While trying to make up my mind this week about the year's 10 best movies; I came across a melancholy item in a recent issue of Film Quarterly. It reports that the average American spends more than 1,000 hours a year watching television, but only nine hours at the movies. That would mean, I guess, that the average American attends five movies a year but walks out of one half way through. Or maybe it means he saw "Ryan's Daughter" three times. You never know. The item is melancholy not because of what it indicates about the nation's movie-going habits, but because of what it indicates about the nation. People are always asking me if I don't ever get tired of going to all those movies.. Now we have a survey claiming that the average American spends more time watch ing TV than a full-time movie critic spends in a theater. Given the quality of television, this is alarming. It used to be thought that TV would kill off movies by providing the same thing for free. That hasn't happened. Something else, something almost imperceptible, seems to be happening, though. Television is gradually ally deteriorating the attention span of its viewers.
CONSIDER THIS: Commercial television is geared to supply a climax of some sort every two or three minutes. There is a laugh, a moment of violence, a dramatic revelation, an emergency surgery, a successful field goal. After every four or five climaxes, there is a commercial with its own self-contained and high-powered series of climaxes. So that TV provides a passive mind with a jolt a minute. During 1,000 hours a year, an unmatched access to the minds of the citizenry, TV contributes to visual illiteracy. Feature films are usually conceived as two hour units with an overall structure and pace. I'm beginning to wonder whether the number of people willing to absorb such an experience may not actually be decreasing. We know there's a big market for movies about sex and-violence; they cater to the same hungers as TV, only more frankly and spectacularly But where is the audience for good films?
OF THE TEN MOVIES on my list, only three will draw truly enormous audiences Five of them were popular flops. Of the flops. "Claire's Knee" was admittedly a somewhat difficult film intended for a select audience. But movies like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Taking Off" or "Bed and Board" were unique and beautiful experiences, capable of reaching and moving just about anybody, if anybody came. People didn't. More and more, as the year wore on, I began to sense a kind of obligatory movie-going; people went to see the pic tures they "should" see, and skipped every thing else. "Carnal Knowledge," a good movie, benefited; but so did "Summer of '42" and "Willard" and others, and all you could say about them was that crowds begat crowds, in a vicious cycle. On this note, the year's 10 best.
I'm putting it first because this almost seems a year of last picture shows. Peter Bogdanovich's evocation of changes in the life of a small Texas town is a record of the loss of imagination and vital ity in America. His pioneers and eccentrics die or are killed. and ordinary people are left inhabiting a vacuum. They try to fill it with time-killing sex and the free mental masturba tion of Saran-vvrapped TV series, but down on Main Street the movie is closing, the pool hall is losing money and people don't seem to be coming out of their houses anymore. The movie is about the loss of a sense of community, and about transitions in American life that made conformity a virtue in the 1950s. Part of its motif is the change from an art term of invention and imagination, the movies, to the totalitarian oatmeal of television.
Again a film with a strong central feeling of community. as if we were drawing ourselves to gether against the wilderness. Director Robert Altman has an uncanny ability to give us groups of people who feel easy with each other, as if they'd been mixed up in each other's affairs for a long time before the movie started. In "M*A*S*H" and in this one, Altman rejected the practice of placing the stars in the foreground. Both his visual style and his use of over-lapping dialog were successful in integrating Warren Beatty and Julie Christie into the everyday life of a raw new frontier town. "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" was a Western that looked like it had been invented by someone who had never seen a Western only lived in them.
Quite simply, a movie about Jerome's desire to caress the knee of Claire. Jerome is happily engaged to be married, and Claire is momentarily in the throes of adolescent love. All the same, she has a glowing young vitality that becomes summed up, for Jerome, In her delectable knee. Eric Rohmer's movie is about the fine-tuned psychological maneuvers (some of them far too subtle for Claire to understand) that gradually have the effect of bringing Jeremy's hand and Claire's knee to adjacent points of space. This movie is so free, open and sun-shiny, and the observations Rohmer makes about human nature are so true, if inconsequential, that the movie is about the most positive and humanistic I can remember. Some people thought it was a lot of talk and no action. They are the sort of people who think there can be satisfaction in just going ahead and grabbing someone's knee if! you want to.
