Film Review: Tracks (1977, dir by Henry Jaglom)


The 1977 film, Tracks, opens somewhere in America.

Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper) sits on a bench, waiting for a train.  He’s wearing a military uniform.  He claims that he’s a 1st sergeant.  He claims that he’s just returned from Vietnam.  He’s traveling with a flag-draped coffin.  He says that the coffin contains the remains of his best friend from Nam.  Jack is accompanying the coffin back to his friend’s hometown.  Jack says that he’s going to make sure that his friend gets a proper burial.

From the minute we meet Jack, we get the feeling that there’s something off about him.  He’s a little bit too quick to smile and, when he laughs, it’s the guttural sound of someone who has learned how to show joy by watching other people but who has perhaps never felt it himself.  Sometimes, he’s quiet.  Sometimes, he is loquacious and verbose.  When he does speak, he rarely looks anyone in the eyes.  Jack is jumpy, as if he’s constantly afraid that he’s about to be exposed as a liar.

Soon, Jack is riding a train across the country.  While the rest of the passengers look out the windows and takes in the American landscape, Jack nervously wanders around the train.  He gets involved in a regular chess game.  He befriends a mysterious man named Mark (Dean Stockwell).  He starts a tentative relationship with a student named Stephanie (Taryn Power).  He tells anyone who will listen that he’s traveling with the body of his best friend.  When a black Korean war vet complains that Jack is acting like he’s the only person who lost a friend in a war, an offended Jack replies that his friend was black.

Jack sees things.  When he sees that the other passengers are assaulting Stepanie, he pulls out a small gun and aims it at the back of the train, just to suddenly realize that Stephanie is sitting unbothered at the back of the train.  While we know that Jack was hallucinating the attack on Stephanie, we still wonder if he really pulled out that gun.  If he did, no one else seems to have noticed.

Sometimes, the passengers say things to Jack that don’t seem to make any sense, leaving Jack staring at them in confusion.  Other times, Jack sees dark figures walking through the train.  At night, he wanders around naked.  Jack spends the trip watching the other passengers with a slightly dazed look on his face.  He plays chess with a man who later insists that he’s never played chess with Jack.  Sometimes, he thinks that he and Stephanie are outside of the train.  When Mark approaches Jack and asks for help, Jack explains that he can’t help anyone.  While a soundtrack of old World War II propaganda songs thunders in the background, Jack struggles to keep track of what’s real and what isn’t.

And so does the audience.  As we watch, it occurs to us that Jack’s stories about Vietnam don’t really seem to add up.  Add to that, we never actually saw Jack board the train.  Instead, we saw him sitting on a bench and waiting for the train.  We’re left to wonder if the train’s real or if the whole movie is just a figment of Jack’s damaged imagination.  And what about the coffin?  Tracks is full of unanswered questions but, in the film’s incendiary final moments, we do learn the truth about that coffin … maybe.

Henry Jaglom has been making independent films for several decades now.  Tracks is one of his better films, if just because Jaglom’s loose, seemingly improvised style actually works well at communicating Jack’s own struggle to keep up with what’s really happening and what he’s imagining.  As deceptively random as the film’s collections of scenes may appear, it’s all anchored by Dennis Hopper’s wonderfully unhinged performance.  Hopper brings a method actor’s intensity to Jack’s struggle to not only keep straight what’s real and what isn’t but also to keep his fellow passengers from understanding that he’s deeply unbalanced.  This film was made during Hopper’s drug-fueled lost years and he plays Jack like a man who is desperately trying to keep the world from seeing that he’s in the throes of withdrawal.  Unlike Hopper, Jack’s addiction isn’t to drugs.  Instead, Jack’s addicted to war, or at the very least his obsession with war.  (By the end of the movie, you have your doubts about whether Jack’s ever been to Vietnam or not.)  The use of World War II propaganda songs on the soundtrack may occasionally get annoying but they actually play up the contrast between our often simplistic view of war and the far more complex reality.

If nothing else, I would recommend Tracks for Hopper’s performance.  As well, since he co-stars with Dean Stockwell, it’s easy to imagine Tracks as being a bit of a prequel to Blue Velvet.  Who’s to say that Jack Falen didn’t change his name to Frank Booth?

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

A Movie A Day #165: Big Wednesday (1978, directed by John Milius)


If there is a male bonding hall of fame, Big Wednesday has to be front and center.

This episodic movie follows three legendary surfers over twelve years of change and turmoil.  Jack Barlowe (William Katt) is the straight arrow who keeps the peace.  Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild man.  Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the best surfer of them all but he resents both his fame and the expectation that he should be some sort of role model for the younger kids on the beach.  From 1962 until 1974, the three of them learn about love and responsibility while dealing with cultural turmoil (including, of course, the Vietnam War) and waiting for that one legendary wave.

After writing the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directing The Wind and The Lion and Dillinger, John Milius finally got to make his dream project.  Big Wednesday was based on Milius’s own youth as a California surfer and he has said that all three of the main characters were based on different aspects of his own personality.  Expectations for Big Wednesday were so high that Milius’s friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exchanged percentages points for Star Wars and Close Encounters of  The Third Kind for a point of Big Wednesday.  The deal turned out to be worth millions to Milius but nothing to Lucas and Spielberg because Big Wednesday was a notorious box office flop.  Warner Bros. sold the film as a raunchy comedy, leaving audiences surprised to discover that Big Wednesday was actually, in Milius’s words, a “coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones.”

