite hit it’s target. I still admire it though.
PLS: Too much going on at the same time. Again, I feel this film was miscast. I’m a big Ralph Fienness fan and I like Angela Bassett, but not here. I wasn’t impressed with Julliette Lewis either–though she’s always hit or miss.
All that said, I love the opening sequence…The first person camera work/technique is amazing and it’s jarringly original. This is where Bigelow really makes her mark as filmmaker to me, the camera work. Nowhere in her cannon is it better, in my opinion, than in this opening sequence.
I like some of the themes: The emphasis on feminism, the bi/racial love story, the racial injustice is edgy and real at a time when we as a society were still tip toeing around this stuff. But then, you’ve got totally unnecessary nudity and over the top sexuality that is the antithesis of feminism to me…It’s kind of WTF.
And then there’s that squid thing that goes on the head of the characters…Too bizarre and awkward.
JC: The casting choices are hit-or-miss as you say, though Angela Bassett is the scene stealer in my opinion. James Cameron may be skilled at writing smart sci-fi action, he does not do so well with the super complex ideas behind it. Bigelow’s skills as a filmmaker really mature here and it is kind of a shame that it is on display in a slightly flawed film. I had no problem with the nudity or the sexuality for I love that kind of stuff in a film. Again, I hope you do not see me as some kind of weirdo 🙂 As to whether or not that is the antithesis of feminism, it depends on what one woman’s definition of feminism is because there as many ones out there that love this kind of stuff as there are those who are turned off by it. Visually, the film is impressive and the camera work just blew me away. If only the film could blend all of it’s ideas more coherently, it would have been a great film as opposed to a very good one. In the end, Strange Days is a film that I admire more than I adore.
PLS: Ha! No I don’t think that you’re a weirdo, John. I just think it’s strange for a feminist director to objectify women. But that’s just me…Strange Days is a very ambitious film that doesn’t quite meet it’s objectives. I think we agree on that.
JC: We agree on that totally 🙂 Five years after Strange Days, director Kathryn Bigelow scaled down in size and on a budget of $16 million dollars for a film adaptation of Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel The Weight of Water. The film was supposed to come out in 2000, but for some odd reason (maybe negative reviews), it was theatrically released here in the United States in 2002. The film navigates back and forward to the then present day and back to 1873. The plot deals a female newspaper photographer, who after researching an article about an 1873 double homicide, she finds her own current life eerily mirroring the situation of that historical incident. It sounds pretty complex and it is. I respect it for that and while it does mystify, it never really goes full circle like a great David Lynch film would. I do not know If you saw the film, but it is worth a watch.
PLS: Yes I saw it when it first came out. I really love Sean Penn. (He’s a great director too, I think.) Anyway, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I could never really make heads or tails out of it. Is it a ghost story? It’s certainly trying to be soooo mysterious…It didn’t strike an accord with me. But here, I really liked the cast and I thought the acting was great.
JC: Same here, the acting was great, but as with Strange Days, it is a film that I admire more than I adore. The same year that The Weight of Water finally got a theatrical release here in the States (2002 in this case), Kathryn Bigelow directed a submarine thriller entitled K-19: The Widowmaker. The plot is loosely based on a real life incident from 1961 involving a Soviet Union submarine malfunctioning while voyaging to the North Atlantic near Greenland. You can read more about it here and here. While criticism was aimed at some of the liberties taken, it was praised as a highly engrossing submarine thriller and Harrison Ford did surprisingly well playing a Russian ship Captain. I too found it to be intriguing and is on par with The Hunt for Red October in my opinion. Have you seen the film?
PLS: I have seen it John and I actually prefer K 19 to The Hunt for Red October. I think it’s a great historical thriller. Yes, there were liberties taken with the true story, but there almost always are with movies. It is a movie–not a documentary.
JC: I actually have no problems with liberties being taken in crafting a historical piece either because it actually happens all of the time. I also agree with you that these are movies and not documentaries 🙂 I was referencing what some historians and even a scattering few critics thought of it. Interesting that you preferred it to The Hunt for Red October and Harrison Ford actually did a pretty good job playing a Russian.