As everyone has heard by now, William Friedkin's streets-of-New York police thriller contains the most exciting chase scene in movies. All the same, "The French Connection" isn t one of those jolt-a-minit amazers for TV victims. With remarkably spare dialog, Friedkin gives us an unforgettable character in "Popeye" Doyle, a narcotics detective with an obsession to make a big bust. The obsession is sadistic and grows from Popeye's vaguely hinted-at feelings of inferiority and masochism, but it creates a three-dimensional cop, played with Academy Award flair by Gene Hackman.
The year's most triangular triangle, about a fickle young bisexual and the man and woman who love him. But that (like almost any description of the plot) makes the movie sound so exploitative and sensational that it misses everything. In fact, director John Schlesinger gives us three people so complex in their various needs that the film's sexual element becomes secondary. We gradually begin to understand that the man and the woman settle for half of the boy, not because they can't have all, but because they don't want all. That would be risking too much of their tightly-controlled life styles. Peter Finch, as the wish London doctor, is worthy of Academy Award nomination.
I suppose you could call it this year's most grievous missed opportunity. Czech director Milos Forman ("The Firemen's Ball") came to New York and did a comedy about a runaway girl, her parents and things in general. Nobody who has seen "Taking Off" can quite understand why it didn't; when it got a chance to dig in and stay for a few weeks (as it did at the Evanston theater), it built audiences by word-of-mouth. But it was horribly handled in the distribution stages and most people never learned about the S.P.F.C. (Society for Parents of Fugitive Children) and Forman's other perceptions about America.
Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer collaborated on this comedy-into-tragedy, which considered 20 years in the sex lives of two college roommates who illustrated better than most why American men are considered the teen-agers of the world. Jack Nicholson liked girls with big boobs, Art Garfunkel liked castrating females, and In their own ways they created personal hells. The movie was charged with male chauvinism and all sorts of things, usually unfairly. The men suffered because of their inability to relate to women as complete human beings (body and soul), and if that is male chauvinism then it carries its own bleak rewards.
Luis Bunuel's haunting story of a human relationship in which the power changes hands. He gave us a feisty middles aged athiest (Fernando Rey, who was also the French connection), and an innocent young girl (Catherine Deneuve, and nobody is more innocent than that). The man takes in the orphaned girl as his ward, seduces her and makes her his mistress. But then, in ways so peculiar that only Bunuel could have taken such relish in them, she turns the tables. A few great directors have the ability to carve on our subconscious like surgeons; Bunuel is one of them.
In the song, the singer is goin' down the road feelin' bad, and tells the Lord he ain't a-gonna be treated thisaway. The Lord does not answer, and Donald Shebib's film explores the ways in which the answer does not come. His characters are two young men from Canada's Maritime Provinces, who come to Toronto lured by the possibilities of good jobs and good times. They find none of the former and only a few beer-soaked evenings of the latter before the urban monster grinds them down.
Like everyone, Antoine Doinel eventually had to grow up, and he does it in this film. Doinel, always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, was the autobiographical hero of Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," an interim short subject, "Stolen Kisses" and finally "Bed and Board." Truffaut is not quite as serious about Doinel as he was in 1959 when he made "The 400 Blows," but part of that is that Doinel is not so serious about himself. "Bed and Board" finds him married to Christine, the girl who took him home for that disastrous dinner party in "Stolen Kisses," and later he has an affair with a Japanese girl (and suffers leg cramps from sitting too much on the floor) His jobs vary from dyeing flowers to demonstrating model boats, but none of them matter much; he is a decent, loving, not terribly bright young man, and Truffaut tactfully leaves him before inevitable bourgeois middle age sets in.
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