No Canadian confronts the danger, despair and derangement that Americans do in their larger cities. In 1970 in New York there were 1,117 murders and 74,102 reported robberies. (Toronto during the same period, with a population roughly one third that of New York, had 13 murders and 1,374 robberies.) Our cities aren’t nerve-jangling jungles with menacing muggers in every dark doorway. To us “urbanity” still has much of its original, felicitous meaning.
Seeing such American films as Shaft, Klute, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Movie or The French Connection illustrates what a foreign country America has become in the past 20 years. Films that depict disfiguring changes in American society (the cynical soullessness of Carnal Knowledge, the unrelieved viciousness of The French Connection) may be hailed by American audiences and critics as evidence of a new “maturity” and “realism” in their film industry; to Canadians the same films are likely to seem repellently mean-spirited. What is all this waitingfor-the-end apocalypticism of Drive, He Said, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Who Is Harry Kellerman? and End Of The Road to us? In The French Connection we may admire Gene Hackman’s performance as the bigoted cop Popeye and director William Friedkin’s skills in creating one of the most breathlessly paced thrillers ever made, but most of what makes the film a gutsy experience for Americans is unfamiliar to us.
At Christmas, Hollywood changes its tune. Sensational
kicks are replaced by bleary-eyed sentiments. (People with violent habits are often the most susceptible to sentimentality — they have a lot to be guiltily sentimental about.) And this year with Fiddler On The Roof, a nine-million-dollar musical for people who like lumps in their throats; Bedknobs And Broomsticks, a trifle from the Walt Disney studios with Angela Lansbury flying around in an ersatz Mary Poppins role; a revival of Scrooge, last year’s musical version with Albert Finney and a score by Leslie Bricusse (who apparently learned all he knows about music from the monotone hums of Winnie The Pooh); Harold And Maude, a sick and silly May-December romance with Bud Cort (from Brewster McCloud) and Ruth Gordon (the dotty neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby and grasping Jewish mother in Where’s Poppa?) indulging herself disgracefully; Star-Spangled Girl with Sandy Duncan (TV’s Funny Face) and a surprisingly witless script by Neil Simon; $ with Goldie Hawn (who after Cactus Flower and There’s A Girl In My Soup has become a “Christmas movie” regular) and Warren Beatty looking like he only did it for the $$$; and Long Ago, Tomorrow with Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman as a pair of paraplegics who fall in love (she dies) — with these there’ll be enough cheap and high-priced sentiment around to program an entire film
festival devoted to the subject. Fortunately, there’s relief from the grief of these grim entertainments. Here’s a guide for filmgoers who don’t want to swing with the manic-depressive pendulum of holiday fare:
King Lear. Most filmgoers regard a “Shakespeare film,” with the exception of Zefferelli’s immensely popular Romeo And Juliet, as uninviting. This one is different. Not merely a filmed stage play, stilted and respectful of theatrical tradition, but a powerful new interpretation by Peter Brook (Lord Of The Flies, Marat/Sade). The cast, headed by Paul Scofield and Irene Worth, are excellent. This is Shakespeare with flesh on the bones.
The Trojan Women. Probably no one could make Euripides’ stately tragedy “come to life” in the manner of King Lear; the best that can be done is to perform it well and not dodge the occasional stodginess for the sake of commercialism. For doing that much director Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba The Greek) is to be thanked. But for recruiting the splendid cast of Katharine Hepburn, Irene Papas, Vanessa Redgrave and Genevieve Bujold he is to be roundly praised. Their performances are the sort that burn brightly in the memory, and make one wish again that modern playwrights and screenplay writers would write better roles for women — especially for such great actresses as these.
Murmur Of The Heart. The French version Le Souffle Au Cœur opened last month in Quebec. Now English-speaking Canadians can see Louis Malle’s sprightly, sophisticated comedy about a boy’s initiation into sex (set in the early fifties when sex was still “wicked”) with an improbable assist
from his charming mother, portrayed by Lea Massari. This is the type of sublimely ironic comedy where even inCest passes into laughter.
Diamonds Are Forever. Sean Connery is back as James Bond in what may be the swan song of the series. Only the British apparently (judging by dozens of unfortunate imitations) can make a crude sex-and-violence formula yield such refined, exhilarating entertainment as this. Bond is possibly the only modern film hero who isn’t alienated by technology, sapped sexually or on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The Last Picture Show. A small town in Texas, where one can almost taste the dust, is the setting for this unique American film. Director Peter Bogdanovich (Targets) attempts to do on film what John Fowles did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman — tell a story about the past, in the style of the past, but with a modern sensibility, creating a rich interplay of emotions and ideas. His purpose is more than merely milking nostalgic feelings as he describes the growing up process of several youths during the war: he is looking for clues in the American past that will explain its present dilemmas. The Last Picture Show is the finest American film of 1971, and a completely accessible film to Canadian audiences as it portrays an American era that was purposive and sensible.
Travelin’ Light. A Canadian film which premiered in November in Vancouver, Travelin’ Light is an amiable entertainment devoted to country music (Buddy Knox, Faron Young, Roy Clark and many others) and landscape photography that looks like pages from Wilderness Canada. It’s the sort of film that precludes greatness, but it has homespun charms — like Christmas. ■
John Hofsess is a prizewinning Canadian film director
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