PLS: Yes, his accent was a bit sketchy at times but overall I think he was very good. I almost always like Harrison Ford and I think Neesom was equally good. I’ve heard some critism of Bigelow’s films, that she often gets wooden performances out of her actors, but I thought this was a great assemble piece. It was entertaining, engaging and it actually made me look up the incident. Bigelow’s camera work is spot on–per usual–she used the close camera to get the claustrophobic effect and she was very successful. The effects of the radiation poisoning were horrifying.
JC: I never think that her films feature wooden performances. I wonder why some critics thought that at the time. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade (2009 in this case), director Kathryn Bigelow would achieve full blown maturity (for lack of better word) with The Hurt Locker, which for my money at the time, ranked as her greatest film since Near Dark 22 years earlier. Not only was it nominated for Best Picture, Director and for it’s lead actor Jeremy Renner (Ha take that critics) and countless others, but Bigelow beat her ex-husband James Cameron (who was up for Avatar that year) in the win for the Best Director prize. The Hurt Locker is a truly thought-provoking take on the Iraq war and what is really interesting is how Renner’s character treats his job as If it’s his dream lifestyle, which in this case would be defusing bombs. Your take Pam.
PLS: I think The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s masterpiece. I love everything about this film. To me it’s a psychological thriller/ action film. It’s very thought provoking. Jeremy Renner’s character is a psychopath. No, he’s not the boogeyman and he doesn’t stalk women. Actually, he is a very realistic portrait of what most psychopaths look like. They are adrenaline junkies. They push the envelope over the table because that’s the only way they can feel anything. They are basically fearless, but most don’t have a taste for rape or murder. The military is a safe haven for them. You’ll find them there, and in the police force, and engaging in extreme sports. They are EMTs, pilots, race car drivers etc. It’s a tragic thing–but at least war, gives this character an outlet and something productive to belong to.
JC: I could not agree with you more about your description of the character. Prior to Zero Dark Thirty from three years later in 2012, I also saw The Hurt Locker as Bigelow’s masterpiece, but with Zero Dark Thirty (in my opinion) she topped herself once again. As a political thriller, it offers both intelligence and excitement. As you know, it is a dramatized retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, who was the terrorist mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Jessica Chastain plays her lead CIA intelligence analyst character with not only conviction, but with quiet dignity and grace too. Not only that, but she is also a strong heroine at the same time.
PLS: I would agree that Zero Darth Thirty is also a masterpiece, though in my estimation–a lesser one that The Hurt Locker. I agree that it’s a political thriller and Bigelow took some heat for her realistic depictions of waterboarding and other tortures. In fact, the criticism of the film became very political–there were accusations that then President Barack Obama (2009-2017) had carelessly turned over too much information–some of it supposedly classified. All of that was white noise to me–and off putting. I knew about the waterboarding and black site torture chambers. Everybody did.
I thought Jessica Chastain was brilliant. I thought James Gandolnfini was excellent as a thinly disguised Leon Panetta. I think the film was very accurate and Chastain’s character is based on a real CIA operative–though she was not recruited straight out of high school like in the film. That didn’t ring true to me when I first saw the film.
JC: I too have also read about those accusations. I think Seymour Hersh wrote a 2016 book about how the hunt for Osama Bin Laden really went down or at least from his perspective. I think director Kathryn Bigelow depicted waterboarding as If it was all part of the job within the CIA or lack thereof. I too also noticed James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta and yeah he was spot-on. Sadly, Gandolfini would pass away the following year in 2013. As for Bigelow’s most recent film Detroit, I would like to hear your thoughts first 🙂
PLS: Obviously Bigelow has an affinity for historical films and in this case she explores a racially charged incident in the 60s that–sadly–I had never heard of until I watched the film. I was blown away by it. The screenplay is excellent. I’m a stickler for dialogue and it’s spot on and authentic to time and place. The dress, the cars everything is authentic to the early to mid 60s. Bigelow is very OCD with the details of her films. It really pays off here.
It’s funny–I love The Dramatics. In The Rain is one of my favorite songs. I never knew about lead singer Larry Reed being caught up in this horror.
The story is terrifying. To me this is Horror–much scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
The Soundtrack is wonderful, by the way.
