Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dir. Stephen Spielberg
Premiered November 16, 1977

I’ve waited all day to see this. Procrastinated. I don’t know why I end up here every time. Waiting until night means having to contend with the noise of four roommates, and probably one particularly pushy neighbor. I’m mostly lucky this time.

I play the video. We have a 60-inch smart TV. The motion smoothing is off, of course. We know our shit. The credits play, first in silence, but then John Williams’ score creeps into consciousness.

The film opens cold, disorientingly, not unlike The Exorcist. A cartographer named Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arrives in Mexico. Seemingly hired for no other reason than that he speaks French, to translate for the French scientist Lacombe (François Truffaut, who appears to have been cast purely because Director Steven Spielberg– and probably he alone– could get him). There, they come across a flight of fighter planes, empty, missing since the Second World War, and in perfect working order.

That’s when it happens. My 60-inch screen is now a 12-inch screen, the sofa becomes my parents’ bed. Boy Bands. President Clinton. Soon, President Gore? Boy Scouts, Harry Potter, Pokémon. Allison May, the origin of my redhead fetish. It’s not 1977, but it’s certainly a long time ago. My mother, who showed me my first movie, took me to my first movie in the theater, and has taken me to almost every movie since, has chosen for me a special destiny. To be an artist like her? Not the same kind, though. And she’s very emphatic that I see this now.

I thought I’d been too young to appreciate it. Before buckling down and pressing play in 2017, I struggled to remember the experience. But I needn’t have. I instantly recognize every shot.

It begins with the missing planes. Then a long-lost ship materializes in the Gobi Desert. People in India hear music from an unknown source. In Muncie, Indiana, the home of single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) is strafed by mysterious lights. Electrical devices come to life. Then the power goes out, and when electrician Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to find the problem, an alien spaceship reveals itself to him, burning his face and leading him and the local police on the best chase this side of Smokey and the Bandit, but also leaving him, Jillian, and others around the world with a sound and an image in their heads. They obsess. Jillian moreso when the visitors take away her toddler son (Cary Guffey). Roy’s mania grows. He drives away his wife (Teri Garr) and children, singularly obsessed with bringing the picture in his mind into reality. He’s been chosen. This feels familiar. This feels good.

I think my mother is trying to tell me something. Star Wars made me want to become a filmmaker. Close Encounters of the Third Kind contends that I had always been one.

The parallels to filmmaking are clear. When Lacombe and Roy finally meet, Lacombe, the reasonable authority figure, envies the passion and sense of purpose that Roy has been given, much as one of Spielberg’s authority figures, Stanley Kubrick, envied him. The score, the sound, are like nothing else. Douglas Trumbull’s effects are masterful; even when the artifice shows, as in a handful of chroma key shots, the image is breathtaking– it’s easy to overlook the odd seam here. The better a movie is, the better it seems to be.

I don’t know what happens afterward. I do think the film is lost on me at that young age, but not for its themes or message. I must confess that the movie, and especially the climax, loses some of its weight on a 12-inch screen. But then the 12-inch screen becomes a 60-inch screen. The built-in speakers become a massive surround-sound system, the perk of living with fully-employed editors and cinematographers. And I see Close Encounters of the Third Kind as I should have that first time.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Early in the film, one can hear a faint and apparently unauthorized radio broadcast of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Contemporary music? What is this, a Scorsese film?

How Did It Do?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a global phenomenon. On a budget of $20 million, it grossed $288 million dollars, enough for Columbia to recoup the losses of Sorcerer eight times over. The third-biggest movie of the year in the US, and second-biggest worldwide. Critics were glowing. 96% glowing. Pauline Kael called it “a kid’s film in the best sense,” which is ironic considering her appraisal of Star Wars. Renoir compared it to Jules Verne and Meliès, essentially counting the film among the immortal canon of science fiction. Ray Bradbury thought it was the best film the genre had ever produced.

