Category: 1970


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I once had a professor in college that I love and respect very much who once presented the argument (I’m unsure if she actually believed it or was just simply stating it out loud) that because cinema was such an originally proletarian form of artistic expression, it was pretentious to assume that cinema should aspire to be a higher art. Because it was originally created for mass consumption, the argument goes that the greatest films are those which can be enjoyed by the most people. True “art” was left for literature and the classical visual arts. Clearly, if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know I disagree (in fact, my review of The Master makes the exact opposite point), and films like 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday are the perfect example of why. A film that was light years ahead of its time in terms of LGBT content, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a slow-moving character study whose grasp of loneliness and desperation is nearly unparalleled.

I bring this all up not to sound pretentious or like the snobby cinephile all my readers know I am, but because Sunday Bloody Sunday (abbreviated to SBS from this point forward in review) is a film that is as far away from mass appeal as humanly possible, but it has the quiet power and raw emotional energy of the great pieces of American literature of the 20th century. The film, directed by John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame, has such a clarity of vision and honest understanding of its characters that the film doesn’t have to rely on emotional fireworks and explosive confrontations to achieve a near total devastation. In the same vein of A Single ManSBS takes a subtle and sexy approach (40 years before that would enter the mainstream of LGBT cinematic storytelling) to exploring love, bisexuality, polyamory, and the overwhelming hopelessness of loneliness.

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The film is often referred to as a romantic drama involving a “love triangle” although I think that’s ultimately inaccurate (for reasons I’ll expound on later). Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is an exiting middle-age homosexual Jewish doctor with a successful private practice. Alexandra Greville (Glenda Jackson) is a middle-aged woman with an unfulfilling career at an employment referral agency. The only thing the two have in common (besides a sense of emptiness in their lives) is that they both love the young, bisexual artist Robert Elkin (Murray Head). Taking place more or less over the course of one week, Sunday Bloody Sunday sketches an intimate portrait of the affection and meaning Alex and Daniel both seek from Robert while the always restless Robert hops from partner to partner always in search of the next new and exciting experience in his own life.

If the film sounds dull by that synopsis, it is surely not the most exciting film ever made, and SBS moves at its own consistently deliberate pace. And while the film does find itself at somewhat of a resolution by the movie’s end, it is not a “happy ending” that will leave many satisfied, and, in fact, I would argue that Sunday Bloody Sunday sets up this type of dissatisfaction intentionally because it’s an honest portrayal of the complex romantic entanglements that have formed in these people’s lives as well as a commentary on the way that we look for meaning in romance at the cost of actual self-improvement (more on that shortly). SBS is barely a story in the traditional sense of the word and it lacks any singular scene begging for the audience’s attention. However, the sheer strength of the film’s writing, characters, and performances kept me entranced until the end credits rolled.

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Sunday Bloody Sunday won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the two leads won Best Actor and Actress. I’m not intimately familiar with all of the other nominees that year but Glenda Jackson’s win was well-deserved and Peter Finch was no slouch himself. It would not be an understatement to say that Glenda Jackson gives one of the most powerfully subtle and restrained performances that I’ve seen for this blog (it’s really a shame she’s up against the firebrand, crazy turn from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for this 50 film block). Alex’s loneliness and sense that her life is going nowhere and doesn’t have much of a chance of changing is soul-crushing, and in every line of Alex’s aging face (just realized Glenn Close was an Alex as well), you see how she feels the world and fate closing in around her. It’s the type of emotionally naked (and physically naked occasionally) performance that you rarely saw from female actresses at the time. Apparently, Glenda Jackson also went on to be a member of Parliament after she retired from acting if you’re interested in random trivia.

And Peter Finch’s Dan has to be one of the most compelling LGBT characters to appear in a mainstream film (in so far as John Schlesinger has now entered the cinematic mainstream thanks to Midnight Cowboy). Anyone who’s seen The Celluloid Closet (a documentary chronicling the portrayal of LGBT characters in mainstream cinema) knows that well into the 1990s, it was an unwritten rule (except when it was written thanks to the Hays Code) that gay characters had to be in some type of psychic turmoil and they all suffered throughout the film. Certainly Dan has problems, but they are tame compared to Alex, and he’s an otherwise well-adjusted man. The simple fact that Peter Finch played against period homosexual stereotypes at every turn (he wasn’t foppish in the slightest) would be enough to cement this character’s legacy, but Finch also shows the quiet loneliness and repression that eat away at Dan’s soul. Murray head also makes an impact as the sensitive and androgynous beatnik that captures both Alex’s and Dan’s passions.

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It’s a gorgeously shot film although Schlesinger’s famous tendency towards slipping in fantasies and flashbacks without any of the traditional visual transitions confused me slightly at first (although I immediately remembered my high school experience with Midnight Cowboy). Although once again, the film is gorgeous in a different way than, say, an Andrew Dominik film or Terrence Malick film. It doesn’t forcibly grab your attention. Instead, quiet lighting or a lingering shot on a sculpture of Bob’s (a strange but enchanting contraption involving what appears to be mercury and a reaction to music), Sunday Bloody Sunday underscores the need Alex and Dan need for beauty and pleasure in their desperate lives. Dan’s home is gorgeous and full of art, but the film never fails to hint at the emptiness seeping inside as well.

