Friday, 29 December 2017

Intolerance, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Big Lebowski, The Conversation - four classic films I just don't "get"

The Coen Brothers are responsible for three of my favourite modern pictures - No Country for Old Men, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? I've enjoyed some of the rest of their 23 films, without exactly being bowled over by them - e.g. Miller's Crossing,  A Serious Man, Blood Simple, Burn After Reading, Bridge of Spies, Hail, Caesar! And some I've positively disliked - especially The Man Who Wasn't There and The Hudsucker Proxy.  I'd never got round to seeing one of their best-loved works, The Big Lebowski (1998), mainly because the clips I'd seen had left me stoney-faced. I finally watched it on Netflix last night, hoping to have my initial impressions proved wrong...

...They weren't.

There are a lot of Coen stalwarts in there and not one of them gives a bad performance - John Goodman as an idiot Vietnam vet with severe anger management issues and John Turturro as a ludicrously macho Hispanic bowling alley braggart are excellent, while Jeff Bridges is typically amiable as the shambolic "The Dude". The tone of the picture is pure Coen Brothers at their lightest. i was in a really good mood, despite not having slept for 36 hours. I should have been chortling gleefully throughout - but I think I only managed two laughs in 118 minutes. How come?

The problem might be that The Dude is the ultimate slacker - and I have an aversion to the whole concept of slackerdom, especially the American version of it. My wife has made the point that the Lovable Slacker is a recurring figure in American films. Perhaps that's a reaction to the country's puritan roots, its relatively meagre welfare benefits (compared to Europe, at least), and the emphasis on financial success. Well, fine - but I'm a great believer in the spiritual benefits of labour, whether badly-paid or not paid at all, and in the character-corroding effects of a chaotic existence based on avoiding responsibility and relying on other people to pick up the pieces. (I also loathed the long-running Channel 4 series, Shameless - there is nothing admirable about useless parasites.)

A few weeks ago, I finally caught up with Robert Altman's 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which every "serious" film critic absolutely adores, and which is generally regarded as one of the landmarks of 1970s cinema. It stars Warren Beatty as a mysterious gambler who turns up in the rough mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington State, in 1902 and sets up a downmarket brothel. Julie Christie - an opium-addicted Cockney - sashays into town, offers to take the brothel upmarket and make it profitable, and promptly does both. A local zinc mining company with a reputation for ruthlessness offers to buy McCabe's business, but, while he's not unwilling to sell, he decided to play hardball (he's a bit of an idiot). As a result, the company sends a team of thugs to kill him.

The film has its good points. The grungy, seedy, chaotic atmosphere of the hardscrabble town is convincing: this is probably what mining towns in the middle of nowhere in 1902 America looked and felt like. But Julie Christie is far too glamorous to play a turn-of-the-century brothel madam, and Warren Beatty is utterly unconvincing as either a gambler or a brothel-keeper: he's a sort of partly-truth-and-partly-fiction proto-hippie straight out of a Kris Kristofferson song, bombed out of his skull most of the time, mumbling incoherently, flashing that supposedly loveable Warren Beatty smile, being smart and dumb by turn... I didn't believe a moment of his performance, even when I managed to decipher snatches of dialogue: the sound throughout is deliberately indistinct, for reasons which escape me.

I absolutely loathed MASH - Robert Altman's breakthrough film as a director - finding the "hip" tone of the whole film and the characters played by Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould utterly repellent. His Hollywood satire, The Player (1992), was mildly amusing without being half as funny as Altman evidently thought it was, and Gosford Park (2001) was soporific: the other six or seven Altman films I've seen have just been annoying. I know he's a darling of cineastes the world over, and I sort of know why - he reinforces their view of themselves as members of a hip, like-minded elite who "get" what he's doing.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) was released the same year as the director's masterpiece, Godfather II - the two films battled it out for Best Picture Oscar. He was undoubtedly American cinema's golden boy at the time. Inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966), and released in the wake of  the Watergate scandal, Coppola's enigmatic thriller was a critical and commercial success. Gene Hackman's performance as the electronic surveillance expert Harry Caul is superb, and the rest of the cast - which includes Peter Cazale, Robert Duvall and a startlingly young Harrison Ford - is top-notch. The basic plot is just up my street - I love a healthy dose of paranoia - but it just doesn't do it for me. I saw the film at the cinema when it was released, and, while I enjoyed the first twenty minutes, found myself annoyed by all the mannerisms, tricks and tics which seemed born of  a desperate desire to produce a film which looked and felt European. Maybe if it had been a French film, I'd have enjoyed it more, but it lost me around the one-hour mark. I've always felt guilty about my inability to appreciate a film which others find it so easy to admire, so I sat through it again last week (on Sky Movies, rather than at a cinema) - and it had the same affect on me as it did 43 years ago. Hard to explain.