During Close Encounters’ development, NASA urged Spielberg to reconsider making the movie, fearing that it would spawn a rash of spurious UFO sightings and claims of alien abduction. Spielberg interpreted this as a vote of confidence in the movie’s success. They were both right. The alien designs, their craft, their abilities, and their mode of communication have defined the popular image of intelligent extraterrestrial life ever since, and both Close Encounters’ distinct imagery and its themes can be found anew throughout genre cinema up to today.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two: Best Cinematography for Vilmos Zsigmond, and Best Sound Effects Editing for Frank Warner. In an unusual turn of events, both Warner and Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, the only nominees that year, received the award, albeit this particular category is kinda squirrelly that way.

Essentially granted a blank check, Spielberg followed Close Encounters up with the disastrous though surprisingly profitable World War II comedy 1941. Faced with the end of his career, Spielberg reluctantly accepted an offer to direct the latest project from his friend George Lucas, who, as previously mentioned, renounced directing after the difficulties of Star Wars. The movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg was saved.

Next Time: The Goodbye Girl

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

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Pete’s Dragon
Dir. Don Chaffey
Premiered November 3, 1977

In 1984, the Walt Disney Company produced Ron Howard’s comedy film Splash. It was a first for the company: a Disney film in all but name, released under the more adult-sounding label “Touchstone Pictures.” It had been a long time coming.

With Walt Disney dead, and the leaderless corporation operating on vague, increasingly childish ideas of “what Walt would’ve done” (so much for “keep moving forward”), the types of films the company released were more and more constrained. At times, they tried following the lead of New Hollywood, but could never provide the budget– imagine, Disney the poorest studio– or willingness to cede creative control to live up to cinema’s new titans. And with equal frequency, such as with 1977’s perennial midday afternoon favorite Pete’s Dragon, they went full retrograde.

The film is set in Maine during the 1900s– at least, a version of the 1900s where commercial ships are still 50 feet long, made of wood, and use sails. In the woods, young Pete (Sean Marshall) runs and hides from his hillbilly captors the Gogans (Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, and Jeff Conaway) who have purchased him as a slave.

For those keeping score, this is the second Disney movie of 1977 to involve child slavery.

Protecting Pete is a mysterious dragon he calls Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas), who often turns invisible. Escaping to the cheerful harbor town of Passamaquoddy, Elliot is spotted by drunken lighthouse keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and later taken in by him and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy), who’s recently lost her fiancé at sea.

Soon after, traveling flim-flam man Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) comes to town, and though he initially laughs off rumors of a dragon in the area, he discovers the myriad ways dragon parts can be used in patent medicines through a musical number that is as catchy as its lyrics are unexpectedly graphic, and hatches a plan with the Gogans to ensnare both Pete and Elliot.

The first thing you notice is the production values. The one thing Pete’s Dragon does really well is Elliot. Immense technical lengths are reached to make his presence feel real, but the animators never fool themselves into thinking they can make him look real and go for pure traditional animation, not unlike Song of the South. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio is the only sign that this isn’t as old as Song of the South.

And it’s not just the datedness. This would have been as bad in 1947 as 1977. It’s not that Sean Marshall can’t act; it feels as if he was directed to fail. The musical numbers feature ADR so bad that it looks as if the actors were overdubbed from another language, Sergio Leone-style. The cinematography constantly calls attention to it, the choreography is ever so slightly sluggish, and, except for the aforementioned vivisection song, the connection between lyrics and overall story are tenuous. The signature song, “Candle on the Water,” comes out of nowhere and grinds the film to a halt.

About that story…there’s a place for darkness in children’s entertainment; I grew up with that stuff, I love it, it’s great. But Pete’s Dragon never gives its darker content any heft, which is unfortunate, because there’s some pretty fucked up shit here. Not only are the Gogans child-slavers, though that would’ve been enough, they’re feral sociopaths who dream of drowning Pete for fun and argue over which of them gets to rape Nora. And the movie’s presentation of this is comparatively competent; less so an overlong scene in which Pete is beaten by his teacher (Jane Kean) for Elliot’s invisible escapades just so Elliot can fly in and save the day, confirming his existence, only for Nora and Lampie, apropos of nothing and with no effect on the plot, to suddenly deny ever having seen or believed in Elliot just to give Pete an emotional low point for the second act break.

