â€¢ Three old widowers share a New York apartment, spending their days sitting in the park, reminiscing and discussing the trivia of the day. The future holds for them only more of the same, followed by death; everything worthwhile in their lives is now past, and they know it. Then one of them concocts a scheme which will ensure that they'll be GOING IN STYLE. The film is about that scheme and its consequences.
Not much of a theme for a comedy? Maybe not. But it works. Each of the three old men is marvelousâ€"George Burns, Art Carney, Lee Strasburg. The audience chuckles through most of the film, and it would take a soul of steel not to sympathize strongly with the three characters. Most praiseworthy of all is new director Martin Brest for making the whole thing run so smoothly, for getting the most out of every scene, for keeping it from becoming maudlin while exploiting the full potential of emotionality as well as comedy.
It isn't all a comedy in the ha-ha sense. There is a fine little scene in which Lee Strasburg (a very great actor) awakens in a sweat, having just dreamt of an incident years ago in which he punished his son for something the son may never have done. Or the Las Vegas scene in which Art Carney, who now has more money than he'll ever use, is finally pursued by attractive girls but realizes he's too old to exploit the implications of the come-on and that dollars may be nice to have but they don't reverse time. And the scene in which George Burns, after the death of one of the others, takes out an old photograph album with pictures of himself when young, and of his parents, and later his own family; no words are spoken, but he sheds quiet tears. Yet Director Brest can transport us from a scene like this, which has the audience sniffling, to one immediately thereafter in which they're laughing their heads off, with no feeling of incongruity at the quick transition. A director who can pull off that sort of thing is one to be watched. So is this picture.
â€¢ In the thirty years between his most acclaimed films, The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Wind and the Lion, director John Huston has experienced numerous critical and popular failures. Indeed, many of his very best works have been commercial failures; it is as if he said, "Dollars be damned; I'm going to tell it like it is." Fat City was one of these, and his latest, WISE BLOOD, will probably be another. Both these films give uncannily honest portrayals of small-town America. In Fat City, the prevailing ambiance was that of sleazy apartments and unkempt gymnasiums surrounding the boxing game (for boxers who'd never make it and those already over the hill). Wise Blood (from a 1952 novel) reeks with the atmosphere of rural Georgia and centers on the attempts by rival revivalists to con people out of money in the name of Jesus. Huston's keen eye and ear are always alert to puncturing pretentiousness, and since many Americans' image of themselves doesn't correspond to the way an observant outsider would see them, there is plenty of puncturing to be done. He does it with total honesty, never cynicism (his work is always too leavened with humor for that), but certainly what one might call down-to-earth realism.
Now in his 70s, Huston is a master of his art, and would-be cinemakers could learn much from the way this film is done. Structurally it is something of a mess, but the rendition of the mood and atmosphere of the region, and the recreation of the period, is slashingly perceptive. There are many comic touches, but the prevailing mood is nevertheless depressing, and largely for this reason the film is unlikely to be popular. Brad Dourif as the antireligious religionist, filled with guilt and the need for atonement in spite of his overt skepticism about everything, does a fine job in a less than sympathetic role. Indeed there are no really sympathetic roles in this film; there is nobody to look up to because the real motives of each character are depicted with too much of an instinct for the jugular.
For those who have not been steeped in this kind of background, many of the actions shown may seem beyond belief; but for those who have, these same actions, especially the un-Christian behavior of Christians in competition with each other for the souls of the heathen, will ring so true as to make one squirm. Elmer Gantry was about a religious huckster, but although it was much more dramatic, it was superficial and flashy compared with this one. See it, but apart from the comic interludes, don't count on being all aglow when you leave the theater.
â€¢ In tragedy, we are told, we look up to people, whereas in comedy we look down on them. Thus we laugh at things they do and say which we, the audience, would never be so stupid as to do, and that's why we laugh at them, thus engaging in aggression without guilt. If this is one's theory of comedy, then one of its most blatant illustrations is Steve Martin in THE JERK. The trouble is that in this movie we have to look down so far that we can sometimes scarcely see him as human: he is so dumb that Li'l Abner is an Einstein by comparison.
Some of the humor, however, requires him to be a character who is not quite so dumb as we are first led to believe. At the beginning we are supposed to believe that he, a white, thinks he is the son of black sharecroppers. Yet before the picture is far along we find that he is able to read rather well and writes very literate letters and even on occasion utters long and complex words. Thus the character is made to vacillate between extreme stupidity and moderate literacy, not because the characterization calls for itâ€"it only confuses itâ€"but because it is needed to preserve the gags that the script writer didn't want to throw in the wastebasket. All this places quite a strain on one's "willing suspension of disbelief."
Anyway, it isn't true that in all comedy we laugh at people. Sometimes we laugh with them. Their foibles are ours too, and "there but for different circumstances go I." Chaplin and Keaton knew this: we may laugh at them but we laugh even more with them, and thus they elicit from the audience, through imaginative identification, a much more deeply comic response than the crude inanities assigned to Steve Martin. Still, there is no evidence here that he is capable of better, and it looks as if he got the script he deservedâ€"partly since he himself helped to write it.
â€¢ One noteworthy feature of QUADROPHENIA is its brilliant use of the distinctive features of the medium of cinema. It has a marvelous sense of movement, tension, agitation, conflictâ€"moving, surging, carrying the viewer along in an endless outpouring of energy. A new British director, Franc Roddam, is more adept at handling crowds and violence than most American directors dealing with similar themes.
The subject matter of the film is more controversial. There is a dazzling depiction of lower-class city life in England, better even than in Room at the Top. It is seen from the inside, not by someone viewing it from afar; and it is depicted with unrelenting honesty, hiding nothing, and without value judgments: gangs and riots, booze and pills, wanton destruction of property, contempt for the mores of the older generation. Sometimes one wishes that the whole destructive tribe would be killed and have an end of it. At the same time, the depiction of youth in the wake of the rock-music-worship of the late 1960s is so alive, so telling, so intimate and unsparing, that one becomes at times highly identified with the conflicts in which the "misunderstood generation" finds itself. Though he is never made heroic, the main character (played marvelously by Phil Daniels) in spite of his destructiveness generates quite a bit of sympathy: the rebellion, the despair, the loneliness, the alienation from the mores of his elders, the frustration when all avenues toward reward for aspiration are closed off by the entangling web of the British welfare state that reaches into every corner of one's life. The thread of causality is not traced in the film, only its final effect; but this is shattering enough to give any thoughtful viewer pause.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".