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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Old Friends (originally published 11/95)

In the title of her 1976 autobiography, Simone Signoret made the wry observation that "nostalgia isn't what it used to be." Perhaps not, but at least for filmmakers its appeal as story material remains undiminished. "Now and Then," a current release, uses a favorite type of nostalgia story, tracing the arc of a group friendship over a number of years.

It's easy to see why such a premise appeals to moviemakers. It allows them to develop something like the narrative sweep of an epic while exploring characterization at a level usually reserved for small, intimate stories. If that combination of elements appeals to you, here are some earlier films that trace the evolution of a circle of friends over time. Each is available on home video.

"Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980). This was the low budget film that put John Sayles on the map as a writer and director. He shows us the reunion of a group of former college classmates whose claim to fame is that they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey, while on their way to a 1960s protest rally in Washington. Instead of showing us their earlier days through flashbacks, Sayles allows the backstory to emerge through the dialogue as the friends reminisce. It may sound like a talky and static approach, but Sayles has a playwright's sure-footed knack for dialogue. Scenes that might have become tedious in the hands of a lesser screenwriter are invested with energy and interest by Sayles's craftsmanship. One measure of the film's popularity and influence is the fact that in 1983 Lawrence Kasdan would attempt what amounted to a big budget remake of "Return of the Secaucus 7" with "The Big Chill."

"Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982). In the mid-1950s James Dean came to Texas to give what would turn out to be his last film performance in George Stevens's film "Giant" (1956). This is the story of six members of the James Dean fan club of McCarthy, Texas, for whom their idol's presence in their midst had been a transcendental moment. Twenty years after Dean's fatal car crash the club reassembles in a small McCarthy dime store. The main characters are Jo (Karen Black), Sissy (Cher), and Mona (Sandy Dennis). As flashbacks weave in and out of present day scenes, we watch with mounting dismay as secrets are revealed and carefully nurtured delusions are shattered. Mona, for example, is forced to abandon her cherished fantasy that her son is James Dean's love child. Director Robert Altman had originally mounted this play on the stage, then used the same sets to translate it to film very inexpensively. With its sustained emotional intensity and very little in the way of comic relief, this is certainly not a film for all tastes. It is, however, a great vehicle for virtuoso acting. In fact, this was the film that established, once and for all, Cher's credentials as a dramatic actor.

"Four Friends" (1981). In 1979, screenwriter Steve Tesich made quite an impressive debut with his script for "Breaking Away," for which he drew on his experiences at college in Indiana. "Four Friends" is more ambitious. Here he seeks to put in dramatic perspective his experiences as the son of an immigrant family growing up during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Beginning in the high school years, the film follows the lives of three male classmates and the young woman with whom each will be romantically involved. Danilo (Craig Wasson) is the main character. It's interesting to watch him come to grips with the Vietnam War protest movement. He hates the war, but at the same time he brings an immigrant's perspective to the extremity of the protest, worrying whether these American youngsters have adequate respect for the freedom they take for granted. Watching this film now, you will be irresistibly reminded of "Forrest Gump" (1994), as Tesich and director Arthur Penn slide in references to significant events that help define the times.

By the way, if you want to compare these American films with some foreign titles dealing with similar themes, try Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other So Much" (1974) and Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni" (1953). You'll see that friendship, nostalgia, and filmmaking talent know no national bounds.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One Foot in the Grave (originally published 10/95)

Diane Keaton's career as a director has taken on an interesting trajectory. With "Heaven" (1987), she looked at the afterlife. Now, with her current release, "Unstrung Heroes," she is dealing with death. I wonder if she's planning to work her way by slow degrees back to the cradle, or even to the womb.

Actually, by smiting Andie MacDowell with a fatal illness, Keaton is following one of the movies' oldest and most surefire traditions. Lay your main character low with a terminal disease, and the world will beat a path to the boxoffice to buy tickets to your show. If, like most of us, your idea of a good time is watching the slow demise of a fellow mortal on the screen, there are a multitude of classic titles to choose from. Here are a few of the better ones available on video.

"Dark Victory" (1939). Bette Davis gives what may be her best performance ever as doomed socialite Judith Traherne, whose glamorous life is about to be terminated by a brain tumor. The role is memorable in part because Davis is called upon to employ virtually her entire emotional palette. She goes from being a carefree, spoiled child of fortune to a humbled convalescent in love with the doctor who has saved her life. Then, learning that her cure is only temporary, she turns to the wild life, determined to go out with a flourish. Finally, she finds the path to a dignified death. Davis negotiates this cascade of emotional reversals with sure-footed grace and skill. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Diary of a Country Priest" (1950). If virtuoso acting and Hollywood's multiple-hanky approach to terminal illness puts you off, you might appreciate this quiet masterpiece by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The title character is a young priest doing his best to minister to rural folk whose responses to his overtures range from apathy to outright hostility. When the priest falls ill, a victim of stomach cancer, Bresson methodically follows his decline and death, refusing at every turn to romanticize or sentimentalize the story.

"Cries and Whispers" (1972). Ingmar Bergman may well be world cinema's foremost interpreter of despair. This agonizing story of a woman dying of cancer is classic Bergman material. The main character's two sisters have come to be with her in her time of need, but only the faithful family maid is capable of the emotional connection that nurturing requires.

"Ikiru" (1952). Master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa shows us the last few months in the life of a man who is dying of cancer. The main character is a low-level bureaucrat whose life seems to have little meaning. Now that he is facing the end, however, he's determined to make every moment count. He turns to his family for comfort but finds them cold and apathetic. He tries indulging the pleasures of the flesh but finds no comfort there either. Ironically, in the end it is his dead-end job that provides him with a way to restore meaning to his existence.

"The Shootist" (1976). This was screen legend John Wayne's last film before cancer took him from us. Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a more perfect swan song. Wayne portrays J.B. Books, a legendary gunfighter at the end of his life, slowly and painfully dying of cancer. The parallels with Wayne's own life are too vivid to ignore, and director Don Siegel doesn't even try. In fact, the film begins with a recap of Books's celebrated exploits using clips from Wayne's earlier films.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973). In one of his early roles, Robert De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a baseball catcher who is afflicted with Hodgkin's disease. Michael Moriarty plays pitcher Henry wiggen, Bruce's roommate and friend. Bruce is dimwitted and naive, while Henry fancies himself a writer. Henry therefore remains in a more or less permanent state of exasperation over Bruce's cluelessness. Even so, Henry can't bring himself to abandon a dying friend. Instead, he sticks by Bruce, becoming his advocate when the team's manager, unaware of Bruce's condition, wants to send him back to the minor leagues.

As we've seen, stories of imminent death cut across both national boundaries and stylistic boundaries. There are even comedies on the subject, such as the wonderful "Nothing Sacred" (1937). Human mortality may well be the most universal subject matter of all, making stories about terminal illness a truly immortal dramatic form.