Skip to main content

Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!


They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
(1969)

Did Sydney Pollack’s film about a Depression Era dance marathon inspire Derek and Clive’s Non-Stop Dancer sketch (“I said, “All right, you non-stop dancer, start dancing”)? It would be perversely appropriate if it did, as They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? is Hollywood cinema at its most banal and self-important. Its characters wear their pain on their sleeves and the film does the same with a subtext so blatant it could only have come from an era when a strong message could be mistaken for depth.

It’s 1932, and a selection of hopefuls assemble under a big top to dance (and race) their way to a promised $1,5000. Hours turn into days and days into weeks. It’s a metaphor for life under the American capitalist system, geddit? The commentary is so overt that it is unsurprising to learn Jane Fonda only came on board after she was promised script input (the film is based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, and was once lined up as a Charlie Chaplin vehicle, until he was labelled a Commie and refused re-entry to the States). With lines like, “Maybe it’s just the whole world is like Central Casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up”, nothing is left for the viewer to intuit. Indeed, given the distance between how important the filmmakers think this is and the actual content, one has to lay the charge of pretentiousness at their door.

And yet, Horses appears to be held in consistently high regard; certainly in its home country. Or perhaps it’s that those who love it, really love it. I readily admit that although I knew the title (as I’m sure most people do) I had no advance awareness of the story. As realisation dawned that the entire film would constitute the dancing competition, furnished with woefully theatrical scenarios, and in the company of characters who elicit little sympathy but really suffer (and who, consequently, are dream roles for actors), I had that sinking feeling. Because the film becomes an endurance test for the viewer not dissimilar to the one for the characters. I even wondered if it was based on a play, as the confined setting and indulgent character vignettes lend themselves more to the stage than cinema. You could almost see the flip side of the pitch for the film as a Producers-esque disaster-waiting-to-happen (Leslie Nielsen would have been great in the Red Buttons role).

As it is the film just goes on and on and on, resistant to structural forms such as acts or dramatic turning points. To be fair, the last fifteen minutes do engage. But the rather clumsy gimmick of the flashback structure has already telegraphed this (early on we see that Michael Sarrazin’s Robert has been arrested).

Pollack isn’t as relaxed a storyteller at this point, or maybe he’s just indulging in the more experimental impulses of the era. Some of his choices, particular in an opening flashback to the childhood of Robert, are downright clumsy (such that, when the film’s title is finally uttered, it comes across more as a laboured punchline than a profound insight into the state of things). He’d directed TV for a number of years, and his first couple of features were jobbing director ones. But, in 1969, things changed. He’d just come off extensive reshoots on (arty, political) Burt Lancaster fable The Swimmer. His wannabe WWII art film Castle Keep was a bit of a mess but, like Horses, shows a desire to explore big ideas but without the required restraint or judgement to do so successfully. The success of Horses gave him the cachet to pursue his own projects, which tended to be much less ambitious in content and theme (but, invariably, quite successful) than either of these films.

Horses was highly acclaimed and garnered nine Oscar nominations (the highest ever without a Best Picture nod). Gig Young won Best Supporting Actor for his jaded compere (the actor died in a murder-suicide in 1978). The performances are strong across the board, albeit some are expectedly indulgent. Sarrazin is the reactive, reserved centre. Accordingly, it is Fonda’s brittle, caustic Gloria who invites the attention. This isn’t such an unfamiliar type for Fonda during that period, and neither is Susannah York’s Alice; both are expectedly accomplished and both received Academy nominations. York’s breakdown scene, in particular, is a moment where the film escapes its all-encompassing despair and becomes something more; alive. Also appearing are the great Bruce Dern, a very young Bonnie Bedelia (she seems to have spent most of the next 20 years on TV, until her late ‘80s rebirth) and Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis.

It’s been interesting discovering (or revisiting) a few of Pollack’s films of late, especially since he is one of those seamless storytellers who doesn’t tend to betray himself with stylistic touches or particular narrative obsessions; you might not be able to tell one of his movies just by looking at it, but if you were told he had directed a given film you might well connect it to his trait of assured handling of material and the confidence to let it breathe. And while, of the four of his films I have looked at in the last few months (Horses, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman), I would praise only one of them unreservedly (Condor) all of them have strong themes and accomplished performances, sufficient to make them worth investigating.

**

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.