Off-the-clock movies: Panic in Needle Park, M*A*S*H, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Annie Hall, Django Unchained and The Long Day Closes

January 17, 2015

While I’m planning to see Selma this weekend, my post-awards decompression period continues. It’s almost enough to make me wish I could only watch movies that I want to watch. (I don’t want that, though sometimes when you’re sitting through an indifferent late January release you start to daydream. Besides, then I’d have to pay for movies.)

Anyway, I saw Stephen Soderbergh’s list of all the media he consumed in 2014 the other day, and I’m wondering if it would be helpful if I didn’t do something similar. (Helpful to me, I mean, I’ve no illusions that any of you would find an unannotated list of what TV shows I’ve watched — mainly The Wire, we just finished season two, and we watched the season that was about the Baltimore Sun in real time so we’re not as far behind on that touchstone of American culture as we were a while ago, and we just watched the Archer pilot from 2009 — all that helpful. Hey, I don’t have a lot of time to spend watching mainstream TV. I haven’t heard Serial. It is what it is.)

I haven’t been as diligent about recording the off-the-clock movies here as I want to be, and I’m afraid this installment isn’t going to be much more than a list, but I kind of wanted just to get these titles down anyway, before they slip right off my mind. Anyway, this is just the order in which they came to mind:

The Panic in Needle Park was a movie I probably didn’t quite understand what everyone was so panicked about the first time I watched it, and it may have been one I only pretended to like. Anyway, I saw it when it first came out, I think in San Francisco when I was visiting my uncle (I would have been 12 years old). I don’t remember ever coming back to it as a young person, though of course I’d read about it (that was how I first discovered a lot of movies that have become personally important to me, thank you Pauline Kael), and when we watched it the other night I was aware of what I was supposed to think about it.

But what I really took away from it — other than being reminded how good an actor Al Pacino can (could) be — is the portrait of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the early ’70s. I know that part of the city — “Needle Park” is Sherman Square, at 74th and Broadway — pretty well, it’s all baby carriages and affluence now, and it feels safe as the Bentonville Square on a Sunday afternoon. And Kitty Winn — wow, that’s a delicate performance. I can’t let Karen watch the end because there’s a dog involved.

I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren’t getting Altman’s genius.
— Elliott Gould, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s biography, Robert Altman

I don’t know if it’s blasphemous to say that M*A*S*H (1970), the Robert Altman movie is a lesser work of art than the subsequent TV series —I really don’t know, maybe that’s the conventional wisdom these days — but I’ve always slightly preferred Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s slight grungier and slightly goofier takes on Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McEntire than Alan Alda’s and Wayne Rogers.

Anyway, the TV show was tighter, and exception for its day, but I love the loose rhythms, the plain poetry of Altman’s movie, which is dark in an off-handed way. Altman was right to pay attention to the details, the extras, the bit players and strand his two Hollywood leading actors in the midst of the maelstrom. Every time I watch M*A*S*H I marvel that it was a bonafide hit. It encourages me to believe that people aren’t so stupid after all.

Annie Hall(1977) — One of the few movies I have pretty much memorized, I’m surprised it retains it’s capacity to delight even after all we know about Mr. Allen. It’s wonderful evidence that people really were smarter in 1977. And the only inappropriate relationship gag comes late in the movie, when Tony Roberts complains about having been dragged away from his ménage à trois with 16-year-old twins.

111823_frontBuffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) — Widely considered minor Altman, the truth is I probably prefer this revisionist western — based on the play Arthur Kopit’s play Indians — to the more acclaimed McCabe and Mrs. Miller.. It stars Paul Newman as William F. Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, along with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel and Burt Lancaster as Bill’s biographer, Ned Buntline. Spoiler alert: Buffalo Bill is not the hero.

The film has just been released on Blu-ray by Kino.

I’ll discuss Django Unchained at some point — or maybe I won’t. And I’m showing part of The Long Day Closes (1992) to my LifeQuest class next week so maybe I’ll write about it then.

And time marches on — last night we watched Christian Camargo’s debut film Days and Nights, a family drama “inspired” by Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” set in rural New England in 1984. It’s an interesting failure that features some fine acting in search of a point.


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