And this gets at the central flaw in Pete’s Dragon, the one ensuring that, despite its popularity at the time, it would never be adopted as an icon of nostalgia or “Disneyana.” Leonard Maltin places the movie as the last of a long run of attempts by the studio to recapture the success of Mary Poppins. That makes a lot of sense, and explains why it doesn’t work. Mary Poppins is ultimately about a father learning to reconnect with his children and rediscover the enjoyment of life before it’s too late. Likewise, the first Mary Poppins knock-off, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is about children learning to be brave in the face of the Second World War while still holding onto the magic in life, giving that bravery purpose.

What is the point of Pete’s Dragon? Pete has no arc, he doesn’t change. He finds a family who loves him, but he does that on his own, Elliot is just window dressing. And the validation Pete gets at the end of the movie is rendered futile when Elliot leaves to “help” other kids in need. It’s the pointlessness of the endeavor that renders what might have been a piece of cult ephemera into a lifeless, short-lived mediocrity.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The word “internship” is pronounced slightly differently, with the emphasis on “tern.” Nora wears bellbottoms, and they do amazing things to her ass.

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How Did It Do?
Pete’s Dragon grossed $35.5 million in its first run against a $10 million budget, making it the 12th highest-grossing film of 1977 and Disney’s biggest success of the year. Critics were divided. Positive reviews mostly regarded it as a welcome throwback to Disney’s live-action crowdpleasers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Negative reviews found it hollow, unmotivated, and overlong. Even hardcore Disney nerds seem to be iffy on it, with a 1984 re-release yielding just $4.1 million. However, the movie did get two Oscar nominations: Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Candle on the Water.”

Normally, that’s where the story would end, but out of nowhere, Disney decided to give Pete’s Dragon a new-and-improved remake, Ocean’s Eleven-style, with no songs, a CGI Elliot, and David Lowery at the helm. Released in 2016, it was far more positively received by critics and made way more money than the original could’ve dreamed of, but still barely broke even, the studio system now having become ridiculously top-heavy. I promise I’ll get to it someday.

But for now, it’s time for one of the big ones.

Next Time: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Madame Rosa (1977)

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Madame Rosa
La Vie Devant Soi
Dir. Moshe Mizrahi
Premiered November 2, 1977

Paris as we know it is not very old. Beginning in the 1860s, the city was demolished piece by piece and rebuilt bigger, cleaner, and easier to get around, this was the beginning of the wide avenues, circles, and monuments we know today. But it was never finished. Go to the Marais, just north of the Île Saint-Louis, and suddenly you are not only in a version of Paris that has disappeared, but an entire way of life in Europe. Preserved in this one corner of the continent is a perfect image of the Old Country; the close cobblestone streets, bars, bookstores, and bakeries of the Jewish ghetto; here alone lives the world of ancient photographs and tragicomic Yiddish tales of life before the Holocaust. Madame Rosa doesn’t take place in the Marais, it takes place in Belleville, and it is set in the 1970s, just as it was filmed, but it is very much in the spirit of such tales.

Belleville in the 1970s was a hub for immigrants, mostly from North Africa, mostly Jews. But it is also near Pigalle, the red light district, and it is this unusual location that makes this story, based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us, so fascinating. The titular Madame (Simone Signoret) is a deeply traumatized Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who has made a habit of taking in the abandoned children of her younger colleagues. As a result, this is not so much her story as that of her eldest charge Mohammed (Sami Ben-Youb). With Rosa dying, her other children being sent off, Mohammed is the last person to truly care for her, an incredible burden on the boy as he wonders about his parentage, seeks guidance from an increasingly senile and blind imam (Gabriel Jabbour), and contemplates his nascent adolescence with a beautiful young film editor (Michal Bat-Adam).

Madame Rosa is deeply imperfect. It meanders frustratingly through its first half, and the editing always seems a bit off– in an at least refreshing contrast to badly edited movies from this year, scenes end slightly sooner than they should– but it is a touching and also somewhat disturbing story, anchored by Signoret’s performance and the odd characters around Rosa and Mohammed.

