All That Jazz
Coal Miner's Daughter
Hide in Plain Sight
Don't Answer the Phone
• There are several noteworthy features of ALL THAT JAZZ: all the sequences are done with verve and panache; the action is continuous, rapid, and breathless, and the interlacing of the present with the past is often cleverly done; and the number of distinct scenes per minute must exceed that of any other film within memory: a scene in the hospital (involving heart surgery) in which the protagonist expresses love for his current girl friend cuts away to a scene outside the hospital in which she asks him whether he is sincere and he says, "I don't know any more where the sincerity ends and the bull-shit begins," which in turn cuts away to a dance sequence with him in charge in which a hospital scene is depicted, whereupon he, apparently satisfied with the sequence, looks upon his own reclining figure in the hospital soliciting approval from himself—all this within the space of half a minute or so. And so it goes on, nonstop, the furious pace of the film matching the furious pace of his life, leaving no time for the viewer to reflect or digest the meaning, if any, of what he has just seen.
It is, of course, a story of the life of Bob Fosse, who wrote, directed, and choreographed the film. Doubtless it was—for him, at least—a noteworthy autobiographical piece. But whether an audience would enjoy the celebration of his life story as much as he would surely depends on the audience. There is an old saying, "Self-expression is self-exposure," and for my money he gave himself too much exposure in this one. The music is totally undistinguished. and rapidity and raucousness do not convert boring melodies into memorable ones. The monologues are consistently unfunny and don't deserve a place even among the rejects of the Gong Show. There is a long dance sequence, supposedly quite daring in its near nudity and erotic character: the near nudity is unobjectionable, but the sequence itself is unimaginative and a meaningless hodgepodge of silly poses and conflicting styles. If you have ever seen the Martha Graham dancers work imaginative wonders with a slender story, touching the emotional jugular from numbing terror to unconquerable nostalgia with a few facial expressions and graceful movements of human bodies, you will find it difficult to endure the crude and artificial mishmash of mannerism-without-feeling in the dance sequences of this film.
I remember seeing (many times over) Martha Graham's great dance Clytemnestra on the stage. Not having been moved as fully as I thought I should have been by reading the Greek tragedies themselves, I found myself so deeply affected by the Clytemnestra dance that I thought to myself, "This must be for modern audiences the emotional equivalent of what Greek audiences experienced when they witnessed performances of the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles." One left the theater feeling purged and emotionally cleansed; but no such purgation of the emotions occurs in this film: it is put together out of stock devices, bits of clever make-do, and huge gobs of sheer flim-flam. The mind turns from it with revulsion at serving the cause of art so poorly. It's the sort of desecration of art that one observer, at least, wouldn't cross the street to see, much less pay an admission price of $4.50 for the privilege. To each his own, of course—but if you have once enjoyed a carefully prepared and tastefully served gourmet dinner, it isn't easy after that to be satisfied with a hamburger at McDonald's.
• The COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER has some good things going for it: Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones in the richest acting roles of their careers and some fine emotion-building scenes in the Kentucky mountain country (post-World War II), the background in which the first half of the film is set. The scenes between the girl and her father are extremely well done, especially when the suitor comes home from the army to spirit her away; and others, like the wedding night, are fine comedy, not played for laughs but enacted in such a way as to trigger the viewer's nostalgia button. Director Michael Apted has a fine eye for telling detail, and like other British directors he uses it to paint a more incisive picture of Americana than most American directors do.
It is in its long second half that the film drags. She becomes a successful country music singer, and much of the second half is one song after another (none of them very good). The transition from the people of Appalachia, whose courage and pride we come to admire, to the tawdry world of show business, is rather abrupt, and the film never evokes a strong sense of life after it leaves its original mountain setting. It concludes with no particular events at all: instead of rising to some kind of conclusion, it simply drains its energies bit by bit into the sand. If only the ambience of the first hour could have been sustained, it would have been a tender and richly comic film.
