93: The French Connection

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The French Connection, 1971

From Jon:

Very often, when a film is considered the first of its type or genre, it’s hard to see what makes it great without understanding its history or the era it was made in.  Blade Runner is a great example of this.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Blade Runner seems dated and uninspired unless you realize that most of what it is doing and presenting hadn’t been done on film before.  Only knowing the history do you realize that it was ahead of its time and creating images and tropes that are common place today.  I went into my viewing of The French Connection expecting a similar experience.  Here was a movie set in the early 70’s that established the idea of the cop with questionable tactics, which kind of created the idea of the anti-hero.  I was ready to appreciate its role in film today, but felt a little underwhelmed comparing it to everything that has followed.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It ends up there is much more to The French Connection than a dirty cop.

I couldn’t help thinking of The Wire while watching The French Connection. The detailed way that the movie tried to dive in and take the viewer through an investigation felt very much like the first season of The Wire. This isn’t the glorified version of crime investigation that we are used to seeing in film, this isn’t great lead after great lead, this isn’t all action and explosions and car crashes, this isn’t the good guy getting the bad guy.  All of that is present, but there are warts that go along with all of that.  Much like The Wire, The French Connection is also about sitting in a car for hours staking somebody out, listening to a wire tap for days on end, hitting dead end after dead end.  There is nothing neat and clean about crime investigation, and that is the story The French Connection is trying to tell. What makes the movie great is even with these elements it never feels slow.  It moves along like a runaway train from the moment Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle sees Sal Boca in the bar.  It carries a sense of tension through car chases as well as listening to wire taps, through shoot outs as well as methodically following people.  The movie takes the mundane aspects of investigation and makes them as edge of your seat exciting as the chase scene that made the movie famous.

The French Connection is also storytelling at its most efficient.  There is no whale fat to remove from the plot, no wasted exposition to slog through. The movie throws its audience right into the thick of things and never really stops to catch them up.  You don’t get told that Doyle doesn’t have the best track record busting criminals or working with others in the department, you have to pick up those facts from the arguments made to pursue the Sal Boca case.  You are never given a long rambling explanation of why they are tapping phones or following certain people, you have to pay attention to and decipher the police speak that narrates the action. The film never dumbs things down for the audience, it expects them to rise up to the level of the film without coming off as avant-garde or out of reach.

The biggest accomplishment of The French Connection, though, is its ability to put the audience into the investigation.  What makes its famous chase scene so compelling is that you feel like you are in as much danger on your couch or theater seat as Popeye is in the front seat of the car.  William Friedkin does an amazing job of capturing the raw feel of the chase, whither it be a breathtaking car ride or a casual city walk, and putting it on the big screen for everyone to grab a hold of.  Friedkin seems to know the precise technique needed at any given moment, tense music while entering the subway, the sound of nothing but heavy breathing and revving engines during a car chase, to turn a pedestrian scene into a heart stopping thrill ride.  Explaining this movie scene by scene would bore someone to tears, but Friedkin found a way to heighten the mundane to a level that makes the audience never want to turn away.

The French Connection is not the Blade Runner of the dirty cop movies, it isn’t the originator of a trope or two that has been built upon and improved by the filmmakers that followed it.  The French Connection is more than the first time we see the anti-hero cop, it is more than the best car chase scene ever filmed.  The French Connection is a masterpiece of crime storytelling that can really only be copied or matched, but never improved upon.

I give The French Connection 5 out of 5 bowls of French Vanilla ice cream. The perfect version of a flavor everyone can enjoy.

From Jenny:

I’m not sure why this movie was so hard for me to write about. I think we watched it six months ago, then got busy, we got married, we went away, I started a new job, then we ran a marathon, and I’m sure all of that is no excuse, but I really could not remember the damn movie at all. I have also decided I can’t be movie reviewer smart about this one. I can’t remember the characters’ names, or discuss the subtleties of their characterization, or tell you about the cinematography. I’ll let my husband do that.

Basically the film is about two New York City cops who haven’t really brought in any impressive criminals lately, whose boss is on their back about the amount of time and energy they have spent, despite their hard work, not making more progress for the squad. They stumble upon some criminals and realize they are on to one of the biggest drug rings smuggling heroin in from Europe. The movie chronicles their surveillance, the chase, and the (somewhat) bust of the drugs. If you say “famous car chase scene” to anyone who knows movies, they’ll name The French Connection. I also enjoyed the Lincoln Continental piece by piece disassemblage, and I learned what rocker panels are.