How Did It Do?
Madame Rosa grossed $5.2 million in the United States and around $4 million in France, depending on how much tickets cost there. The film also benefitted greatly from the timing of its release, coinciding as it did with President Carter’s sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. With a RottenTomatoes score of 83%, many critics openly gave Madame Rosa a pass for its questionably loose narrative and editing in favor of endorsing both its story and production as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Madame Rosa was the last film released to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. By my estimation it shouldn’t have, but there are a couple of reasons why it might have won. The first is political: Molly Haskell of New York Magazine strongly suspected that the award had been given thereto as a compromise for giving Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in light of her…contemporary efforts (That thing keeps coming back, though Madame Rosa’s Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, actually agreed with Redgrave). The second is that, while the award probably should’ve gone to A Special Day, the Academy, reflecting Old Hollywood’s longstanding paranoia about scaring away Midwestern Goyim, were spooked by that movie’s unapologetic gay themes, though the notoriously homophobic country of Italy interestingly had no problem submitting it. But I digress.

Next Time: Pete’s Dragon

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

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Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
Dir. George Barry
Premiered October 26, 1977

Breakfast

The year is 1977. After five troubled years of production, much like another film discussed in this series, director George Barry has completed his masterpiece: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. But, unable to find a distributor, Barry abandons filmmaking before he’s truly started; he tries to put this labor of love behind him, and believes the film to be lost.

26 years later, he finds the film being discussed online. Someone has found a copy. Suddenly, the memories rush back, and Death Bed finally gets the theatrical release it deserves. Unfortunately, its time has come and gone, and it’s mostly regarded as a joke. It’s not. It is, in fact, the best American horror film of 1977.

Lunch

Divided into neat acts labeled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “The Just Dessert,” Death Bed is host to a wondrously complicated plot. Time and time again, travelers in what I think is Long Island find their way to an oddly fresh-looking and comfortable bed that then comes to life and digests them like a venus flytrap. Watching over the bed is the ghost of Victorian gothic illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (Patrick Spence-Thomas), trapped inside one of his paintings after becoming one of the bed’s many victims since its creation.

When young Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg) is curiously spared by the bed, later joined by her concerned brother (William Russ, the dad from Boy Meets World or American History X, whichever you saw first), we become party to the deeply intricate nature of its creation: in 1897, a tree-dwelling demon fell in love with a local girl (Linda Bond), unintentionally put her into suspended animation through their unnatural coupling, leaving her for dead, and cried tears of blood that brought the bed to life, since which it’s made a habit of luring unsuspecting victims. Beardsley can only bide his time until the bed and its demon father sleep (and dream of eating everyone in New York City), when he can tell the latest would-be victims how to defeat the bed once and for all.

Dinner

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is, for lack of better words, joyously unpretentious in its pretension. It’s so thought-out, so in love with its own ideas, and just self-aware enough that you have to smile; possessing a dry wit and wondrous sense of imagination that, unlike a certain movie from 2016, isn’t just coasting on originality for originality’s sake. Its flaws are many, but only the product of a lack of funds and adequate casting (many of the cast are behind-the-scenes technicians rather than professional actors) rather than an absence of talent.

The Just Dessert

By only coming to light in the 21st Century, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was doomed to be seen as a joke. Although the sole official review on RottenTomatoes is genuinely positive, most other reviews you find consider it to be of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. The AV Club’s Inventory listed the Death Bed itself as an infamously unthreatening horror villain, and comedian Patton Oswalt famously Charlie Rosed* the movie on one of his albums. Jack Shen, in a review that was even more positive than this one, praised the film as a psychedelic mix of Wes Craven and Ingmar Bergman, to which I would add perhaps the nascent DNA of Sam Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek style. It’s on YouTube, and I’d rather watch it for actual enjoyment a thousand times than sit through another screening of The Other Side of Midnight for shits and giggles.

As a side note: Jock Brandis, the classic Hollywood horror carpenter and propmaster who build the Death Bed and cameos in the film, continued his life as the hero of another story.

*Charlie Rose. Verb. To speak with the appearance of authority on a subject (usually a film), only to reveal one’s own patent ignorance of the subject, typically by confidently relating bogus details. Inspired by an apocryphal anecdote involving Charlie Rose interviewing Wes Anderson.

