Love on the Shattered Lens: Splendor in the Grass (dir by Elia Kazan)


What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…

— “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth

The 1962 film, Splendor in the Grass, takes place in Kansas shortly before the start of the Great Depression.  Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are two teenagers in love but, as we learn, youthful love does not always translate into adult happiness.

Bud and Deanie are idealistic and in love but they’re from different social classes.  Bud is the son of a boisterous oilman named Ace (Pat Hingle) and Ace acts much like you would expect a millionaire named Ace to behave.  Bud’s parents are determined that he attend Yale and that he marry someone else from a wealthy family.  They don’t want him to turn out like his older sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), who drinks, smokes, and is rumored to have recently had an abortion.  Meanwhile, Deanie is repeatedly told by her mother that she must always remain a “good girl” and not give in to the temptation to have premarital sex with either Bud or any other boy.  If she does, she’ll be forever branded a bad girl and she’ll pretty much end up with a reputation like Ginny’s.

(Interestingly enough, Ace doesn’t have any problem with Bud finding  himself a bad girl, nor does he have a problem with taking his son to a speakeasy later in the film.  As far as society in concerned, being “good” and following the rules only applies to women.)

Needless to say, things don’t work out well for either Deanie or Bud.  Bud is so frustrated that Deanie won’t have sex with him that he dumps her and then has the first of several breakdowns.  When Deanie’s attempt to win Bud back by acting more like Ginny fails, she ends up going out with a classmate named Toots Tuttle (Gary Lockwood).  Nothing good ever comes from going out on a date with someone named Toots Tuttle.  That’s certainly the case here as Deanie and Bud both struggle with the demands of a hypocritical society that expects and encourages Bud to behave in a certain way but which also condemns Deanie for having desires of her own.  And, of course, the entire time that Bud and Deanie’s drama is playing out, we’re aware that the clock is ticking and soon the stock market is going to crash and change everyone’s lives forever.

It’s kind of a depressing film, to be honest.  I’ve always found it to be rather sad.  When we first meet them, Deanie and Bud seem as if they’re perfect for each other but, throughout the entire film, the world seems to be conspiring to keep them apart.  By the end of the film, they’ve both found a kind of happiness but we’re painfully aware that it’s not the happiness that either one was expecting while they were still in school.  The film suggests that type of happiness might be impossible to attain and a part of growing up is realizing that there is no such thing as perfection.  Instead, there’s just making the best of wherever you find yourself.

There’s a scene in this film where Natalie Wood nearly drowns and it always freaks me out, both because of my own fear of drowning and the fact that it foreshadows what would eventually happen to Natalie in 1982.  (The fact that Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s yacht was called “Splendour” doesn’t help.)  Natalie herself was also deeply scared of drowning and just filming the scene undoubtedly took a lot of courage on Natalie’s part.  But then again, Natalie Wood’s entire performance is courageous.  Natalie Wood gives an emotional and intense performance as Deanie, holding nothing back and it’s impossible not to get emotional while watching her.  Making his film debut, Warren Beatty is a bit of a stiff as Bud, though he’s certainly handsome and you can tell why Deanie would have found him attractive.  (In high school, you always assume that the boring, handsome guys actually have more depth than they let on.)  By the end of the film, you understand that Deanie deserved better than Bud.  Then again, Deanie deserved better than just about everything life had to offer her.  But Deanie survived and endured and made the best of what she was given because, really, what else could she had done?  What other choice did she have?

For her performance in Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood received her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  She lost to Sophia Loren for Two Women and …. well, actually, Loren deserved the award.  But so did Wood.  1961 would have been a great year for a tie.

Film Review: Model Shop (dir by Jacques Demy)


The 1969 film, Model Shop, plays out like a dream.

The film tells a simple enough story.  In fact, it’s tempting to say that Model Shop is plotless though it actually isn’t.  There’s a plot but, in many ways, the film is more about how the story is told than the story itself.  Gary Lockwood plays George Matthews, a former architectural student who is currently living in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Gloria (Alexandra Hay).  Gloria is an actress while George …. well, George is just a drop out.  Throughout the film, we get clues that George might have once cared about things (for instance, some of his friends are putting out an underground newspaper while another is into creating protest music).  However, by the time we meet him, George seems to be rather detached from life.  Of course, some of that may be due to the fact that, because he’s no longer in college, George is now eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  (The film was made in 1969, after all.)  In fact, George has just received his induction notice.  He basically has a week left before joining the army.  At one point, in a flat tone of voice, he says, “It feels like a death sentence.”

