Friday, June 18, 2010

The Great Scenes: Five Easy Pieces

Note: This is a recurring feature on some of the greatest individual scenes in movie history. Please be aware that the posts in this series will often reveal major plot elements, and maybe even surprise endings, of the movie in discussion, so proceed with caution if you haven't seen the movie before.

Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Directed by Bob Rafelson

“Half a Conversation” (scene 27 on the DVD)

Five Easy Pieces is probably most often remembered as being Jack Nicholson’s first starring role in a major Hollywood movie (as well as being his first Oscar nomination as a lead actor), and honestly, it’s really the movie that gave us the “Jack” persona that we all think of (a little rebellious, doesn’t like the rules, has some swagger but also some cockiness, and maybe a bit of crazy). Sure, he refined his signature style in The Last Detail (1973), and then perfected it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), but this is absolutely where it first manifested. It’s also possible modern audiences will have some sort of vague recognition of the infamous diner scene, without necessarily having any idea what they know it from. But for some reason, the movie isn’t remembered for being what it is: a classic. It never turns up on lists of “movies you must see before you die,” and didn’t make the cut on either version of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films.

The first half of the movie introduces us to Robert Eroika Dupea (Nicholson), a California oil worker who seems to live a pretty typical blue-collar American life, though perhaps a bit of an unhappy one. Robert clearly doesn’t much care for his attractive but fairly vacuous girlfriend, Rayette, who works as a waitress and spends all her free time singing to him. He also doesn’t seem to really like his job or his best friend, and he finds empty sex with a girl he meets at a bowling alley. Robert seems to feel like he doesn’t belong in his own life, but we don’t know why. He finds out from a friend that Rayette is pregnant, and he finds out from his sister that their father has had a stroke and is in dire health. This prompts a road trip back home to the Pacific northwest, with Robert reluctantly taking Rayette along because he didn’t know how to leave her. Robert’s arrival at his family’s home commences the second half of the movie, as well as the revelation of what he ran away from.

It turns out Robert Eroika Dupea (his middle name comes from Beethoven) is a piano prodigy who comes from a long line of classically trained concert pianists, a profession that his father, sister, and brother all share. It’s never explicitly explained why he ran away from both his family and his talent, but it’s plainly visible that he doesn’t feel comfortable in their lifestyle. He falls in love with his brother’s beautiful student and sleeps with her, and then finds out she’s actually his brother’s fiancée. When he tries to convince her to choose him, she asks him “if a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something—how can he ask for love in return?” This prompts Robert to finally speak honestly with his father, who is unable to respond due to the stroke, but can understand all too well.

In an acting career decorated with numerous accolades and iconic roles, I really believe this is Nicholson’s finest moment. The heartbreaking honesty with which he admits “things go bad” whenever he stays in a place too long, and the way the tears come not by what’s said, but by what he’s unable to say. Considering the almost zany over-confidence that defines so many of his best characters, it’s rather disarming to see Nicholson break down and show so much painful vulnerability. Because this was one of Nicholson’s first major roles, audiences at the time had the luxury of simply viewing the character, and not really seeing “Jack Nicholson: Mega Star.”

If The Graduate (1967) was the first major movie to prominently make a point of showcasing the ennui that an entire generation was experiencing, Five Easy Pieces was surely the movie that turned the “ennui and disaffection laced character piece” into an entire sub-genre of filmmaking. (And where would the careers of Sophia Coppola and Noah Baumbach be without such a genre? Lost in Translation is definitely the feminist grandchild of Five Easy Pieces.) Moviegoers in 1970 had never before seen a character like Robert Dupea, someone who refused to accept the life he was meant to lead, and who clearly wanted to get away from a lot without necessarily going toward anything. The movie also came along at a time when Hollywood was suddenly on the cusp of a new wave that valued truth in character over an audience’s theorized desire to see a happy ending. After spending the movie’s first half looking at the life Robert ran to, and the second half seeing the life he ran away from, the movie ends with Robert running yet again, in a final shot of haunting longevity.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Scenes: Star Wars

Note: This is the first post in what will be a recurring feature on some of the greatest individual scenes in movie history. Please be aware that the posts in this series will often reveal major plot elements, and maybe even surprise endings, of the movie in discussion, so proceed with caution if you haven't seen the movie before.

Star Wars (1977) - Directed by George Lucas

"Binary Sunset" (Scene 11 on the DVD)

Remember when George Lucas could make a good movie? No, I don’t either, because I actually wasn’t alive for it. But while everyone seems to agree that Lucas used to be a great director, and now he no longer is, not many people seem capable of pinpointing why. What did American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977) have that the “new trilogy” doesn’t (besides that elusive thing I like to call “quality”)? The scene above goes a long way towards explaining the issue. Watch it again—it’s 36 seconds long, and absolutely nothing happens, but it completely illustrates why Star Wars captured the collective imagination of an entire generation and remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements of entertainment.

“Binary sunset” is pretty close towards the beginning of the film, and all that has really happened so far is that Luke Skywalker, a teenager living in his uncle’s farming community, has just purchased two droids (helper/slave robots) that appear to have previously fought in a major rebellion in other parts of the galaxy. The notion of finding out about this rebellion greatly excites Luke, as farming is all he has ever known, but his prospects for a different life seem quite low. A dejected Luke, who has just found out his uncle expects him to stay on the farm for at least another year, walks outside to look at the beautiful sunset provided by the twin suns of his home planet, Tatooine. Anyone that has seen Star Wars knows Luke’s life changes forever the next morning; he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, finds out his father was a great Jedi Knight who fought and died in the rebellion, finds his aunt and uncle murdered by the empire, and goes off to help rescue a princess held hostage on a space ship that destroys planets.