This is the kind of movie that makes me feel kind of stupid, because I get bored kind of easily, and I tend to think more about things that movie buffs don’t really care about.  The music, the “evil music” they play each time they show Alain Charnier eating fancy food, the 1971 aspects of New York City: nothing is done up, everything is raw. Women aren’t wearing padded bras. People’s teeth are yellow or look messed up in various ways. People’s faces are just more, normal, than they are in today’s movies. The camera moves in ways that make you feel like you’re there, and at times, like when Gene Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle loses Charnier following him by foot, the camera angles and timing becomes more frantic.  The subway scene is pretty damn memorable and brilliant: always carry an umbrella if you’re being chased. It also blows my mind at how different things were without cell phones, making calls from phone booths, being out on a chase without the constant connection. The famous car chase/elevated rail scene is done entirely without music, which makes it also very raw and intense. I love old cars almost as much as I love old buildings and studying cityscapes. I can’t believe how horrifyingly real the chase scene was, done in a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. Apparently it was actually quite dangerous and real. Many of the collisions were actually real, and the movie producers had only gotten some permits to film the movie.  

Read more about it here, and watch an interview with William Friedkin:

http://gothamist.com/2015/01/05/the_french_connection_car_chase_sce.php

Overall, besides the fact the movie has an undeniable cool factor, which is probably why I can’t write decently about it, it’s almost too real, like it was a true story being filmed.  I’ve been told these blog entries are too long (Hi Jack) so I’ll end this one here.  

I give The French Connection four bowls of French Vanilla ice cream, covered with some kind of alcohol-infused topping, for Popeye.

Up next: Goodfellas

Jon says: My first ICBYNS on this list!

Jenny says: One last chance I give this movie, one.

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95: The Last Picture Show

oilThe Last Picture Show, 1971.

From Jon:

I’m not really sure what to write about The Last Picture Show.  It’s a well-made movie.  It’s filled with great actors and great performances.  It’s wonderfully stylistic.  But I just couldn’t connect with it.  There were moments when I came close, moments when I felt I was in tune with what was going on, and then someone would randomly grab a young girl’s crotch.  It was a good movie and watching it never felt boring or forced, but ultimately I didn’t take much from it and that leaves me at a loss for how to fill up this post.

It was fun seeing a bunch of actors that have been mainstays throughout my life looking so young.  It was shocking to see Jeff Bridges and Randy Quaid before they went crazy.  And I finally understand what all the noise was about Cybill Shepherd; she was stunningly beautiful in this movie.  It was also amazing to see Cloris Leachman in such a dramatic role.  I really only know her as a comedic performer and as brilliant as she is in those roles, it was truly stunning to watch her nail the part of a disillusioned middle age housewife and wring every ounce of emotion out of it.  For me, Leachman was the heart and soul of the movie.  I was excited to see that she won an Oscar for the performance.  Ben Johnson, on the other hand, I didn’t really understand.  He won for Best Supporting Actor and set the record for the Oscar winner in that category with the least amount of screen time, 9 minutes and 54 seconds.  I didn’t take the time to look back and see who he was up against, but there was nothing in those 9 minutes that really blew my mind.  Jeff Bridges did just as strong a job and played a much more integral part in the story being told.

I’m told that The Last Picture Show is a movie about a small town that is slowly dying.  To me, it was more about how monotonous small town life can be, how one day, then month, then year is just like the next.  Bogdanovich did an amazing job masking the passage of time.  By filming in black and white and setting it in Texas, each scene looked exactly like the last without any color or changing scenery to mark seasons or time periods.  Each shot of Main Street looked the same and it was only through the dialogue that you knew a month or two had passed.  It gave me a feeling of stalled time more than wasting away.  The idea that you couldn’t tell one day from the next added to the sense of boredom all the characters seemed to be fighting, Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy searching for a boy who could give her something more interesting than life in the oil fields, Jeff Bridges’ Duanne looking to join the military, Cloris Leachman’s Ruth wanting to feel love from someone other than her ignorant husband.

