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A ‘King’ of the ‘70s

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the current issue of Modern Maturity, Pauline Kael--possibly the smartest American movie critic ever and the most influential, certainly the least pretentious and the most fun to read--was asked what movie era she considered Hollywood’s finest.

“The ‘70s,” she said, not hesitating.

“Not the ‘30s or ‘40s?” her startled interviewer asked.

“They used to say that,” Kael, who retired from the New Yorker in 1991, replied. “But the ‘70s had movies like ‘Shampoo,’ ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ ‘MASH,’ ‘The Godfather,’ ‘The Godfather Part II,’ ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver.’ This was a pretty good period.”

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Though she didn’t mention John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975), which opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Port Theatre (2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar), it also was one of the films that made the ‘70s a memorable Hollywood decade with its pairing of Sean Connery and Michael Caine, despite their mixed results. $4.50-$7. (714) 673-6260.

In fact, Huston wanted to make the picture, regarded by many critics as the ultimate “buddy movie,” some 20 years earlier with two of his friends: Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. When that didn’t work out, Huston thought of making it during the ‘60s with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.

That too didn’t work: Huston couldn’t get financing and seemingly gave up his ambition of making a film version of one of his favorite Rudyard Kipling stories.

Finally, in 1973, Huston resurrected the project yet again--this time with the idea of casting Paul Newman as one of the leads. But Newman thought it absurd to cast him as one of the two 19th century British soldier-adventurers in the movie and suggested instead that Huston pair Connery with Caine.

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If movies of the ‘60s are more your style, the final day of the Warner Bros. Festival of Classics (closing tonight at the Edwards Newport Cinemas, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach) may be worth a look.

Blake Edwards’ “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, screens at 1:30 p.m.; Peter Yates’ “Bullitt” (1968), with Steve McQueen, at 4:15 p.m.; Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, at 7 p.m.; and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969), with William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, at 9:45 p.m. $7 per film or $14 for full-day pass. (714) 644-0760.

Until “Wine and Roses” came along, the classic Hollywood picture about alcoholism was Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” (1945), which won Academy Awards for best picture, director, screenplay and actor (Ray Milland), and which is said to have helped Hollywood “grow up” in its treatment of the subject.

Lemmon, too, won an Oscar. But unlike “Lost Weekend,” which centers on the desperation of a miserably frustrated writer, “Wine and Roses” charts the downward spiral of a recently married couple who could be your next-door neighbors.

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Lemmon, a junior executive in advertising, considers drinking part of the business, whether for entertaining clients or relieving the pressures of his job. He pulls his wife, Lee Remick, down with him: She starts drinking to keep him company. Tragedy results, but without a lot of moralizing.

The police thriller “Bullitt” established McQueen as a box-office star, though he’d made his mark earlier in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Great Escape” (1963) and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966).

Perhaps the most remembered sequence in “Bullitt” is the chase in which McQueen (an antihero detective going after the killers of a witness he failed to protect) drives his car up and down San Francisco’s steepest streets like a roller coaster that has gone off the rails. Every cop movie afterward had to have a spectacular car chase or audiences felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth.

“Bonnie and Clyde” made one of the biggest splashes of the ‘70s with its Depression-era story of a car thief and his intended victim, who team up to become bank robbers and run riot through the Midwest, shooting up the small Dust Bowl towns of the 1930s like cowboys on holiday.

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Despite a terrific cast--Beatty, Dunaway, Hackman, Parsons and Michael J. Pollard were each nominated for an Oscar--and nominations for best picture, director and screenwriting, among others (10 in all), “Bonnie and Clyde” won just two awards (Parsons for supporting actress and Burnett Guffey for cinematography).

“The Wild Bunch,” with a large cast led by William Holden, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine, wraps up the Warner classics festival with another tale of outlaws, this one set in the Old West. They ride into a town on the Mexico-Texas border, disguised in the uniforms of an expeditionary force sent by Gen. Pershing to search for Pancho Villa.

These aging desperadoes want to make one last haul. Confronted by lawmen, the gang goes out in a blaze of graphic violence and glory subsequently copied by directors without Peckinpah’s talent for allegory that comments on contemporary violence.

There are rich pickings elsewhere in the county too. Luis Bun~uel’s “Los Olvidados” (1951), about young people growing up in the slums of Mexico City, screens Friday, 7 p.m., at Saddleback College’s continuing International Film Festival (28000 Marguerite Parkway, Science/Math Building, Room 313, Mission Viejo). Free. (714) 582-4788

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The picture, titled in English “The Young and the Damned,” marked Bun~uel’s triumphant return to filmmaking some 20 years after his previous work, the 1932 documentary “Land Without Bread” and his earlier feature, “L’Age d’Or,” which had premiered in Paris in 1929.