A lesser storyteller wouldn’t have placed a transition moment between Luke’s two realities—we simply would have seen Luke Skywalker: galactic redneck one day, and then Luke Skywalker: savior of the universe the next. That’s certainly the Michael Bay way of doing things. But once upon a time, when George Lucas understood the vocabulary of great cinema, he gifted us with a perfect 36 seconds of nothing and everything.

I say nothing because, as mentioned earlier, nothing actually happens in the scene; I say everything because, as corny as it sounds, this is the moment where Luke recognizes his destiny of greatness, as well as the moment where the audience invests in the mythology of the Star Wars universe. One of the best things Lucas did with the original Star Wars was beginning in the middle. He transported us immediately into an epic that had been going on for a long time without us, and then slowly, methodically, filled us in on key important elements of the story. In the movie, Luke represents the audience, as we learn and experience with him the reality and scope of the rebel alliance against the empire. And for both Luke and us, “binary sunset” is the moment where we collectively understand “hey, I think there’s something bigger going on here.”

In all of the great hero sagas and myths, there’s typically a moment where the hero, while not necessarily becoming the hero yet, at least takes the first step towards recognizing that they have a greater calling. For Luke, this is that moment; when he gazes out at those twin suns, with his wispy hair at the apex of 1970s cheesiness, we can see that he recognizes he’s just not meant to be a farm boy. Something inside of him clicks, and we implicitly understand that longing for a life of greatness.

Of course, the John Williams score is of incalculable importance to the scene. People often ask me why I so adamantly prefer film over prose, and this is one of the scenes that I always think of. Could it exist in prose? Sure. Could it work? Absolutely not. No matter how impressive their word prowess, no author could adequately create the “goosebump” effect achieved by the combination of John Williams’ “Force Score” crescendoing in unison with Luke looking down, doubting himself, and then having the inner strength to look back up and metaphorically seize his destiny.

So seriously, how is it possible that the man who gave us those 36 seconds of cinematic nirvana can, 20+ year later, churn out the flaming soufflé of nerd posturing and CGI diarrhea that is the new trilogy? I truly have no idea. The old cliché about success is that it makes us turn our best habits into our worst habits, by overindulging in them while ignoring everything else. I suppose that’s essentially what happened to Lucas; he assumed that the special effects and technological advancements of the original trilogy were far more responsible for its popularity than apparently minor things like character and fun. But even though Lucas has clearly forgotten what makes a good sci-fi adventure movie, the lessons he taught us have not been lost. Check out the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ excellent Star Trek reboot from last summer, particularly starting at about the 55 second mark. Long before he was Captain of the Starship Enterprise, all James Kirk really needed in order to recognize his true calling was to gaze into a binary sunset of his own.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Best of the 2000s: City of God (2003)

Note: This is the first in what will be a frequently continuing series of posts over the next year that spotlight the best movies of the 00s, albeit in a completely random order.

First up: City of God (2003) – Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Decades from now, when the dust kicked up during the early part of the 21st century has settled, I expect film historians and enthusiasts will argue that City of God might have been the best movie of the decade. Really, it has everything you could want from a movie: It seamlessly straddles being entertaining and deep, artful and accessible, bombastic and intimate. And it may well be remembered as the movie that finally took the styles innovated by Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and Danny Boyle and employed them to tell a truly meaningful story about the world we live in (much as I passionately love them, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels don’t exactly change the way people view the world).

In a scant 130 minutes, first time feature director Fernando Meirelles manages to weave two decades worth of crime in one of the world’s largest cities into a cohesive story about the heartbreaking cycle of violence the children living in Rio de Janeiro’s slums find themselves born into. Centering around Rocket, the younger brother of one of the slum’s original rebels without a cause, we follow his journey as he watches various crime lords rise and fall, all the while continuously trying to pull out of the scene he keeps finding himself tumbling back into.

While you can view the trailer here, you’re better off just checking out the first five minutes of the movie. Very few movies are able to flawlessly draw the audience into a totally foreign world in the span of an opening credit sequence, but City of God is one of those movies. The editing pulsates at the pace of a latin drum beat, while the colors teem with as much life as the rain forest. And we even get a great acting performance out of a chicken. (Sadly, Youtube doesn’t seem to have a subtitled version of this clip; while the style is far more important than the dialogue, know that when you rent the movie, you’ll understand what is being said.)

I’ve always believed in the ability of great films to inform who we are and how we think about things, and City of God is a perfect example. So many of us living in the silver spoon of American life don’t have any conception of true poverty, the kind in which the best prospects for getting out is to live fast and die young. Many characters in City of God aren’t killed as much they are swallowed whole by a way of life they had no power to choose against. Countless TV critics have praised the fourth season of The Wire (and rightfully so) for its expert chronicle of the way young kids find themselves involved in the drug trade; City of God deals with the same issues, except in a world where a way out simply does not exist.

It’s fascinating to watch the movie in hindsight, because it seems like a more realistic and interesting version of Slumdog Millionaire, which, after all, won Best Picture. When Slumdog came out, I called it a live action version of a Disney fairytale. Now, I just think it’s the Disney version of City of God. So for anyone that enjoyed Slumdog, do yourself a favor and check out the caffeinated version.