Sunday, August 4, 2019

Formative Film 17: 'Harold and Maude'

If you are lucky, you see a film that speaks to you, and if you are really lucky, you find one that knocks you out and rules your life for a time -- in a good way. It’s usually something you see when you’re a kid or a teen, and it stays with you for a long time. You see it years later, and even if it no longer strikes you as it did, it still pulls at you.

Harold and Maude
Dir: Hal Ashby
Prod: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis (uncred), Charles Mulvehill (as C.V. Mulvehill)
Scr: Colin Higgins
Phot: John A. Alonzo
91 min.

That’s what Harold and Maude is for me. When I first saw it, I was a 16-year-old going crazy in the suburbs, tired of deadly normalcy and longing to get out into the hopefully much more interesting real world. Harold and Maude gave our circle of friends a rebellious and catchy gospel to live by for a time, a dark optimism that floated us through the steaming wad of disillusion the looming adult world had to offer. It questions everything but the sheer anarchic rush of being alive.

This is a film you will either adore or despise, and I have enraged my share of unwary recomendees with exposure to its fuzzy, feel-good platitudes. The movie bombed when it premiered in 1971. It took repeat showings at repertory film houses such as the Ogden in Denver, where I first saw it, to give the movie cult status and earn it a little critical reappraisal.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a parable about a wealthy, morose, mother-dominated young man, Harold (Bud Cort at his pale, staring best), who attends funerals for fun and stages fake suicide attempts for attention. At one burial he runs into the blithe, sassy, rebellious 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon in a defining role) who charms him and opens him up to the possibilities of a carefree, affirming existence. It’s a modern screwball comedy, and Maude is the manic pixie girl who also happens to be a septuagenarian. 

Colin Higgins’ divine script is perfectly paced, with each honed scene following the next like pearls on a string. Director Hal Ashby deadpans the film’s gags, trusting the blackly humorous material and never straining for effect. The result is clownshow anarchism, a nose-thumbing that just skirts pretentiousness. It’s quite a feat. The scenes of Harold and Maude’s fast-blossoming relationship (the move plays out over the course of a week) are punctuated by interludes of Harold’s unhappy interactions with blind, computer-selected dates and authority figures. The doctor, the priest, the military man -- all the normative examples of mature male identity in this film are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Harold must reject the fatuous, pale patriarchy in order to step out from under the sway of death.

Harold and Maude documents a psychic pivot point in the history of American culture. Maude, a long-time political activist and protester, has seen the worst of the 20th century (a beautifully subtle, fleeting reveal shows us that she is a Holocaust survivor) and is now a hedonist. The political engagement of the ‘60s is turning into the self-obsession of the Me Decade, and Maude is its pioneer figure. “If you want to sing out, sing out,” sings Cat Stevens -- the perfect enlightenment-oriented pop composer of his time --  on his soundtrack to the film; “Ah ah ah, it’s easy.” “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by . . .” These were magic words for us, and they swept us up. They cheered us up, they freed us up.

At the time I screened it was the midst of the ‘70s, wall-to-wall cynicism and faded denim. The hippies were defeated, and Nixon was gone. Vietnam was over. We were exhausted. The search for meaning turned even further inward. Harold and Maude was a cultural signpost.

We had already exposed ourselves to dark, deliberately shocking countercultural comedies such as Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966), Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969), Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1970), and Alan Arkin’s Little Murders (1971), but Harold and Maude had a sense of affirmation about it that made it special. In rewatching it today, I harbor as much suspicion of Maude’s narcissism as I do her foes’ obtuseness. Still, after I watch I am a little light-hearted (and –headed) again.

Formative Film is an autobiography in movies. Next up: I rationalize being a Woody Allen fan while reviewing Love and Death (1975).

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The NFR Project: 'Exploits of Elaine' develops the movie serial

We’ve met Pearl White before, in our entry on The Perils of Pauline, which had been released only nine months earlier than Elaine. The serial form had started in America only two years earlier, with the simply declarative What Happened to Mary. But it was White who caught the public’s fancy, and this series was meant to capitalize on her sudden fame. She was spunky, she was funny, and she had grit, all qualities audiences wanted in a heroine.

The Exploits of Elaine

Dir: Louis J. Gasnier, George B. Seitz, Leopold Wharton, Theodore Wharton
Scr: Charles W. Goddard, from work by Arthur B. Reeve; George B. Seitz; Basil Dickey (uncred.)
Phot: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
Premiere: December 28, 1914
14 episodes totaling approximately 7 hours (28 reels)

Elaine is an improvement on Pauline, for several reasons. First, there is an actual cliffhanger at the end of each episode (each Pauline chapter was self-contained); second, it makes a bit more of an effort to make sense. The plot is based on work by Arthur B. Reeve, who created an American version of Sherlock Holmes — Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective.