The Spanish-born director has recalled that from 1947 to 1949, he was unemployed and spent time exploring Mexico City “from one end to the other.” Struck by “the misery in which many of its people lived,” he decided to make a picture based on the lives of abandoned children, which he researched at a reformatory.

“My story is completely based on real cases,” he noted. “I tried to state the wretched conditions of the poor as they really are, because I detest films that make the poor romantic and sweet.”

But while “Los Olvidados” has social implications--"To be true to myself,” Bun~uel said, “I had to make a film of a social type"--he emphasized that he “did not in any way want to make a thesis film.”

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Bun~uel scholar Gwynne Edwards points out, moreover, that in “Los Olvidados,” the director is “less concerned with making facile moral judgments about [a] society which breeds delinquents than in portraying . . . a grim and inevitable fact of life.”

The last work of another master filmmaker, Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi, is also on view this weekend: “Street of Shame” (1956), a bitter movie about a handful of prostitutes who work in a brothel called Dreamland and whose lives are a mixture of despair and hope, poverty and greed, garish reality and unattainable fantasy.

The picture--"Akesen Chitai” in Japanese--reflected Mizoguchi’s lifetime habit of frequenting geisha houses as well as his regret at seeing them increasingly supplanted after World War II by sordid brothels.

“Street of Shame” will be screened by the UCI Film Society, Friday, 7 and 9 p.m. at the UCI Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Pereira and West Peltason roads. $2.50-$4.50. (714) 824-5588.

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Melvin Van Peeble’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song” (1971) screens today, 7 p.m., at Chapman University, Argyros Forum, Room 208, 333 N. Glassell St. Orange. Free. (714) 744-7018.

“A Night at the Silent Movies,” an evening of silent film comedies accompanied by organ music (performed by Christian Elliott) will be presented Friday, 7:30 p.m., at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. (714) 544-5679.

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In L.A. and beyond:

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In association with Filmforum and KAOS, the UCLA Film Archive will present “A Tribute to Shirley Clarke,” which focuses long-overdue attention on a major force in American independent film. The tribute will commence tonight at 7:30 in the James Bridges Theater in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall with a screening of “The Connection” (1961), which will be followed by a memorial to Clarke, who died last year after a long illness.

A dancer and choreographer, Clarke started making dance films in the early ‘50s. She soon co-founded the Filmmakers Coop with filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas, which provided a crucial New York showcase for fellow independent filmmakers. It is hard to overestimate her impact on independent cinema, both by her example and her efforts to help others, including teaching at UCLA and elsewhere.

As an artist, Clarke was much concerned with racism in America, and in her experimental mode she deliberately blurred the line between the documentary and fiction films. Clarke’s refusal to compromise and her independent stance made working in film increasingly difficult, and she spent her last active years working in video. Clarke’s lamentable lack of opportunities makes her accomplishments seem all the more formidable and enduring. Her work ranges from the abstract to the rawest of raw realism, yet it is all of a piece in its vibrant lyricism.

To have seen the Living Theater’s 1959 production of Jack Gelber’s “The Connection” was an unforgettable experience, thrusting you in the same seedy room with a group of junkies waiting for their fix to arrive. Yet Clarke did not merely record this groundbreaking play with its superb performances but managed to turn it into a real movie while preserving its inherent theatricality.

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She did this by inventing the character of a relentlessly, sometimes hilariously square documentary filmmaker (William Redfield), who through his black cameraman (Roscoe Lee Browne) has invaded the dreary pad of Leach (Warren Finnerty), where the host and others are waiting for the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), their heroin supplier. Cowboy speaks in an insinuating drawl and possesses a bleak wisdom.

In effect, we see “The Connection” via Browne’s hand-held camera (which occasionally passes into the hands of others), and the film’s jagged rhythms, punctuated by the musicians’ jam sessions, gives a quality of naturalism to the actors’ long monologues of alternately passionate and scabrous despair. “The Connection” is steeped in New York ‘50s cool, but seen today it seems as timeless as Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” “The Connection” will screen on video Friday at KAOS, 4343 Leimert Blvd.

The premise for the 1967 “Portrait of Jason” (Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridges Theater) couldn’t be more simple, yet the results could scarcely be more remarkable. Clarke took her camera, placed in front of it a man she had known for several years and shot away for the next 12 hours. Born Aaron Paine in Trenton, N.J., on June 8, 1934, the man who calls himself Jason Holliday is a hard-drinking black gay male hustler. By the time Clarke has finished with Jason, she had succeeded in getting him to strip bare his soul.