Next Time: Madame Rosa

Damnation Alley (1977)

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Damnation Alley
Dir. Jack Smight
Premiered October 21, 1977

Reader beware: the issues within this film cannot be fully discussed without going into spoilers.

Picture this: Major Denton (George Peppard) and Lieutenant Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) work at an ICBM facility in the Mojave Desert when the unthinkable happens– doomsday. World War III. The Air Force tries to intercept the missiles, and successfully destroys 40% of them, but it doesn’t matter; the Soviets have more missiles than targets, and all of America’s major cities are leveled.

A couple years later, the world has changed. The earth’s axis has shifted, turning most of North America to desert. The continent is subject to brief massive windstorms, auroras fill the skies day and night, and the landscape is plagued by giant scorpions and carnivorous (if normal-sized) armored cockroaches.

The remainder of the Air Force contingent are still living on base, but are totally bereft of purpose. When the garrison is (inexplicably) blown up by a dormitory cigarette fire, Denton, Tanner, and two other survivors (Paul Winfield and Kip Niven) head east on “Damnation Alley,” searching for a rogue radio signal in Albany and perhaps the promise of civilization. To do this, they travel in state-of-the-art “Landmasters,” a sort of cross between tanks and RVs, picking up two other survivors (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley) en route.

Pretty promising, right? And before the release of Star Wars, 20th Century Fox was certain that Damnation Alley, adapted in name only from a 1969 novel by Roger Zelazny, would be their big science fiction hit of the year. But when Star Wars came out, and performed as well as it did, Fox postponed this movie’s release from summer to fall, recut it to the point of near-incomprehension, and put out a deeply compromised, hopelessly inadequate film to audiences that had now grown tired of post-apocalyptic paranoia.

However, one can’t really chalk Damnation Alley’s failure up to Fox’s cold feet. Even if half an hour’s worth of crucial plot and character development hadn’t been excised from the final cut, it still would have been badly written, directed, shot, edited, and acted. Consider the movie’s opening salvo. Where other great blockbusters of the age grabbed the audience’s collar with fanfare, suspense, or mystery, Damnation Alley opens with a boring scene of mundane goings-on at the base, with a bland courier-bold title sequence that, Jerry Goldsmith score notwithstanding, makes the whole tableau feel like a Cannon film or an episode of Airwolf. As father figure Denton, George Peppard, who is usually quite fun, is totally checked out, giving the proceedings of World War III an irritating weightlessness. Everybody else is a stock character.

The special effects failure is especially dispiriting. Most of Damnation Alley’s practical effects were rendered useless by the desert sand, so the movie tries to get by on the most haphazard composite shots and inconsistent color correction. The nonstop auroras that distinguish the film are achieved entirely through primitive blue screen technology, which constantly runs aground when the actors stand in front of it or whenever the camera moves.

In the rare case that something does work, it comes at the expense of all else. The truly imaginative Landmaster vehicle was a technical marvel for the time, and miraculously suffered none of the mechanical problems that plagued the rest of the production. Unfortunately, the film devotes way too much time to gushing over the machine, as if the audience too will empathize over the troubled production.

But Damnation Alley’s real middle finger comes in its ending. After braving a desertified, irradiated landscape, the gang are caught up in a humungous, continent-sized storm that turns Detroit into a giant lake, from which they wash ashore…and find everything back to normal. Greenery, clear skies, no shitty brown filter. Albany is nice and peaceful and full of people and has pristine roads and suddenly Albi isn’t racist anymore. No payoff, no explanation, freeze-frame, roll credits.

I first became aware of Damnation Alley through John Kenneth Muir, so I’d known about Fox’s hopes for the picture for a while. But after seeing it, those hopes are completely baffling. It isn’t just that Damnation Alley missed the mark and fell prey to changing trends; it’s simply complete garbage, and had no more chance at blockbuster status than, say, Orca. Cutting out huge chunks of plot and padding out what’s left by tediously extending every single shot is just icing on the cake.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Tanner reminisces about listening to Mexico-based pirate radio.