Sunday Bloody Sunday jumped to the top of my Netflix queue (The Crying Game was supposed to be the next film for me to watch according to my “master list” for this blog [which I’m also in the process of re-writing but that takes forever]) because it’s leaving Netflix Instant shortly. There are also like 9 other films in my instant queue that are leaving and I have to find time to watch as many of them as possible before they leave. One of these films is six hours long… and it’s the next one up. So, I’ll draw this review to a close although I hope you can tell that I have a lot more that I’d like to say about this movie. If you have any interest in quiet and powerful character studies as well as a film that is a hallmark of classic LGBT cinema, Sunday Bloody Sunday deserves your time and may very well be a true masterpiece of 1970s cinema period.

Final Score: A

Catch-22-1

Over this blog’s nearly two year history (our official two-year anniversary arrives this Thursday which really wigs me out), I’ve reviewed a lot of movies based off of books that I’ve never read. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Choke (although I wound up reading Chuck Palahniuk’s superior book later), The Help, About Schmidt. I could go on for a while. But there are few novels as essential to the American canon of literature that I haven’t actually read as Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) had the unenviable task of adapting one of the most celebrated novels of the 1960s. And while it was easy to spot without having read the book that screenwriter Buck Henry had to condense many larger, more complicated storylines in ways that didn’t work so well on the big screen, Catch-22 finally found its footing by film’s end and became an anti-war farce to rival the film version of M*A*S*H.

Captain Yossarian (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming‘s Alan Arkin) is a U.S. Air Force bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. Having watched a comrade die in his arms as Yossarian survived a crash landing, Yossarian wants to be grounded and to not have to fly any more combat missions. And to do that, he has to convince his superior officers that he’s crazy. But there’s a catch. Catch-22 (and the origin of that ubiquitous phrase into the American lexicon). In order to want to fly those suicidal missions into enemy territory, you’d have to be crazy. But, if you ask to be grounded on the basis on insanity, you’re sane for not wanting to fly those dangerous missions. So, you either fly the missions cause you’re crazy or you ask to not fly them but have to fly them because you’re sane.

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Catch-22 becomes a consistently non-linear look at the events leading up to and following the stabbing of Captain Yossarian by an unknown assailant that opens the film. The movie is as much a snapshot of the lives of the large crew of pilots and officers that make up Yossarian’s division as it is a scathing satire of the senselessness and futility of war. We see the enterprising and ambitious Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voigt) as he trades away half of the base’s goods to make everyone rich (although he gets many killed in the process). You meet Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel) who’s in love with an Italian prostitute. There’s the seemingly stable Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin) who reveals a darker side. And a multitude of other big, or soon to be big name actors, including Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles (Othello), Martin Sheen, and a super young Bob Balaban (Gosford Park).

My feelings toward the acting in the film are a little complicated, particularly in regards to the lead performance from Alan Arkin. He’s a little over-the-top and not always in that good Jack Nicholson way. There are plenty of moments where Yossarian is confronted with the insanity of his condition that Alan Arkin channels the sense of hopelessness and futile indignation that any man would have in that situation. But, there are also plenty of times (especially early in the film) where he just seems to be hamming it up. There’s a moment where Orson Welles’ General Dreedle brings his wife to a meeting where all of the men collectively lose their shit over how attractive she is, and Arkin’s moaning and panting is just cartoonish. But, for the most part, he sticks to a believable mode of acting and one can only wish that he had stayed there the whole film.

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And if you couldn’t tell from that list of supporting actors earlier, the film has some seriously heavy hitters in its ranks. Sadly, the Orson Welles in this film is late-career balloon Orson Welles so he was certainly past his prime as a performer (or artist period). Thankfully, though, the rest of the cast was eager and in peak condition. One of the real, pleasant surprises was the performance from the baby-faced and naturally talented Art Garfunkel. He should have done more acting. This is also easily the earliest roles that I can remember seeing either Bob Balaban or Martin Sheen and they both brought something energetic and truthful to the table. But, of course, the real scene-stealers from the supporting cast was the greedy but not malicious Jon Voigt as Milo and the sensitive and conflicted Anthony Perkins as the camp chaplain.

Catch-22 is without question one of the darkest comedies that you’ll ever watch. The humor here is even more pitch-black than Fight Club (though Fight Club is a better movie). Here is a film that makes a mockery of the military bureaucracy, the competency of high-ranking officers, and the need for war in the first place. In one scene, Yossarian’s squadron is about to bomb a town devoid of any actual strategic value to the U.S. and he decides at the last minute to drop their bombs over the ocean rather than kill civilians for no reason. And for his insubordination, he gets a medal so that the military doesn’t have to look bad. And even though he accepts it bare-ass naked, the high officers don’t punish him because they honestly don’t know what to do in the face of a man who is truly beginning to lose his mind.