JC: I too agree with everything you say about Detroit. I think it is sad that this one does not get as much credit as the other two films did. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots and watching it was like witnessing a period longer ago than that of the twentieth century. Sounds awkward I know, but that is what it feels like. I also love the use of music in this film and considering that this was based or loosely based on something that actually happened, does make it scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street in a historical sense.
PLS: My understanding is that this is pretty close to how it went down. It probably does feel like that to you–though to me, it’s oddly comforting. Not the circumstances of course, but I like this time period and the 70s. It’s nostalgic. I was a baby during the Detroit riots but still, I can remember a quite a lot of the late 60s.
I don’t understand why this film bombed at the boxoffice. I think it’s very solid.
JC: We may never know why Detroit bombed so badly at the box-office. Maybe it was the subject matter, but either way, let us all hope that director Kathryn Bigelow continues to direct some more great films. Now I shall give you my top 5 favorite Kathryn Bigelow films in descending order below:
5.) Strange Days (1995) (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *)
True, it is a slightly flawed film, but for me, this is the first film of director Kathryn Bigelow’s in which her filmmaking skills mature to a new level.
4.) Detroit (2017) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Considering that this is her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Bowl, one could call this (along with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) to be the cinematic equivalent of a three-pitch home-run.
3.) Near Dark (1987) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s second film to date is her best film of her early filmmaking years.
2.) The Hurt Locker (2008) (* * * * out of * * * *)
This is the film of hers that really demonstrated director Kathryn Bigelow’s skills as a true mature filmmaker.
1.) Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (* * * * out of * * * *)
For me, this is the film that showed director Kathryn Bigelow taking all of her skills as a filmmaker and putting it all into one.
That is my list. What is yours Pam? 🙂
1. The Hurt Locker (2008)
I love the the portrait of a psychopath find his purpose in wartime.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
I admire the realistic portrayal of a young, female, operative and the very unsexy life of hunting a fugitive.
3. Near Dark (1987)
4. Detroit (2017)
5. K 19 The Widowmaker (2002)
JC: Ah very interesting Pam 🙂 Well I had a great time talking to you on this edition of Discussions of Cinema and I look forward in the future to the next one. Between now and Halloween, we should (for fun) occasionally drop by on each other’s sites and let each other know what horror films we have watched so far 🙂 Thank you for dropping by and keep those comments coming as always 🙂
PLS: Likewise John. Happy Halloween to you too.
Warning: The review contains potential plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film than I advise you to not read any further.
Three years after he reinvented cinematic horror with Psycho in 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock (a.k.a. The Master of Suspense) would return to that genre in 1963 to do it again; this time with something more ambitious and on a much larger scale as well. The finished result was The Birds and with it, Hitchcock succeeded in not only equaling and surpassing his aforementioned previous effort, but at the same time, everything he did before and after this. If I were to compose two lists of my top 100 or more favorite films of all-time; with one dedicated to the horror genre and the other towards cinema as a whole, I would place The Birds at the number 1 spot on the former and somewhere in between numbers 1 and 10 on the latter.
While visiting an urban pet store one day to pick up a mynah bird for a relative, San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) gets mistaken by a customer (Rod Taylor) for a saleswoman and requests a pair of lovebirds for his little sister’s 11th birthday party. As with the mynah bird, it turns out that the shop is out of lovebirds, so Melanie suggests a canary, which flies out of her hand after taking it out of it’s cage. After catching the canary with his hat, the still unnamed customer places the bird back in it’s cage and says: “back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.” A stunned Daniels asks him how he knew her name and it is revealed that he saw her in court. According to him, she was responsible for a practical joke that resulted in a broken glass window and personally feels that she should have been sent to jail for it. He purposely knew from the very beginning that Daniels was no saleswoman and reveals that it was his way of reminding her of “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag” as he puts it. Undetered by not getting his lovebirds, he leaves with two closing remarks to Daniels: “I’ll find something else” and “see ya in court.” An annoyed Daniels decides to write down the number of the license plate on that customer’s car and calls the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out the name of the individual who owns it. In an attempt to get even with him, Daniels asks the pet shop owner to order a pair of lovebirds for her and have them delivered as soon as possible, which in this case would be the next morning.