Elaine, with Kennedy’s ingenious assistance is searching for the man who killed her father. The entire serial is intact, and portions of it are easy to find online. The action is hot and heavy — in one episode, she is shot up with drugs, hypnotized, and forced to open the safe! In another, Kennedy brings her back from the dead! About which she is markedly unappreciative.

The key advance in this serial is the creation of the now-standard mystery villain. The primary malefactor, known as The Clutching Hand, is in reality someone close to Elaine — someone we might never suspect — and the tension generated by the looming revelation of the identity of the baddie helps to fuel the interest of the viewer.

Director Gasnier had directed Pauline, and co-director George B. Seitz was a successful New York playwright who went West to make it big and did. Seitz wound up making an astonishing 108 films, most notably Tarzan Escapes (1936) and no fewer than ELEVEN Andy Hardy movies (these were a 16-film set [1937-1946] from MGM centered on Mickey Rooney as the loveable, typical American teen scamp; they were wholesome and profitable).

Slopping great portions of adventure, mystery, and romance make The Exploits of Elaine an interesting today, though not as compelling as it was 100 years ago. The thrills and chills of the movie serials would continue in neighborhood theaters for another 40 years.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The NFR Project: Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency, 1908

Home movies of genocide.

Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency

Dir: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
Scr: N/A
Phot: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
26 mins.

After digging into the backstory behind these films, that’s the most succinct description of this material I can concoct. It’s supposed to be documentary footage of the traditional activities of Native Americans; in fact, it’s a bunch of staged footage that reflects the fantasies of the filmmakers. It seems a peculiarly American kind of schizophrenic cruelty to make a “vanishing race” vanish, then romanticize and memorialize it. The biggest benefit of this rediscovered material might be the realizations it prompts.

Rodman Wanamaker was a Philadelphia department-store tycoon. He was into Indians and in 1908 funded this, the first of three large and fanciful expeditions to the American Northwest, to document the remnants of once-proud tribes. The man responsible was minister and self-styled Indian expert Joseph K. Dixon, who used Wanamaker’s vast resources with abandon.

The expedition settled in at the town of Crow Agency, 60 miles east of Billings, and directly and ironically adjacent to the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Here Dixon and associates crafted their work. There is a shot from a mission school, a depiction of bronc-busting, a horse procession, and some dicey attempts at reenactment of the Big Horn battle. (The Crow, already displaced once from their traditional Ohio-area homeland, were U.S. allies during the conflict with the Sioux, their traditional enemies.)

The results are depressing. Dixon saw what he wanted to see. Russel Lawrence Barsh has written a penetrating study of the expeditions in his “An American Heart of Darkness: The 1913 Expedition for American Indian Citizenship.” He writes:

“Dixon succeeded in collecting 34,000 feet of motion-picture film and 4600 stills. In contrast with contemporaneous work done by the Bureau of American Ethnology or pioneering anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and George Bird Grinnell, however, Dixon's work was maudlin, romanticized, and commercial. . . The first expedition took Dixon and his camera crew to Crow Agency, Montana, in 1908 where, with the blessings of the Indian Office, they made a silent film of Longfellow's Hiawatha with Crow Indians in the leading roles. (The idea was not original: it had been done with Iroquois actors in New York a few years earlier.) Camped ‘60 miles from civilization,’ as he later described it, Dixon ‘examined 21 Indian maidens before I got a Minnehaha that would exactly fit the part,’ auditioned ‘hundreds’ of Indians for the other parts, and ‘sent four expeditions of Indians to the Big Horn Range of mountains 40 miles away to get a deer, so that when Hiawatha came to lay the deer at Minnehaha's feet he might have a real deer.’ Rodman Wanamaker was so pleased with the results that he arranged for Dixon to deliver illustrated lectures on Hiawatha 311 times in Philadelphia and New York, where he was heard by more than 400,000 people.”

Despite Dixon and Wanamaker’s desire to make a pleasing fantasy and hammer into the skulls of America’s mainstream, ugly truths crop up. The most chilling sequence is that of a line of young Native American women, in identical, “civilized” uniform dresses, being marched out of a school by a brace of nuns. They look like prisoners. They are.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.