I see why people like this movie and I guess I understand why it’s on this list, but I find it hard to say I would list it as one of the one hundred best American movies of all time.  It has some wonderful performances that I really enjoyed.  And the storytelling and filmmaking is bar none.  But I feel like I could list a handful of movies that were of the same quality but much more meaningful to me.  Big Fish, Good Will Hunting, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, I know there are a bunch more I can’t think of, are all movies I think are more worthy than this.

I give The Last Picture Show 3 out of 5 bowls of Rocky Road ice cream.  It’s a well made classic but just not for me.

 

From Jenny:

This movie was so slow that I felt compelled to ask Jon a couple of probably annoying questions, because I kept drifting off: wait, is that the same guy, who is that?  Are they brothers?  Did I miss something?  Here’s what I remember, what stood out to me:

I found myself thinking about when this movie took place, a lot.  It was filmed in 1971, but set in 1951. I think about what it must have been like to live during that time. But the point was, it didn’t matter when it was. The themes and situations are universal, recurring: teenagers outgrowing small town, falling in love for the first time, falling in love and it’s not love, learning about ourselves and our friends, learning who’s a friend and who isn’t. The characters (comprised of a whole lotta famous people– I knew six right off the bat, so movie people probably know more) are no one you know but everyone you know. The fictitious town in which the movie is set, Anarene, appears to be a handful of years away from being an entry on one of my favorite sites, Abandoned But Not Forgotten.com. The title alone refers to the closing of the movie theatre in town, a sad and powerful symbol. This movie is filled with loneliness and jealousy, a cyclical feeling like there’s nothing more to life, and that the kind of family and town a person is from determines one’s fate. Only one person seems to be at peace, and that’s Sam the Lion.  If I watched this movie again, I’d pay more attention to him.

Another point about the movie being set in 1951.  I like old movies, but sometimes for not the reasons they’re considered good. I like The Amityville Horror because I like looking at Lutz’s kitchen and furniture, and Margot Kidder’s ugly and bizarre lingerie, and details about the structure of the house that scream “1979, but from 1946.” But this movie was more like a play, with sparse props, scenes that didn’t really contain a lot of stuff that told me it was 1951.  Interesting choice.

After seeing this movie then waiting a really long time to process it, one more thing stands out in my mind: the affair between Cloris Leachman’s character, Ruth, the “middle-aged” depressed housewife, wife of the high school basketball coach, and high school senior Sonny (I’ll call him the protagonist for the sake of this entry*), played by Timothy Bottoms. Watching the moment the two of them dive from “thinking about it” to “too late” is kind of painful, because there is no possible good ending to that kind of thing, and you just have to wait it out.  It’s sad in a similar way to how Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson’s affair quickly turns from exciting to monotonous, but way faster. Like the second time. And watching how happy Ruth was to have something in her life fulfilled by Sonny, that had nothing to do with sex, made me feel really sad, like I wanted to stop watching. It demonstrated how two people who have nothing naturally to do with one another, who should really just pass each other by on the street, can end up intersecting in such a confused and misguided way. Both of them had such delusional expectations because some other part of their lives was lacking, and the best the viewer can hope for is that maybe one of them escapes unscathed. In Sonny and Ruth’s case, it’s the older woman who chooses to keep her feelings to herself, choosing to switch gears into an almost motherly role by the end of the movie. Instead of reacting in anger when Sonny’s immaturity and self-centeredness takes center stage over whatever attracted her to him in the first place, she has some kind of mercy on him, but it’s all hugely unsatisfying. I suppose that’s the way lots of life goes though, like a teenager snickering at an adult for being cheerful, having no idea what years of hurt, disappointment, and loss may be underneath that decision to be happy– to cover up one’s real feelings with what’s best for the situation.

I don’t know when I’d realistically have time, but I’d watch this movie again.  I’d probably get a lot more out of it, but I’d also need to be doing something else while it played, like painting a room or organizing socks. I’d recommend it, even though I probably did a pretty bad job of explaining why.  I hope you don’t totally agree.

For The Last Picture Show, I give three bowls of French Vanilla ice cream (because it’s plain) but I’d put a little butterscotch syrup on it, because that seems like something people in this movie might really enjoy.  I wouldn’t ask for it, but I get why people like it.  Sort of.

*I’d hate to know how old she actually was supposed to be.

**Although Jon just said “maybe the town is the protagonist.” Oh jeeze.  I just need to finish writing this.  

Up Next: Pulp Fiction

Jon: Great movie… highly overrated

Jenny: I already saw this movie more than I wanted to, which was once.

