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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A half-century hullabaloo for 'The Great Gatsby'

Screen Grabs: A half-century hullabaloo for ‘The Great Gatsby’

Plus: Unnamed Film Fest, 15 French features, Kubrick's DIY debut, and a Swiss exploration of the 'Golden Years'

There hasn’t been much hullabaloo about it, at least not yet, but this year marks a half-century’s passage since an extraordinary year in movies. 1974 was the moment “New Hollywood” (which had replaced the failing old guard) matured, artistically and commercially. It saw peak work by that vogue’s leading talents: Coppola (The ConversationGodfather Part II), Altman (Thieves Like UsCalifornia Split), Polanski (Chinatown), Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Alan Pakula (The Parallax View), Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence), etc. There were first features by Terrence Malick, Spielberg (following much TV work), Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone, Jonathan Demme, John Carpenter, and many more.

Mel Brooks revivified big-screen comedy with Blazing Saddles and Young FrankensteinThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while initially much lower-profile, did the same for horror. There were flops that gained stature with time, like Zardoz or Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It was a banner year for cult movies, including Female Trouble, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and DraculaGanja & Hess, and Phantom of the Paradise. This was the last great annum for “blaxploitation;” the first (and nearly last) that “porno chic” resulted in some XXX features that were actually interesting; and a tidal-wave moment for “kung fu” imports.

Of course, 1974 was also the zenith for the “disaster” genre (EarthquakeTowering InfernoAirport 1975), which dominated the year’s box-office top 10—along with The Trial of Billy JackDeath Wish, and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Family films were still dominated by Disney, then at a post-Walt creative nadir. So, there was plenty of dreck to go around, alongside more prestigious successes. Not a single one of the movies referenced above were directed by women—even if the year did trigger a vogue for Italy’s Lina Wertmuller. Still, she was almost the only female name of note in an international roster that delivered major new works from Fellini, Bergman, Renoir, Ray, Fassbinder, Saura, Malle, and many more. (Well, there was fellow Italian Liliana Cavani’s Nazisploitation The Night Porter—a scandalous hit, yet not so big a sexy Eurotrash splash as Emmanuelle.)

This week sees the 50th anniversary of 1974’s single most hyped release. But you’d have to have been there at the time to know what a big deal it was, because there will be no celebratory restoration or revival for the Me Decade’s The Great Gatsby. It had faded from prominence even by the next spring, when (thoroughly overshadowed by subsequent Paramount titles Godfather II and Chinatown) it got nominated in no high-profile Oscar categories, winning only for Nelson Riddle’s score and Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. It was perceived as a failure, though it did well enough commercially—grossing about $25 million on a $7 million budget. (The 2013 screen Gatsby was also a success…but purportedly cost nearly 20 times as much.)

This was the year of Francis Ford Coppola, king of the “movie brats” who’d taken over Hollywood. Not only was Godfather 2 huge, and The Conversation highly acclaimed, but he wrote a purportedly brilliant screenplay adaptation of Gatsby—though he disavowed the final film. Its history was already tangled: Star producer Robert Evans had bought the rights to Fitzgerald’s novel at the urging of his then-wife, Love Story’s Ali MacGraw, who of course intended to play Daisy. That plan went out the window when the actress left Evans for Steve McQueen.

Just about every actor in Hollywood was floated for leading roles that ended up going to Robert Redford (red-hot after The Sting and The Way We Were), Mia Farrow (whose Daisy gets a lot of abuse… but imagine how bad MacGraw would have been), plus rising performers Bruce Dern, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Scott Wilson, Lois Chiles, Edward Herrmann, and Roberts Blossom (the same year as his hair-raising killer in Deranged). It’s a striking assembly, many creating individual moments that linger in the memory—yet somehow they never gel as an ensemble.