The next day, Melanie Daniels arrives at the apartment building to place a birdcage (with the two lovebirds inside) on a doorstep with a note addressing that customer’s real name as “Mr. Mitchell Brenner.” Before leaving, a neighbor of his reminds her that he is visiting Bodega Bay, which is up the coast from San Francisco. Eager to get even with Mitch, Melanie drives up there and visits a local store to see If it’s owner knows where Mitch is residing for the weekend. Coincidentally, he knows the location of the place, which is across the dock seen close by. He knows that it belongs to his mother, but when asked about Mitch’s younger sister, he cannot seem to remember her first name. Nevertheless, he is able to direct her to a local schoolteacher by the name of Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who not only teaches Mitch’s younger sister, but also reveals herself to be Mitch’s ex-lover much later on. Upon learning that Cathy is the name of Mitch’s younger sibling, Melanie rents a motorboat to get to Mitch’s house to deliver her surprise. After placing the caged lovebirds on a comfy chair, Melanie tears up her original note for Mitch and replaces it with one carrying the words “To: Cathy” on it. Unofficially, Melanie hopes to shock Mitch with her knowledge of a family member’s identity much in the same way he did with hers the day before. Melanie rushes out of the house and back to her motorboat to see how Mitch will react when he inevitably goes back inside. Seemingly amused and curious, Mitch drives to the other side of the dock and gets out of his car to see what she will either say to him or do next. Suddenly, a seagull flies down and quickly attacks Melanie on the forehead prompting Mitch to help her out of the boat and treat her wound.
At the local diner, while treating her injury, Mitch Brenner reveals to Melanie Daniels that he is a criminal defense attorney, who practices law in San Francisco, but comes to Bodega Bay on the weekends to relax. After asking her why she is in the area, Melanie tells a lie and a half. Considering that Mitch is unaware of it being a prank yet humored and touched by the deed at the same time, Melanie tells him that she wanted to deliver the lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. Deep down though, Melanie saw Mitch as a potential boyfriend ever since that first coincidental meeting at the pet store the day before. Even though Melanie denies it publicly, Mitch personally feels that she is in Bodega Bay to see him. Is it possible that Mitch could care less about her earlier prank and only got even with her that previous day so she could come to Bodega Bay to see him? The other lie Melanie tells Mitch is that she is visiting to see local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (a.k.a. his ex-lover) by claiming that she and her were friends during their college years. Later that night, Melanie reluctantly accepts Mitch’s invitation to dinner to meet his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who adores both Melanie and the lovebirds she bought her and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who initially fears her presence. As Ms. Daniels is about to leave to spend the night with Annie, a curious Mitch asks her to talk a bit more about herself in regards to a story brought up by Lydia earlier regarding Melanie frolicking naked in a waterfall while vacationing in Rome, Italy. Melanie claims that she was dumped in there with her clothes on and that the article his mother was referring to was written by a columnist hired by a rival of her father’s newspaper company to slander her family. Still unsatisfied, Mitch wants to know why she lied to him about knowing Annie resulting in an already annoyed Melanie to quickly drive away from him for a short period of time.
Later on at Annie Hayworth’s house, a curious Melanie Daniels asks Annie about her past relationship with Mitch Brenner, whom she was madly in love with at one time. According to Annie, she still desires a romantic relationship with him, but his overprotective mother Lydia just kept getting in the way and it eventually proved to be too much for her to take. Suddenly, Mitch phone calls Melanie to sincerely apologize for his earlier behavior and to make it up to her, he decides to officially invite her to celebrate his little sister Cathy’s 11th birthday party for the following day. Thinking back and forth for a while, Melanie decides to go. Shortly before both of them go to bed, a loud noise is heard from the outside. After opening the door to see what it is, Annie and Melanie discover a dead seagull on the front step. This is just the third strange occurrence that has plagued Bodega Bay since Melanie arrived. The first incident came earlier in the form of a seagull briefly attacking Melanie on the forehead and the second one involved the town’s chicken feed and why the chickens were not eating it. The next day at Cathy’s birthday party, numerous birds begin to violently attack the party guests and shortly after that, Mitch fends off a bird attack within his own home. From here on out, these incidents prove to be just two of the numerous attacks the birds will launch on the town and it’s inhabitants.
