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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.

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