Getting drafted is not George’s only problem.  He’s also about to lose his beloved car!  George has a day to come up with a few hundred dollars so he can keep his beloved green roadster from being repossessed.  (In George’s defense, it is a pretty nice car.)  While Gloria goes off to shoot a soap commercial, George spends his day driving around Los Angeles and searching for money.  George has a lot of friends but most of them are too busy making music and setting up love-ins in Griffith Park to help him out.  George doesn’t want to call his mother for the money and when he tries to call his father, he gets a lecture about how his older brother served in Korea.  No one is willing to make any sacrifices to help out George.  That may have something to do with the fact that George is, at times, a tad whiny and a bit self-absorbed.

It’s while wandering around Los Angeles that George spots the beautiful Lola (Anouk Aimée).  The glamorous but sad Lola works at a model shop, a sleazy establishment where men pay to take her picture.  Lola has a tragic story of her own, one that finds her stranded in Los Angeles.  It all leads to a brief romance that’s as bittersweet as ennui in May.

(Ennui in May is also the title of a musical that I’ve been writing, off-and-on, since 2012.  Keep an eye out for more details!)

Model Shop was the first (and only) English-language film of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and one reason that the film seems so dream-like is because Demy wrote the dialogue-heavy script in French and then had it translated into English.  As such, this is an extremely talky film in which no one ever seems to have a real conversation.  (It should also be noted that what sounds beautiful and poetic in French can come across quite differently in the harsher tones of the English language.)  George, Gloria, and Lola all speak in pedantic, declarative sentences.  There’s none of the individual verbal quirks or changes in tone that would make it seem as if these were people having an actual conversation.  As well, nobody ever talks over anyone else.  No one ever attempts to interrupt anyone else’s train of thought.  At times, it seems like the cast is performing under the influence of hypnosis and they’ve been told, “Do nothing while anyone else is speaking.”  It creates a rather odd atmosphere.

Also adding to the film’s dream-like feel is Jacques Demy’s direction.  The pacing feels just a little bit off.  It’s not so far off as to harm the film.  In fact, the fact that everything seems to be moving just a little bit slower than expected is actually one of the film’s biggest strengths.  If nothing else, it reflects George’s own feelings of being on borrowed time.  Beyond that, though, Demy often seems less like a director than an anthropologist.  A good deal of the film is simply made up of shots of George driving around Los Angeles and one gets the feeling that Demy was more fascinated with capturing the unique style of America than with telling George’s story.  Demy directs the film like an outsider looking in and, as a result, he often seems to focus on the details of daily life — like the television and the billboards and the red Coke signs hanging over every store window — that Americans takes for granted.  At the start of the film, the camera lingers over an oil derrick, as if Demy is looking at this symbol of Americana and looking for clues to understand what makes America what it is.  Much as Michelangelo Antonioni did when he made Zabriskie Point, Demy seems to be trying to use this film to solve the riddle of America and how Americans — even with the country embroiled in an unpopular war — could remain so youthful and optimistic about the future.  Unlike Antonioni, Demy seems to be more bemused than angered by America’s contradictions.  Anonioni ended Zabriskie Point by blowing up a luxury, mountain-side home.  One gets the feeling that Demy would have found the same house to be rather charming.

Of course, the late 60s were a time when Hollywood studios felt that they were under attack, not just from television but from foreign films as well.  With all the critics talking about European films were superior to studio films in every way and young filmgoers flocking to foreign films, it would only make sense that the studios would would bring filmmakers over from Europe.  For the studios, it was a chance to try to convince people that they weren’t run by out-of-touch dinosaurs.  For the filmmakers, it was a chance to try to capture and explain America on film.  The end results were mixed, with many of the directors — like Fancois Traffuat and Michelangelo Antonioni — later testifying to the difficulty of trying to work with an American studio while having a European sensibility.  This was also true of Demy, who never did another English-language film after Model Shop.  Reportedly, Demy wanted to cast an unknown actor named Harrison Ford as George but Columbia Studios demanded that Demy use Gary Lockwood.  (Lockwood, of course, is best known for not showing a hint of emotion, even while hurtling to his death, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Model Shop is definitely a film of it’s time, which is why I enjoyed watching it.  Yes, it’s pretentious and kind of silly.  But, at the same time, Demy is so fascinated with the Los Angeles of the late 60s that it’s hard not to share his fascination.  The film plays out like a dream of the past, like a time machine that puts you to sleep and then fills your head with images that you can see but you can’t quite reach.  It’s a time capsule, perfect for history nerds like you and me.