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Catch-22 has its share of flaws, most notably an opening 20 minutes that confused the hell out of me (although perhaps it will all make more sense during a later viewing now that I know what was really happening), but when the film really begins to assert itself as a darkly comic satire of the horrors and stupidity of war, it shines like few other films. And the extended sequence that serves as the film’s turning point where Yossarian confronts the culmination of all of the greed and incompetence that has occurred thus far is one of the most brilliant bits of political satire I’ve ever seen. And while the film can’t maintain that high a level of insight for its entire duration, it is a fantastic reminder of all of the great counter-culture literature and cinema that were coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s. War is hell but Catch-22 reminds you that it can be both horrific and hilarious.

Final Score: A-

 

Moondance by Van Morrison is one of the most under-appreciated albums of all time. If you’re having a conversation about the Top 10 Greatest Albums Ever Made, and Moondance doesn’t at least sneak its way onto your list, it can really only mean one thing. You’ve never listened to Moondance. From the opening strains of today’s Song of the Day, “And It Stoned Me,” until the closing notes of “Glad Tidings,” you’re listening to a perfect record. End of discussion. It’s gotten to the point where I think Moondance (and even Astral Weeks) are so good that I can’t listen to Van Morrison’s big single, “Brown Eyed Girl” without getting infuriated over the fact that that song’s a huge “classic” but the rest of his library of music isn’t as famous. Moondance was a stupendous, genre-blurring masterpiece covering R&B, soul, folk, jazz, country, and a million other genres as well, and I’ll never be able to for the rest of my life hear “And It Stoned Me” without getting chills because of how phenomenal the song itself is as well as the rest of the album it calls home.

So, one of the music websites that I read pretty regularly (in addition to the one I work for, Baeble Music) is another website called Stereogum. They used to (although they haven’t had one in what feels like two months) have a new contest like every week where they’d give away vinyl records or expensive headphones or nice computer speakers. Anyways, I would enter pretty much every single one of their contests. They had one way back in February to give away a 14 DVD Grateful Dead box set consisting of the best Dead concert films that had been made during the band’s very, very long existence (which was still cut tragically short after Jerry Garcia’s untimely death at the young age of 53). I had nearly forgotten about the contest when I suddenly found a message in my inbox on Facebook telling me that I had won. So, that was pretty awesome. I found out about it the day I was moving out of NYC. I just wish I had won the Consequence of Sound contest for two free tickets to Bonnaroo so I could have brought friends with me instead of going alone. Anyways, I watched half of the first DVD in the box set, The Grateful Dead Movie, and it reminded me of why I’ve loved the Dead for so long and why I would have been a total dead head back in the day. So I figured I’d make my Song of the Day one of the best tracks off one of my favorite albums of all time,American Beauty. “Box of Rain” is probably my favorite, but “Sugar Magnolia” is pretty damn fantastic too.

 

Abraxas

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for musicians who have no concept of the term “excess”. Arcade Fire spring to mind as well as Kanye West. They have such monumental ambitions that it would be beyond absurd to try and tell them to chill out and try to achieve something more realistic. And they always manage to turn those over the top ambitions into glorious music productions. So it should come as absolutely no surprise that I adore Santana and their majestic magnum opus Abraxas.

Generations of future prog-rockers owe so much to this album’s existence even though I would never call this album prog-rock. Yet, with such significant fuses of psycadelia mixed over very extended instrumental solos and high-concept subject matter, this album almost lays the ground work for the entire prog movement. Despite the fact that there are often vocals on the album, it would not be incorrect to state that the vast majority of the album is simply the band playing their instruments and setting the mood and theme of the album through sheer instrumental wizardry. This will come as a shock to anyone who isn’t familiar with anything from the album other than it’s two biggest hits “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” which are more conventional (but no less awesome) Latin rock songs. If you listen to this entire album and don’t come to the conclusion that Carlos Santana is simply one of the most gifted men to ever pick up a guitar, then you need to get your ears checked. He makes that guitar talk like no other. Round it out with so many jazz flourishes from time signature and rhythm changes and the latin percussion use that is prevalent throughout (I’ve never enjoyed bongos so much), and you have an album that is just exploding with different musical styles that are all done just absolutely incredibly well.

If you enjoy Jazz, rock, Prog, or latin music, you owe it to yourself to check this out. Through creative compositions and a definitively unique sound, Santana created one of the premiere jam albums of the 1970′s. Honestly, the only thing that keeps this album from perfection for me is that I wish they had used vocals even less than they did and simply explored the emotional soundscape that they could have created just with their instruments because that is where I feel their strengths truly lie. This is one of those albums that jumps right out at you and says “I am to be taken seriously.” I know I do.

Final Score: A