100: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur, 1959

From Jon…

Starting at the bottom of any “Best of” list presents the same issue no matter what topic the list tackles or who is responsible for its assembly.  While many will argue about the order items on the top of the list should be in, there is very rarely a question of the items worthiness, but the closer you get to the bottom, the more compelling it is to claim certain items shouldn’t even be on the list.  That is where I find myself after watching #100 on AFI’s list, Ben Hur.  Granted, I had to watch the movie in pieces over a four month period, but that says something in itself.  The story wasn’t that interesting, the acting was horrible, the movie was way too long.  I could easily come up with a dozen other movies that are more deserving of a place in AFI’s top 100 countdown.  I understand there’s a lot of sentimental value this movies brings with it, it harkens back to specific era of movie making, but sentiment doesn’t make a movie great.

The biggest problem I’ve had with all of AFI’s lists is they seem to be made by a bunch of 80 year old men.  Movies from the early days of filmmaking always seem to be weighted heavier than more modern flicks.  I have no doubt that Ben-Hur was an amazing movie when it came out.  I find it incredibly interesting to watch something like the chariot race scene and think, they did all this with no CG and very simple special effects.  And in all honesty, I found the movie to be pretty graphic by today’s standards, which makes me wonder how audiences in 1959 reacted to hands getting ripped off and people getting trampled by horses.  But the fact remains that we’ve made giant strides in movie making since 1959 and a movie like this just doesn’t hold up to the best movies made today.  The story, which felt like an ancient version of Forrest Gump with Judah Ben-Hur continuously stumbling into historic events, is bloated and over written.  Every scene seemed to go on for three or four minutes longer then needed.  And the acting was terrible.  I’m not really sure how Charlton Heston became so revered other than being involved in a number of these big budgets movies.  It would be like Keanu Reeves or Vin Diesel being considered great actors by people 50 years from now.

I do think that historical context should play some part in this list, but it can’t be the only reason a movie makes it.  Ben-Hur needs to bring something else to the table other than a couple of scenes that were ahead of their time in 1959 if it wants to be on this list.  Citizen Kane is still an interesting film even if its innovations are now commonplace.  It Happened One Night is still funny and well acted even if its sense of romantic comedy has been updated and improved.  Ben-Hur can’t claim any of this.  It’s an old movie that feels dated, more a historic note than a great film.  And in all fairness to AFI, Ben-Hur did drop twenty eight spots in the ten years between their two lists.  I think it would be safe to say, if they come out with a 20 year list, Ben-Hur will be left off.

 I give Ben-Hur 2 out of 5 bowls of vanilla ice cream.  It’s a classic flavor but it just doesn’t hold up to the fancy Ben & Jerry stuff you can buy these days.

 

From Jenny…

oh boy. what a place to start.  I fear that if I write my true reaction to this movie (at least as I spoke it to family and friends) I’d brand myself useless and stupid in the commentaries that follow here.  I am not used to writing about movies, and I have to say most of them disinterest me. That said, I’m kind of a blank slate in many ways, so that might be a reason to listen to me after all.  I don’t have any preconceived notions that bias me other than, well, my opinions.

Without even knowing much about this movie, it’s the kind of film that would certainly have kept me from embarking on challenges such as this.

So, besides the parts where I wasn’t paying attention or had to ask Jon what just happened (if I happened to leave the room for a second) or felt so tense because of the brutal violence I was surprised they HAD in 1959 much less would SHOW in 1959. OK OK OK– it was actually 26 AD not 1959 so I concede that things were pretty damn violent back then.  I mean, you say “Ben-Hur” to anyone and he says “Oh, the chariot race scene” back.  I think I pretty much could have just watched that scene to have claimed to watch the movie.  But no, I was present for all 3 hours and 44 minutes. Did I enjoy this movie?  Not really.  Do I understand why it’s on the list?  Yes.

I did enjoy the part where I got to see Jesus. He was easy to recognize, even though it was just from the back. I also learned that this was a book before it was a movie, and I own the book.  If anyone wants to borrow it, let me know and I’ll dust it real good for you.  I don’t think I’ll be reading it anytime soon.

I give Ben-Hur 3.44 bowls of ice cream for being impressive, like an exploding volcano, but slow, like the lava that takes 3 hours and 44 minutes to finish consuming you.