Having fallen steeply from his Jazz Age celebrity to a forgotten alcoholic’s premature death, F. Scott Fitzgerald slowly climbed back up in death to the top of the literary canon. Thus it seemed a bit outrageous in 1974 that a serious film had never been made of his most perfect (if initially unpopular) novel. A silent version was lost, leaving only a trailer behind. A 1949 stab, made before the author’s critical rehabilitation, made a hash of the source material. Before and after the new film’s release, it was questioned whether English director Jack Clayton (The InnocentsRoom at the Top) had been the right choice for this very American story. He got blamed for its embalmed feel, suffocated by gauzy photography, overly ornate design trappings and a soporific pace.

This Gatsby was, and is, disappointing, though there are good things in it. But years ago I did a phone interview with the now-deceased cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who shot it…along with everything from 1945’s Dead of Night to The ServantThe Lion in WinterRollerballJulia and Raiders of the Lost Ark. When this film was brought up, he sighed and said something extraordinary that I’d never heard anyone else mention, before or since. In summary, he said Paramount figured it had such a colossal smash on its hands, it ordered the already-completed film cut by forty minutes—so theaters could cram in an extra showtime per day, maximizing profits.

Slocombe said that as a result, what had played beautifully at three hours became stilted and clunky at 140 minutes, its storytelling rhythm destroyed. He lamented that probably no one would ever see the movie they’d intended, since the butchered release version had a middling reputation at best—no one even knew it had been much, much better at one point.

Nonetheless, Paramount put their best foot forward, and then some. The ’74 Gatsby was preceded by a campaign of publicity saturation and tie-in products—from fashion to kitchenwear—that was virtually unprecedented, such that the week before release, Time Magazine put “The ‘Great Gatsby’ Supersell” on its cover. It was a news story less about the film than its all-pervasive marketing, with ominous hints that sneak-preview viewers had not been impressed by the “product” itself. That turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, branding the movie as an overhyped letdown before the critics or public had seen it. When they did, they concurred.

Still, this was a noble failure—only a year later, when Jaws (and then Star Wars in 1977) fundamentally changed how the studios viewed and wooed audiences, it was impossible to imagine an enterprise this high-mindedly grownup getting pushed equally hard. The Great Gatsby, in general terms, isn’t going away. There was a bad 2000 TV movie, and in 2013 Baz Luhrmann weighed in, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I’ve never seen that version—it is too painful even to imagine the havoc a director as MTV-flashy and hollow as BL wrought on poor Fitzgerald, the literary hero of my teenage years. I’ll stick with the 1974 edition, even if it fares best living only in the mind as the exceptional movie everyone once hoped it would turned out to be. (It can, however, easily be streamed, rented and/or bought on just about every major platform.)

We’re also looking backward with several other releases and events this week. One is another largely-forgotten film its own celebrated maker did everything in his power to keep that way. But Stanley Kubrick has been dead a quarter century now, so his 1952 debut feature Fear and Desire has been yanked from hiding. For decades it was almost impossible to see, save in grey-market copies that looked like 10th-generation dupes of 1960s local TV broadcasts.

It looks very different in a 4K restoration from the 35mm camera negative, with a restored additional five minutes that had been cut from the (paltry) original theatrical release. Kubrick had been a photographer for Look Magazine, then made several short documentaries to figure out moving pictures. The independently financed Fear may be clumsy and hamstrung by its low budget in some respects, but it has unusual visual sophistication for such a DIY project.

It’s also, in a less successful way, thematically ambitious—as an allegorical war movie more “psychological” than action-oriented, with an existential tilt and such pretentious devices as overlapping inner monologues on the soundtrack. Four soldiers are caught in hostile territory after their plane crashes. Trying to reach safety, they kill enemy soldiers in scenes that underline and indict the brutality. They take a terrified local “peasant” girl hostage, leaving her in the care of a grunt who goes crazy and murders her. The woman is played by beautiful Virginia Leith, whose only other memorable film role would be in the camp horror classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die a decade later. Her assassin is played by the worst, showiest actor here—though Paul Mazursky would amply redeem himself by writing and directing later movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman. (In 1974, when Gatsby’s entire cast got shut out of the Oscars, his Harry and Tonto won Art Carney the Best Actor nod.)