• The word luna is, of course, the Latin word for "moon." A lunatic is one who has been touched by the moon. And 365 days is, I daresay, a Grand Lunatic Year.
But it doesn't take that long for Italian director Bertolocci's new film to exhibit its lunacy. The Conformist, his finest work to date, was a powerful and scathing exposé of Italy under Mussolini, in the grand tradition of Rosselini and De Sica. His more recent 1900 was four dreary hours of dogmatic and stodgy communist propaganda. In his most recent revelation to the world, LUNA, we are in a still different universe. The film begins with pictures of the moon but is otherwise more concerned with human lunacy.
The parents are too concerned with their careers to bother very much with their teenage son. When the father dies suddenly, the mother (Jill Clayburgh) transports the son against his wishes from New York to Italy, where she resumes her operatic career and leaves him to his own devices. There is a powerful scene in which she discovers that he is a junkie. After a round of indignation and self-recrimination (from "How could you?" to "Where did I fail you?") she corrals supplies of heroin for him so as not to lose him entirely. Finally, in the process of getting him off the habit, she eschews the company of other men (the son is jealous, you see) and has incestuous relations with her son, thus assuring him of her undying love. To cap it all, his biological father appears, and all is resolved during a massive outdoor opera rehearsal (Verdi, of course).
There is a grain of psychological truth in the relations depicted; but as to the way the details are worked out, I doubt that any clinical psychologist would credit the characterizations as anything but fantasy, revelatory less of reality than of the writer's unconscious desires. Incest has been treated in film before—with restraint and plausibility in the French film Murmur of the Heart—but not as a cure for either heroin addiction or alienation of parental affection; nor am I acquainted with any therapists who recommend it for these purposes.
Another starring role by Jill Clayburgh occurs in STARTING OVER, a much less ambitious film and greatly superior. Clayburgh's role is more believable, calling for subtle nuances of feeling rather than histrionics, and it is a role so well played that one feels only she could have played it. We have also a new Burt Reynolds (I couldn't stand the old one), with a grace and poise never before shown. The chemistry between them is very involving, as is the role of the ex-wife (Candice Bergen). But first honors go to writer-producer-director Alan Pakula for his remarkably lean, tight, succinctly expressive script. Even his Klute was not as finely honed a job as this.
The story is an old one, seldom so well told. With a divorce pending, the man is footloose and unhappy. Dates and one-night stands don't suit him, but when he runs across That Someone the magic begins. But she has been badly hurt and doesn't want to be courted on the rebound. Meanwhile, the wife, still in love with him, exerts her attractions again, and the things that separated them seem less important now; but she hasn't changed, and.…Like Kramer vs. Kramer, it is a small-scope, down-to-earth drama, every detail hitting home, gathering its momentum slowly and cumulatively from one well-wrought scene to another, until it weaves a powerful spell. It may not make you feel "This is the way life ought to be," but it etches out in sharp and telling strokes one aspect of what life is.
• James Caan has long been an able actor, and his new film, HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT, is his debut as director. As a first directorial job, the film is amazingly good, and parts of it strike chords of human sympathy that run very deep.
The film is based on a true story. Caan, a factory worker in Buffalo, New York, a divorced man who can see his children only on weekends, gets caught in a web not of his own making. His wife's male friend is induced by the Mafia to commit a bank robbery, and he turns state's evidence in return for immunity from prosecution and the promise of a new identity and a new life in another state—provided that he marries Caan's ex-wife at once. Immediately after the trial, he is spirited away by the FBI to avoid being killed by the Mafia, and his new wife (Caan's ex-wife) and the two children go along. All Caan knows is that his children have disappeared, and no police or detective will touch the case. The film concerns his heartbreaking attempts to recover his own children in the face of the unwillingness of the law to provide him a single clue.
This film evokes as much antigovernment sentiment as Capricorn One. "I always loved my country," Caan shouts in court as his umpteenth attempt to find a clue to his children's whereabouts is frustrated by the authorities. A simple man full of homely virtues, with no trace of guile and no tendency to see it in others, a man of raw courage and rugged idealism, he is gradually embittered as the immovable wall of the law refuses to budge and repeatedly stops cold his every attempt to find his children. Discouraged and frustrated, he finally takes matters into his own hands, and the denouement is both exciting and moving.