How Did It Do?
According to Muir, and an unsourced section of the film’s Wikipedia page, Damnation Alley had a budget of $17 million. That would’ve made it the third most expensive movie of the year, but a 1989 book on 20th Century Fox claims that the budget was only $8 million, and that’s way more believable. Either way, it lost money, grossing just $4 million; surprising no one, Looking for Mr. Goodbar won the weekend.

The film’s biggest winner, unsurprisingly, was the Landmaster, which went on to be reused in films, TV shows, advertisements, and video games as recently as 2001.

Contemporary reviews are basically impossible to come by, but a lot of contemporary critics seem to enjoy Damnation Alley as a guilty pleasure or out of yearning for what could have been. It’s got 50% on RottenTomatoes. Me, I’d rather get my camp and creative yearning from somewhere more fun…

Next Time: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

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Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Dir. Richard Brooks
Premiered October 19, 1977

Sorry if what I’m about to describe sounds like a really weird, really stupid dream. I wish it had been. That would’ve been funny. But no, this was made, on purpose, by people.

In addition, there’s no way to describe this movie without making it sound like porn, so be prepared.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar isn’t the worst movie of 1977, but it’s the ickiest, for many, many reasons. It’s the unsexiest movie about sex that I’ve ever seen (so far), and it’s made even more inappropriate by the context, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Even its reason for existing is kinda gross. In 1973, in the opening salvos of the Sexual Revolution, a New York schoolteacher named Roseann Quinn was murdered by a man with whom she’d had a one-night stand. All things considered, and especially it being the 1970s, the golden age of random sex and random violence, it wasn’t that unusual. But involving as it did the novelty of “singles bars” and the dark side womens’ lib, it was ripe for sensationalism. Journalist Judith Rossner wrote an article on the killing, then tried turning it into a true crime book, but adapted it into a novel to avoid being sued. It was a #1 bestseller, so naturally it had to become a movie. And here…here we are.

For the most part, Looking For Mr. Goodbar is extraordinarily awkward. The opening credits are awkward. The montages are awkward. The random, pointless fantasy sequences are awkward. The film’s version of San Francisco, which looks nothing like San Francisco and an awful lot like Chicago for tax purposes, with a good heaping of the Paramount lot and an occasional bout of last-minute b-roll Los Angeles, is pretty awkward. A late sequence in which a New Years’ party randomly devolves into a homophobic riot is awkward. Diane Keaton’s sex scenes are really awkward, and ultimately define the film as the cinematic equivalent of seeing your parents having sex.

Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) is a young woman in the prime of life and in the mood for some serious dick. After being deflowered by her professor (Alan Feinstein), she begins teaching deaf children, deals tangentially with a bunch of stuff with her sister (Tuesday Weld) that seems to only be there because it was in the book, moves away from her over-the-top Irish Catholic strawman parents (Richard Kiley and Priscilla Porter), and plows her way through the legendary trials and tribulations that director Richard Brooks seems certain the erotic ennui of the mid-70s will be remembered as; vacillating mainly between a goody-goody welfare administrator (William Atherton) and coked up guido Tony (Richard Gere), who possesses both a permanent erection and, I don’t know how else to say this, a tiny lightsaber.

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Gere, incidentally, hams it up into the stratosphere and is easily the most entertaining part of the movie. Tony’s a bad guy, but then everyone in this movie is the bad guy. That includes Theresa, allegedly, for sleeping around and getting herself murdered, despite the fact that the killing here is born of a chance encounter with a violently closeted gay man (Tom Berenger). This, the moment everyone has been waiting for, is truly disturbing and, in a sudden genre shift, is pure slasher horror.

It also might be the worst performance of Keaton’s career. I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to say bad things about a justifiably beloved actress, but she got a Golden Globe nomination for this, and that goes a long way toward explaining why people used to make fun of the Golden Globes, because if your idea of a great performance is watching someone chirp her way through a bad off-Broadway soliloquy about “papa!” and “scoliosis!” as if she’s still riding the mini-helicopter in Sleeper, this might be the movie for you.

But it’s not just that it’s boring, or awkward, or that it tries to have it both ways, morally opposing Theresa’s self-destruction while constantly delighting in its supposed sensuality. It’s not just that it’s fucking interminable, carrying on aimlessly for over two hours with no discernible point and purpose; and it’s not just that it probably ended up that way because Brooks assumed audiences would already be familiar with the story from the real events and subsequent trashy novel that collectively inspired it.