On the surface, The Birds plays out as a standard horror film about humans being attacked by the title villains. Nevertheless, in the hands of it’s iconic director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, it inevitably goes much deeper than that. Along with Vertigo and Psycho, this one requires viewers to pay close attention to every single detail that unfolds on screen from beginning to end. Not unlike what he had achieved with those two classics, Hitchcock proves once again here that the power of cinematic storytelling lies not so much in the payoff as it does in the buildup. While this can easily be said about any of the master filmmaker’s best work, it is in The Birds where Hitchcock finds himself reaching his fullest expression of that particular trait.
As much as I adore Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, The Birds still ranks for me as my favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock’s three film adaptations of a Daphne du Maurier property. Instead of merely adapting du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name, Hitchcock simply reimagines it by using a 1961 Santa Cruz Sentinel article as “research material for his latest thriller”. – (read here). The piece itself was about a large number of seabirds unexplainably attacking the city of Capitola, California on August 18th of that year. Eventually, it turned out that the birds may have been “under the influence of domoic acid” (read here) at the time of the attacks. To further expand upon this idea, Hitchcock hired famed crime/mystery fiction writer Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain) to write a screenplay that would effortlessly move from one tone into another. All through the first half-hour, viewers are intentionally tricked into thinking that the mood is going to play out like a sophisticated romantic comedy based on the playful banter between Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Thirty minutes into the film, that feeling more or less dissipates as it turns into something resembling a psychological drama that expands upon and rivals Psycho in it’s depiction of the darker side of a mother and son relationship. Finally, seven minutes before the second hour, it ultimately becomes an apocalyptic horror movie and a truly terrifying one at that. Hitchcock seemed to believe so himself based on the film’s legendary trailer (see below), which among other things, visually illustrates the question of “WHAT IS THE SHOCKING MYSTERY OF THE BIRDS?” across the screen. Unlike Hitchcock’s other films though, the mystery of The Birds remains unsolved and in a stroke of genius, Hitchcock and Hunter leave it up to viewers to answer the question for themselves.
Symbolically and thematically, The Birds is mainly a film about complacency as seen from director Alfred Hitchcock’s point-of-view (read here). I agree, but I am going to go one step beyond with not one, but two debatably complex interpretations. Prior to 1970, or maybe even five years earlier, one’s own praise of The Birds as Hitchcock’s most elaborate prank to date would be doing it complete justice. On the one hand, he is subtly thumbing his nose at upper class society by using the Melanie Daniels character as his target. True, Melanie may not have literally delivered the resulting chaos, but she might have done so figuratively in the form of her harmless prank involving the delivery of two lovebirds. The hysterical mother in the diner summed it up best when she said “I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” Later on and in a strange twist of irony, the birds viciously attack Melanie and this possibly gives off the vibe that her prank has backfired. On the other hand, Hitchcock does not seem too fond of small town sanctimony either. Since the plot already deals with birds violently attacking residents of a tiny village, Hitchcock is now officially left with doing nothing else but sitting back and enjoying the show like the rest of us.
Taking into consideration all of the radical changes that shaped the decade as it continued and ended, The Birds also comes off as a film that eerily foreshadowed the death of early 1960’s optimism and the slow, but steady decline of the nuclear family in a rather symbolic way. The lighthearted elements that defined the first half hour quite possibly resembles the stereotypical cheery mood that preceding American President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) passed on to his successor John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), who briefly upheld this notion in the earlier days of his presidency. Contrary to the first 30 minutes, the second half hour carries a cautiously optimistic tone as we learn more about the characters. This unexpected feeling of cynicism coincides perfectly with the notable disappointments of the Kennedy era that include the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion (read here), his escalation of the Vietnam War beginning that same year (read here) and to some extent, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (read here). Shortly after turning into a horror movie near the end of the first hour, viewers get a fairly graphic glimpse of the birds first casualty by way of a neighboring farmer. Psychologically, our terrified reactions at this sight mirrors that of the American public’s when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 (read here). Amid all of these previous events, the status of the nuclear family suddenly began to deteriorate. Two characters in The Birds demonstrate this aspect quite powerfully. In the case of Melanie Daniels, we get a wealthy woman, who admits to Mitch Brenner that her mother ditched her and her father when she was 