Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pollackathon: Sydney Pollack Retrospective

Every other newspaper and blog has already reacted to the death of Sydney Pollack. I haven't, for a simple reason: Although I knew him as an actor, I was not prepared to respond to Pollack's death because I had not seen his five most famous and important films. (Talk about Film Ignorance). So what did I do? I watched those films - and liked every single one of them. I haven't emerged from my Pollackathon thinking he's one of the greatest directors ever, but he did make some truly great films. Here are the five that I watched, from my favorite from least favorite. And, to make it up to Sydney, I'll have a couple more posts inspired by him in the next day or two. But for now: the films:

Surprise Treat: Bill Murray
It's like Mrs. Doubtfire, but written by an adult! I really loved every part of Tootsie; Dustin Hoffman was perfect both as the out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey and his successful female counterpart "Tootsie," who brings a dash of feminism to a popular soap opera while having to fend off male suitors and try to romance his female co-star in drag (Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her performance). The film is a combination Woody Allen-style New York romantic comedy, entertainment industry satire, and broad man-in-a-dress slapstick. Plus, completely unexpectedly, a young Bill Murray provides Michael's sardonic failed playwright roommate. Watch it: it's funny! Furthermore, it raises a number of feminist issues that are still relevant, as well as plenty of the women-in-entertainment issues that I've mentioned lately.

2. Three Days of the Condor
Surprise Treat: Max von Sydow
Three Days of the Condor is a classic 70s paranoia trip, right along the lines of Marathon Man or the more highbrow All the President's Men. Robert Redford, Pollack's most frequent star, plays a CIA analyst who reads spy novels and then feeds their information into a computer, looking for hidden messages. One day he's "literally out to lunch" and comes back to find all of his colleauges murdered. Since he can trust no one, he goes on the run, not only from the grave, stately assassin (Max von Sydow) who was responsible for his colleagues' deaths but also from his own bosses. Redford becomes an English major's fantasy; he stays one step ahead of everyone, despite the fact that he's untrained, by virtue of his copious book knowledge. Along the way, he takes Faye Dunaway hostage; Dunaway, as Roger Ebert pointed out "has three lines of dialog that brings the house down. They're obscene and funny and poignant all at once, and Dunaway delivers them just marvelously." But the most amazing thing about the film: unlike the Bourne Trilogy, an 80s series of novels which had to be totally altered for the film versions because their paranoia seemed so dated, the conspiracies on display in Three Days of the Condor feel like products of the (GW) Bush era.

3.The Way We Were
Surprise Treat: Barbara Streisand
The surprise in question is not that Streisand was in this movie; I knew that already. But I've always hated Barbara Streisand, for what I think are good reasons: her stupid songs, the love people my mother's age have for her, and a bunch of movies that look terrible but I haven't seen. While I still think those are good reasons, it turns out that Streisand is both a gifted dramatic actor and, even more surprising, a talented comedian in the Jewish self-deprecating tradition.

Indeed, I feel the same way about Streisand as I do about this film. I'd always dismissed it as a smaltzy weepie, a melodramatic love story, but it turned out to be more than that. The movie follows Katie (Streisand) a Jewish college radical, who runs into and starts a relationship with Hubbel Gardiner (Robert Redford), a WASP golden boy who turns out to also be a fine artist. It's a story about their relationship, of course, with typical Jew-Goy problems, but it's also about moviemaking and, above all, the difficult task of reconciling personal and political principles while making movies under the specter of the HUAC hearings. I ended up loving this film; although consensus seems to state that it's no more than a romance with political pretensions, I found it, like the two previous entries, to be surprisingly and convincingly wise about political and social issues that are still up to date.

4.Out of Africa
Surprise Treat: Luscious Cinematography

I've often said there should only be two lengths for movies: 90 minutes, which is more than enough for 90% of films, and 2.5+ hours, for the epic pictures that I love so much. Out of Africa falls in the latter category. Meryl Streep plays a rich Danish woman who, when her romantic life falters, marries her friend, a Swedish Baron, for reasons of title and convenience. They move to Africa to farm and the Baron quickly proves to be unsuitable for even a loveless marriage of convenience. The epic film traces Streep's relationship with the local African tribesman, the affect that World War One has on a Danish Baroness living in an English colony, and above all the Baroness' long love affair with an American hunter, played by Robert Redford, who gives her his love but refuses to give up his freedom. I enjoyed the film's stately pace and admire many of its qualities; I didn't think it was great, and at times I thought it was elegant to a fault, but it's a well-crafted movie. The pleasantest surprise was how good the film looked; Pollack claimed in an interview "I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist" but someone, certainly did some great visual work on Out of Africa, and the film did receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Although I was never entirely under its spell, I highly recommend Out of Africa, especially for any fan of stately, refined Merchant-Ivory style literary period reproductions. And I know there's plenty of you out there.

5.Jeremiah Johnson
Surprise Treat: Not that great, actually.
Given my love for Westerns, this was the film I was most excited about when I started this project - the only one already in my queue. It follows Redford (again!) who, as the title character, leaves society to become a mountain man for reasons that are never clearly explained but are probably Thoreauean. Johnson runs into a number of well-drawn supporting characters, both other mountain men who help him on his way and helpless settlers who need his aid. He eventually takes an Indian wife, adopts an orphaned boy, and runs afoul of both the US cavalry and a different Indian tribe.

If that sounds like Dances with Wolves to you, there are a great many similarities between the two films. And, like both Dances with Wolves and the other films on this list, Jeremiah Johnson displays a social conscience and an eye for deeper issues, in this case xenophobia and environmental consciousness. But although I enjoyed the film, I felt like it never really took off; it's deliberately both disjointed and recursive, with each event in the first half of the film reoccurring in the second half with a different inflection. I admired this method, but was never truly drawn by it.

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