I can understand why Big Wednesday may not be for everyone but it is one of my favorite movies.  It is one of the ultimate guy films.  Some of the dialogue and the narration may be overwrought but so are most guys, especially when they’re the same age as the surfers in Big Wednesday.  We all like to imagine that we are heroes in some sort of epic adventure.  The surfing footage is amazing but it is not necessary to be a surfer to relate to the film’s coming-of-age story or its celebration of the enduring bonds of friendship.  Katt, Vincent, and Busey all give great performances.  Considering their later careers, it is good that Big Wednesday is around to remind us of what Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent were capable of at their best, before their promising careers were derailed by drugs and mental illness.  Be sure to also keep an eye out for infamous 70s character actor Joe Spinell as an army psychiatrist, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund, playing a fellow surfer and providing the film’s narration, and Barbara Hale, playing the patient mother of her real-life son, William Katt.

One final note: At a time when the shameful stereotype of the psycho Vietnam vet was becoming popular and unfairly tarnishing the reputation of real-life vets, Big Wednesday was unique for featuring a character who not only joins the Army but who appears to return as a better person as a result.

Shattered Politics #46: Used Cars (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


Used_Cars_film_poster

“Do you think we like being associated with the President of the United States?  I mean, we run an honest business here!” —

Jeff (Gerrit Graham) in Used Cars (1980)

As a film lover, I’ve sat through so many disappointing commentary tracks that, when I come across one that’s actually fun and informative, it causes me to like the film even more.  One of the best commentary tracks that I’ve ever heard was the one that Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell recorded for the DVD release of the 1980 comedy Used Cars.

The film — which was an early credit for both director Zemeckis and screenwriter Gale — tells the story of two rival used car lots.  The bad guy car lot is owned by Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden).  The good guy car lot is owned by Roy’s brother, Luke Fuchs (also played by Jack Warden).  The top salesman at the good guy car lot is Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell).  The film shows what happens when Luke dies and Rudy tries to prevent Roy from taking over the lot.

The commentary track is distinguished by just how much Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell seem to truly enjoy watching and talking about the film.  Kurt Russell, in particular, has an incredibly engaging laugh and his sense of fun is contagious.  However, for me, the most interesting part of the commentary track came when Bob Gale explicitly compared Rudy Russo and Luke’s daughter (played by Deborah Harmon) to Bill and Hillary Clinton and then even starts to do a surprisingly good imitation of Bill’s hoarse Arkansas accent.

What made it interesting was that the comparison was absolutely correct.

Politicians are salesmen.  Much as politicians will say anything to get your vote, the salesmen in Used Cars will say and do anything to get your money.  Politicians sell promises that are too good to be true.  Rudy Russo and Roy L. Fuchs do the same thing, claiming that their used cars are just as good and safe as a car that’s never been owned before.

In fact, one of the major plotlines in Used Cars is that Rudy is plotting to make the move from selling cars to buying votes.  There’s a vacancy in the state senate and Rudy is planning on running for the seat.  All he has to do is come up with the $10,000 necessary to buy the nomination from the local political machine. (I imagine it would be more expensive to buy a nomination today.)  Luke agrees to loan Rudy the money but, before he can, Luke goes on a test drive with a former race car driver.

The driver works for Luke’s evil brother, Roy.  Roy knows that Luke has a heart condition and he specifically sends over that driver to give Luke a fatal heart attack.  Just as Rudy is trying to sell a car to a costumer who is skeptical about whether or not he should pay an extra fifty dollar for something he doesn’t want (“$50.00 never killed anyone!” the customer insists), Luke staggers into the office and dies.

(The shocked customer agrees to pay the extra fifty dollars.  Ever the salesman, Luke grabs the fifty before he dies.)

With Luke dead and his estranged daughter nowhere to be seen, Roy is next-in-line to take over Luke’s car lot.  So, Rudy hides the body and tells everyone that Luke is down in Florida.  Both he and his fellow salesman, the hilariously superstitious Jeff (Gerrit Graham), conspire to make as much money as possible before anyone discovers the truth.

How do they do it?  Illegally, of course!

First off, they break into the broadcast of a football game and do an ad.  Then, they use strippers to attract customers.  And finally, Rudy comes up with his master plan, interrupting a televised address from the President of the United States.

“You can’t fuck with the President!” Jeff says.

“Hey, he fucks with us…” Rudy responds.

Seriously, I love Rudy.

In fact, I really liked Used Cars.  It’s a good combination of broad humor and clever satire and both Kurt Russell and Gerrit Graham give such likable performances that you can ignore the fact that they’re both playing total jerks.  (In fact, I would argue that one reason that we love Rudy is because he’s so honest about being so crooked.)  Not every scene worked perfectly.  The scene where Rudy and Jeff interrupt that football game goes on forever and, after a spokesmodel’s dress is ripped off, becomes so uncomfortable to watch that it actually takes the film a while to recover.  But then, after that, you get the interruption of the President’s speech.  You get Jeff freaking out over whether or not red cars or unlucky.  You get some fun driving school humor.  And, of course, you get a cute dog that can do tricks and helps to sell cars.  The film recovers and, ultimately, Used Cars is a celebration of small businesses everywhere.

And you know what?

I really hope Rudy did make it into the state senate.

We need more Rudy Russos in government.

And we really need more commentary tracks featuring Kurt Russell!