On reflection, however, it is less than clear that this can be construed entirely as an antigovernment film. The only way for the FBI to obtain testimony against the Mafia leaders is to render immunity and a new name to the accomplice who turns state's evidence, and his disappearance from the scene is the only way to preserve his life. The abduction of the children along with the mother and her new husband was unintentional: the children just happened to be with the mother at the time the law kept its promise to the Mafia accomplice. The FBI regretted this consequence but was still bound to preserve the anonymity of the man and his new family. If one condemns the law for this, one must also condemn it for providing the only way in which members of the Mafia can usually be arrested and tried.
Yet at the end, the fact that the man spent years of his life searching for his children seems much more important to us than the fact that the Mafia leaders were brought to justice. The man will bear the scars of his suffering to the end of his life, and so will the children; but the Mafia leaders who were identified and imprisoned are already free to continue their activities.
• Why is it that John Carpenter's Halloween was so effective and that his newest film, THE FOG, is so tame by comparison? Many of the same ingredients are there: sudden attacks when you least expect them, nothing at all when you do expect them, violent hands leaping out of the dark and killing suddenly and savagely.
But there is a difference. Halloween was permeated by the contrast between a sleepy little midwestern town and the presence (known to the viewer but not as a rule the victim) of a maniacal killer in its midst. We imagine ourselves in the little town victimized by an escaped killer. In The Fog, by contrast, the events occur along the sea-coast of northern California (filming was in Inverness, California), where fogs, though not quite this kind, are expected, and the atmosphere is already somewhat eerie and mysterious. The plot of The Fog is so incredible that it seems unreal: a ship went down many years ago in a storm because the lighthouse was not visible, and now, at midnight, exactly 100 years later, the ghosts (or reanimated bodies) of those who sank in it arise from the sea bottom to avenge their own deaths (though in the film they are very much alive). Moreover, there is a regularity that soon approaches monotony: whenever the white luminous fog moves in, the dead(?) seamen always appear, with four knocks on the door, to mutilate whoever greets them. It all seems absurd and motiveless.
There are scary moments all right, and Carpenter's ability to deliver a bit of unexpected terror is occasionally in evidence. But it is difficult to care very much about the paper-thin characters or to swallow the ridiculous presuppositions of the whole tale. Carpenter has a very considerable talent, but it would be much more effectively used if he stuck to the real world or some reasonable semblance thereof.
• The title, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE, is applicable only to the first of many gory incidents in which various girls (always living alone, of course) are forcibly stripped of their clothing, beaten, raped, and strangled to death by as repulsive a Hulk as has recently been encountered on the screen. Other incidents in the drama could be called "Don't answer the doorbell," "Don't stay in the house," "Don't get into a car," "Don't walk alone on the street," and so on, ad nauseam. The film is not only dull and completely predictable (a documentary of the Hillside Strangler at work, if one were available, would have been more exciting than this); it is also exploitative in the crudest possible way, with copious servings of nudity and sadism to compensate for a total lack of imagination in the telling of the story.
Worst of all perhaps is the simplistic pseudo-psychoanalytic account of how the killer got that way (what his parents did to him, what his father expected of him), all uttered, no less, by the killer himself in a series of monologues while lifting weights in front of a mirror. The last person to bring his motivation to a conscious level would be the person himself, from whom his own real motives would be hidden under a web of rationalizations too painful to surface—unless, to be sure, the viewer were to get some "anti-realism" signal such as Eugene O'Neill employed in Strange Interlude, by having his characters speak their real motives sotto voce, to indicate to the audience that it's their unconscious minds speaking. In this film there isn't even enough imagination to dream up such a device, and so we are fed a verbal account of the most deeply repressed conflicts from the man himself, almost as if he were his own analyst. Crime was never so dull as this.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.