Finally, D.W. Griffiths's Intolerance (1916), generally considered one of the seminal works of  the cinema. I'm not a great fan of silent films, but some of the greatest films I've seen are from that era, including Birth of a Nation, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Metropolis, Sunrise, The General, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, The Crowd, The Lodger, and The Gold Rush. And I realise the debt that those films (with the exception, obviously, of Birth of a Nation, which predated it) owe to Griffiths's work is enormous: I've just finished Peter Bogdanovich's superb Who the Devil Made It?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, and those who started in the Silent Era all pay homage to the great man's influence. So I was willing myself to admire Intolerance. But, Lord, what a sprawling, incoherent, badly-acted, weirdly-constructed, misshapen, confusing,  monster of a movie it is.
The film consists of four separate stories from four different historical eras: a modern tale of crime, love and redemption  amongst poor city folk; the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of French Huguenots in 1572; the story of Christ; the Fall of Babylon to Persia in 539 BC. The various scenes are interspersed with a shot of Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother, rocking a cradle; the words "Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking..." (from Walt Whitman's poem) are endlessly repeated; and the titles (or intertitles) are spectacularly pompous and portentous - and occasionally impenetrable. Norma Talmadge as the unruly tomboy "mountain girl" who stomps around Babylon worshipping the liberal King Belshazzar (who has saved her from a forced marriage) is fun, as are the fantastically OTT sets and the many scantily-clad maidens; the Christ section is fairly awful; the Huguenot section is memorable for a screamingly homosexual figure in the French court; and the modern tale of a young man being saved from the gallows in the very nick of time (the rope is around his neck) after  being wrongly convicted of killing a gangster (the hoodlum's girlfriend did it) is probably the best thing in it - although the young man's wife (known, nauseatingly, as the Dear One) gives every impression of being mentally subnormal.
The most interesting thing about the movie is the sustained attack on Puritan busybodies in the modern section - a committee of uptight female do-gooders bankrupt the local factory, shut down dances, have the Dear One's ickle baby taken into care, and generally spread misery wherever they turn: perhaps this was loose-living Hollywood's first major attack on the forces of repression/decency - i.e. the Moral Majority. Whatever, I can't imagine anyone other than serious film buffs appreciating it: I'm pleased I've seen it - and delighted I won't have to watch it ever again.

In my next post, I will concentrate on films I've recently enjoyed.


  1. I gave my full attention to "The Hudsucker Proxy" for at least 20 minutes. 20 minutes of my life wasted; as a fan of the Coen brothers I am sorry for that. I am with you in the choice of your favourite three, and could watch the Soggy Bottom Boys any time with great enjoyment.

    1. The only thing that disappointed me about the deeply wonderful "O Brother Where Art Thou?" was that Ralph Stanley's haunting "Oh Death" is meant to be sung by the film's main baddie, whose voice bears no relation to Ralph Stanley's. Apart from that, it's a feelgood masterpiece. The good thing about the Coens is that, unlike directors who tend to go rapidly into a terminal decline after a sustained period of success (as happened to Billy Wilder), they have their ups and downs, so one always lives in the hope that the next one will be brilliant - and it often is.

  2. There are loads of learned essays about The Conversation and how Caul’s “exteriority” owing to his non-participative surveillant life leads to his inability to connect with people and his failure to prevent the murder once he enters the participative world.

    It’s all a load of bollocks really. In the end, the whole film revolves around the phrase “he’d kill us if he had the chance”. As the film’s editor has admitted, they changed the recording of the phrase at the end of the film to emphasise the words “us” and “he” in a way that they were not when first heard in the film. Ironic that Coppola manipulated sound in a way that negates the values he ascribes to the sound expert of a lead figure in his own film. In short, it is a massive con on the viewer and once seen, no one can return to it without suspending that sense of being taken for a mug.

    1. "What do you reckon to that 'Conversation' picture, then?"
      "Load of old bollocks."

      I'm delighted to learn that I'm not alone in my scepticism. I must also admit that I never really understood all the fuss about "Apocalypse Now". Some good scenes, certainly, but I couldn't take it seriously once Marlon Brando's vast bald head loomed out of the darkness and he started mumbling complete tosh. Although Apocalypse Now made a profit, poor old Coppola seemed to go into terminal artistic decline around the time of his greatest artistic triumph, The Godfather Part II. Presumably, "success so huge and wholly farcical" proved too much for him - terrible shame.