“I am scared of responsibility and I am scared of myself because I’m a pretty frightening cat,” begins Jason, who proceeds to supply plenty of evidence. With not inconsiderable wit, charm and intelligence, he speaks philosophically of his chaotic life--"If I’d been a ranch, they’d have called me Bar-None"--and his dream of putting together a nightclub act. (We even get impersonations of Mae West and Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice.)

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But as the night wears on and the more drunk he becomes, his escapades take on a more harrowing quality; his incessant self-mocking laughter borders closer and closer to hysteria.

Finally, he tells of a brutal father and overprotective mother, and his anecdotes about race relations become more painful than amusing. In the end he emerges as a desperate outsider, struggling to make something of his life yet knowing that he won’t.

Of this film, he says, “I will have one beautiful something.” Fortunately, he’s right, thanks to Clarke, who is aware that merely because she has an unabashed show-off on her hands does not give her the freedom to exploit him. Indeed, she deliberately involves herself in the film, allowing us to hear her and her assistants question Jason from behind the camera, letting the soundtrack continue as she reloads, which gives the picture both punctuation and moral dimension.

Playing with “Portrait of Jason” is Andre S. Labarthe and Noel Burch’s 55-minute “Rome Is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke,” which captures Clarke’s forthright personality and first-rate intellect. In the film she’s interviewed by Birch and others in connection with the screening of “Portrait of Jason” at the Cinematheque Francaise in January 1968. The gamin Clarke is impressively concise on her filmmaking methods and philosophy and their relationship to her view of the world.

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A vivid portrait of the despair and futility of ghetto existence, “The Cool World” (Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridges Theater) is a highly uneven but sometimes powerful work with generally poor performances from an almost entirely amateur cast, excellent photography--cinematographer Baird Bryant will appear with the film--and a good jazz score played by Dizzy Gillespie and Yusef Lateef.

Tragedy brought about by an environment rather than character is always hard to pull off, and this time Clarke has not been able to combine art and sociology successfully. Instead of giving impact to the story of 14-year-old Duke Custin’s search for a gun he thinks will make him a man, the raw realism of the lengthy footage of Harlem streets only serves to underline the contrived quality of the plot and to show up the inexperience of the young actors.

As a result, just at those dramatic moments when we should be caught up in Duke’s plight, we are the most aware that we’re watching a movie.

As a further hindrance, Clarke has an often heavy hand with irony. For example, she spoils the film’s best sequence when Duke takes his girl to Coney Island to prove to her that there really is an ocean at the end of the subway, by tilting the camera away from the kids to a sign on a lifeguard station reading “Lost Children.”

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“The Cool World” will be followed by one of Clarke’s last and most impressive works, “Ornette Coleman: Made in America” (1985). The film is framed by Coleman’s return to his hometown of Fort Worth in September 1983 for the premiere of his “Skies in America,” to be performed at the city’s performing arts center with his band along with a symphony orchestra. As we hear Coleman’s complex “free jazz” music soar, Clarke weaves in impressions of his childhood in the segregated city and his subsequent distinguished career.

Clarke’s ability to echo Coleman’s music with an equally free flow of images makes this film an extraordinarily rich experience, smoothing out the usual back-and-forth cuts between interviewees and the subject’s life and work. Coleman emerges as an unpretentious man at ease with everyone, starting with himself.

Throughout the series the features will be accompanied by Clarke’s short films and video works. Among them are two lyrical celebrations to those Manhattan glories, bridges and skyscrapers. “Bridges Go-Round” (1958) will precede “The Connection” twice--with two different scores. “Skyscraper” (1959), made with Willard Van Dyke and Irving Jacobye, traces the 18-month construction of 666 Fifth Avenue, with construction workers’ comments serving as soundtrack narration and incorporating songs, as in a musical. It will screen after “The Cool World.”

Clarke’s daughter Wendy and performance artist Johanna Went will appear at the Tuesday 7:30 p.m. program at KAOS composed of Clarke’s shorts, including her later video work. UCLA Film Archive: (310) 206-FILM; Filmforum: (213) 526-2911; and KAOS: (213) 296-5717.

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Note: The Nuart is presenting, in conjunction with “Wild Man Blues,” Barbara Kopple’s documentary on Woody Allen’s band, “Woody’s Monochrome Quartet,” and four vintage Allen films screening Saturdays and Sundays at noon through April 26. They are “Zelig” (April 18), “Stardust Memories” (April 19), “Broadway Danny Rose” (April 25) and “Manhattan” (1979). (310) 478-6379.


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