11 years-old for “some hotel man in the East” before getting briefly emotional about her revelation. The other one comes in the form of Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia, who wishes that she “was a stronger person.” While sipping on a cup of tea, she laments to Melanie about how much she misses her husband (whom she reveals as Frank), who was not only able to connect with Mitch and Cathy on so many levels, but whose presence always gave her a sense of security deep down. Ever since his death from four years back, Lydia has felt insecure and she painfully admits to Melanie that “it’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone.” In many ways, Lydia can’t help but remain dependent on Mitch because she does not want him to abandon her given how she implicitly looks upon her recent self as that of a failure. When Lydia becomes anxious on the status of the bird attacks, Mitch comes to feel like one himself when she expresses all of her worries and all he can say is “I don’t know.” A hysterical Lydia than screams something along the lines of “If only your father were here” before sincerely apologizing to him a few seconds later. One scene visually expresses this by having Mitch sitting down in front of a portrait that may be his late father. While Melanie, Lydia and Cathy are sitting down waiting for the radio news report, he sits there looking like he is struggling to be as larger than life as his father apparently was. Unlike Norman Bates in Psycho, Mitch does not really see himself as a mama’s boy. While he does love Lydia (his mother) with all his heart, at the same time, he yearns for a social life. Unfortunately, Lydia is always preventing this by interfering with his relationships like the one he had with Annie Hayworth earlier. Speaking of which, some viewers have suggested that the bird attacks represent Lydia’s rage at any woman, who attempts to form a romantic relationship with Mitch. One could even say that the ending may imply that Lydia has come to grips with accepting Mitch’s desire for a social life. This occurs in that last scene in the car where Lydia is warmly looking upon Melanie, whose head is resting on her shoulder. Based on what viewers know about Melanie’s family life, it looks like her implied wish of “a mother’s love” has finally come true. Considering all of the political and social turmoil that ended up defining that decade as a whole, The Birds strangely but subtlety comes off as something of a spiritual prequel to George A. Romero’s similarly apocalyptic (albeit lower-budgeted) horror classic Night of the Living Dead from five years later in 1968.
If Psycho served as director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of a horror film, then The Birds serves as his redefinition of that genre. Unlike the majority of his previous films, Hitchcock uses very little music this time around to build suspense. We notice this from the opening title sequence set to nothing but the squawks of birds, who fly all over the place tearing apart each new credit a few seconds after they initially appear on the screen. Aside from sound effects, Hitchcock utilizes editing and special effects to tell the story. This is most noticeable during the last 67 minutes of the film’s 119-minute running time. The first bird attack on the town occurs at a children’s birthday party and as edited by Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini, we get fast (but not too fast) back and forth cuts to emphasize all of the chaos that will embody the remainder of the film. The second major example comes when Melanie Daniels is sitting on a bench waiting for Cathy to get out of school. While the schoolchildren are heard inside singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” (read here), Melanie frequently stares back and forth at the playground and with each stare, she sees more and more crows sitting on the equipment with menacing looks on their faces. Much like the previous scene, the birds attack everybody including the children. Next up, birds attack a gas station resulting in leaking gasoline and after a man unknowingly throws a cigarette on the ground, he and the place explodes resulting in the diner patrons to run for their lives. As Melanie hides within the telephone booth, she witnesses birds attacking a horse carriage, a man inside his car and another man getting pecked to death by birds themselves. After witnessing each instance terror, the camera cuts back and forth to a frightened Melanie. During the climax, Melanie opens a room and finds herself being pecked by an army of birds leaving her badly wounded If not dead. This sequence works as a companion piece to Psycho’s iconic shower scene based on it’s frenzied editing style. Last, but not least, credit should also be given to it’s photographic visual effects courtesy of Ub Iwerks (read here). Despite being made over 55 years ago, the imagery of the birds themselves still look timeless. Sometimes, the creatures come off as credibly scary (i.e. the crows) and other times, they look (deceivingly) harmless (i.e. the seagulls).
Along with The Shining from 17 years later, The Birds is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that allows viewers to form their own interpretations of everything they had just seen. In addition to all of that, I see The Birds as more than just my number one choice for the greatest horror film of all-time. To go one step even further, I would rank it somewhere within the top 10 range of my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. In case, you are interested, here is a link to the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which Hitchcock promoted in a way that was similar to Psycho from three years earlier.