Someday, if films like Back to the Future and Happy Death Day 2U are any guide, we’ll have time machines and we’ll be able to personally experience the past.  Until then, we can watch films like Model Shop.

Lisa Goes Back To College: R.P.M. (dir by Stanley Kramer)


RPM

For my next return-to-college film, I ended up watching R.P.M.  Like both Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. was released in 1970 and deals with political unrest on campus.

Directed by Stanley Kramer (who also gave us such respectable and middlebrow liberal films as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg), R.P.M. takes place at prestigious college.  Students radicals led by Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield) have taken over a building on campus.  When the university’s president goes to confront the students, one of them yells out, “Buzz off!”  Well, you know how sensitive college presidents are.  He quickly resigns his post and the students demand that he be replaced either by Che Guevara, Eldridge Cleaver, or Paco Perez.

Unfortunately, Guevara is dead and Cleaver is in Algeria.  Fortunately, left-wing sociology professor Paco Perez (Anthony Quinn) is available and he just happens to teach on campus!  Perez is named interim president of the college.  Now, Perez has to bring peace to the campus, despite the fact that the protestors now see him as a sell-out because he accepted the position. Perez also has to deal with nonstop snarky comments from his girlfriend, a grad student named Rhoda (played by Ann-Margaret).

Especially when compared to Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is something of a forgotten film.  I haven’t found many reviews online and the majority of them mostly seem to focus on the fact that the film is dated and that director Stanley Kramer’s portrayal of the student protestors is incredibly negative.  And, in many ways, those criticisms are perfectly valid.  And yet, with all that in mind, I still loved R.P.M.  Of the three 1970 campus protest films that I watched last weekend, R.P.M. was my personal favorite.

Why do I so love R.P.M?

Well, let’s check out some of the dialogue.

When Paco first comes to see the protestors, one girl literally sings, “Look what the revolution dragged in!”

Later, another demonstrator is heard to philosophically ask, “Why is the good ass never radical and the radical ass never good?”  (And that’s certainly a question that was asked by everyone who drove by Occupy Dallas back in 2011.)

About the college administration, one girl announces, “They’ve got empty scrotes!”

When Paco tells Dempsey that the college is finally going to hire a black admissions offer, Dempsey replies, “How black?  Is this cat an oreo cookie?  Is he related to my uncle Tom?”

When Paco asks how long it will take for the protestors to peacefully leave the building, one of them loudly announces, “It would take to the 12th of never!”  Of course, everyone applauds.

And that’s not counting all of the times that random protestors say, “Right on!”

But even better than listening to the protestors is listening to Paco and Rhoda discuss their relationship.

When Rhoda tells Paco that she knows the real him because she sees him without his pajamas, Paco replies, “That’s not reality.  That’s flab.”  With a world-weary sigh, Rhoda replies, “Flab is reality.”

When Paco complains about Rhoda’s cooking, she sensibly tells him, “Next semester, hump a home economics major.”  Paco replies, “I did.  The food is great but the talk is lousy.”

After being taunted by a student, Paco asks Rhoda, “Did you tell the kids I was a lousy lay?”  Rhoda laughs and replies, “I may have thought it but I never said it!”

Finally, in one heart-warming scene, Paco informs Rhoda that, “The whole campus calls you Paco’s Pillow.”

Seriously, how can you not love a movie with dialogue this overwritten and over-the-top?  It’s obvious the Kramer and screenwriter Erich Segal were desperate to sound hip and contemporary and, as a result, nobody speaks like a normal person.  Instead, listening to R.P.M. is a bit like listening to a party to which every 60s stereotype has been invited.

And yet, it’s not just the dated dialogue that causes me to love R.P.M.  As opposed to the histrionic Getting Straight and the artistically detached Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is an attempt to seriously deal with the issue of student protest.  For every three moments that ring false, there’s one that works and that’s a lot more than most films about campus unrest can say.  Anthony Quinn gives a good performance as a man who doesn’t realize quite how complacent he has become.  He and Gary Lockwood have a wonderfully tense scene together where they sincerely and intelligent debate their different worldviews.  It’s the best scene in the film and one that is so well-done that it excuses any previous missteps.

R.P.M. occasionally shows up on TCM.  Keep an eye out for it.

Antony Quinn and Ann-Margaret