It’s a talky, eccentric little movie that no doubt would have puzzled but also intrigued anyone catching it on the bottom half of a double bill—though few did, particularly since its distributor soon died, putting his company out of business. That suited Kubrick fine, as he considered it the work of a “bumbling amateur,” and was quickly on the ascent to bigger, better things. But if Fear and Desire isn’t “good,” it’s certainly interesting as a prelude to a perfectionist’s extraordinary career. Already out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, it launches on select streaming platforms (iTunes, Vudu, Google Play) this Tues/26.

‘Anatomy of a Marriage’

Two showcases at rep houses this week also cast different kinds of backward glances. This Sat/30-Wed/3 at the Roxie, vintage French cinema’s feminine side is the focus for “Auteures: The Other Side of the Lost Continent ’24,” the latest incarnation of Midcentury Productions’ ongoing forum for seldom-revived older Gallic and European commercial features. The 15 titles here include several based on the writings of Colette, a vehicle for the very recently deceased (at 102!) Micheline Presle, multiple opportunities to appreciate the great Jeanne Moreau, and a rare dual screening of Andre Cayatte’s 1964 Anatomy of a Marriage—two complete films telling the story of an ultimately failed relationship from the wife’s viewpoint, then the husband’s. Further information on the entire series is here.

The past is a fictitious illusion at the Unnamed Footage Festival, which occupies various SF venues this Tue/26 through Sun/31. That is because this annual touring festival is dedicated primarily to the subgenre known as “found footage horror,” most famously associated with The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity films. It begins with a tenth-anniversary revival at the Alamo Drafthouse of As Above, So Below, in which urban explorers discover unpleasant things in the catacombs beneath Parisian streets. Thereafter the emphasis is on new works, with screenings at ATA (Wed/27-Thurs/28), the Balboa Theater (Fri/29-Sat/30) and 4-Star (Sun/31). They run a gamut in terms of length as well as country of origin, with such titles as Hunting for the HagTahoe Joe 2: The Nevada Bigfoot ConspiracyFlesh GamesLooky-Loo, and Project Eerie giving you an idea what you’re in for. Full info is available here.

Finally, a new Swiss movie that bypassed Bay Area theaters proves that age does not necessarily bring wisdom, but sometimes new challenges instead. In Barbara Kulcsar’s Golden Years, Peter (Stefan Kurt) retires from a longtime corporate job with a desire to do nothing—well, apart from the rather frantic exercise regime he undertakes once a peer drops dead from a heart attack. But his inertia and complacency gall wife Alice (Esther Gemsch), who’d hoped their marriage would get a shot in the arm from the free time Peter doesn’t want to do much with.

She craves excitement; he prefers… well, retirement. When he reluctantly agrees to go on a cruiseship vacation, he infuriates her by inviting along their newly widowed pal Heinz (Ueli Jaggi). So much for rekindling those romantic flames. Indeed, the two men seem all too content in each other’s company, virtually ignoring Alice, who finds some—though not enough—companionship in merry divorcee Michi (Gundi Ellert). She eventually jumps ship, bent on new adventures that include tracking down the secret long-term French lover of their recently deceased friend.

Golden Years starts out in a cartoonish, oh-those-wacky-oldsters mode that suggests another groan-worthy senior sitcom. But Pietra Biondina Volpe’s screenplay has considerably more on its mind. In fact this story takes its characters so far, though so many life changes, you’ll be rather amazed it all somehow happens within 90 minutes. Over that course, Alice and Peter learn a great deal about themselves, and each other; the solutions eventually arrived at are both unconventional and satisfying. This is a seriocomic movie with charm, depth, and a cliche-resistant belief that it’s never too late to bust out of one’s own status quo. Music Box Films releases it to major digital platforms this Tue/26.

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