What’s truly most bothersome about Looking for Mr. Goodbar is just how keen it is to immortalize the then-present and recent past– not just to embrace the period, but to ascribe to it a level of historical importance and profundity that this story doesn’t remotely earn. Get over yourself, movie. You’re not All The President’s Men, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Nashville, or Saturday Night Fever. You’re a proto-Cinemax-Lifetime co-production with a hero complex, an above-average soundtrack, and a star who, Golden Globe or no, clearly doesn’t want to be there. And she’s right.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The opening montage is a mix of light jazz, disco, uptown funk, and soundtrack ballads set to black and white still shots of the gritty San Francisco everybody remembers from Dirty Harry. People go to analysts and read Hustler on the train. Theresa initially believes that her congenital scoliosis is the after-effect of a childhood bout with polio. Sleeping with a married man is not only commonplace, but fashionable. Premature ejaculation is still common. People smoke everywhere. Theresa attends a swingers’ party where people watch silent, black-and-white porn on an 28mm home projector. She reads a first-edition copy of The Godfather. When Richard Gere sees her reading it, he suggests they go see an Al Pacino movie. The Jimmy Carter presidential campaign serves as frequent background noise. A small discotheque has the novelty of closed circuit television. Quaaludes are brought into the picture. Theresa takes offense at one of her lovers using a condom– the only one she’s ever seen. Motels advertise that they have porn. “Sexist” is used as a standard term for a promiscuous woman rather than a misogynist– though this seems particularly far-fetched.

And in a series of events not remotely reminiscent of 1977, sister Katherine (Tuesday Weld) inexplicably has to go to Puerto Rico to get an abortion.

How Did It Do?
Jumping as it did on the popularity of a novel, a famous murder, and the freshly de-stigmatized concept of sleeping around, Looking for Mr. Goodbar did way better than it should have, earning $22.5 million. It also, incredibly, received two Oscar nominations, for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress for Tuesday Weld (who, of course, lost to Vanessa Redgrave).

Looking for Mr. Goodbar now finds itself in the bizarre position of having received overwhelmingly positive reviews in its own time and nothing but embarrassment and scorn ever since. Perhaps this is why, despite the accolades, Paramount has never released it on home video in any format.

Next Time: Damnation Alley

Equus (1977)

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Equus
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered October 14, 1977

Usually, it’s a novel. While this practice hasn’t completely gone away, it seems that any and every trashy nonfiction bestseller in the 70s would get an adaptation and get it fast. Equus wasn’t a novel, it was a play: a provocative Broadway hit (and what’s “provocative” in New York is “controversial” in Los Angeles), so one might expect to feel some higher pedigree watching it than, say, The Other Side of Midnight, or tomorrow’s offering, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But it isn’t any different, not really.

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is proud of his work, but is shaken by his latest task: unraveling the mystery of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a 17-year-old arrested for gouging the eyes of six horses whilst working as a stable boy. In between his therapy sessions with Alan, who initially does little more than recite commercial jingles despite having been raised without television, Martin discovers a childhood fixation with horses and a religious mania inherited from Alan’s mother that led him to place horses– Equus, the spirit of horses in general– in the place of Jesus Christ.

It’s all very Freudian and quite reductive, and really leans into the ‘70s obsession with the supposedly inherent homoeroticism in Christianity Granted, there’s plenty of gay Christian art by gay Christian artists; the previous year gave us Sebastiane; but the idea that it’s all gay is just as iffy and ‘70s-ish as the Freudian psychology depicted here. Alan’s sexually-charged but mercifully non-bestial relationship with horses vs people indeed resembles the internal struggle of a repressed gay man, but that’s not what the film chooses to focus on.

No, much like Sidney Lumet’s previous film Network unaccountably sidelines its famous television industry farce for a run-of-the-mill relationship drama, Equus focuses on how Dysart is affected by his work with Alan. Reflecting an attitude towards mental illness that was popular until very recently, but has aged very badly very fast, Dysart becomes jealous of Alan’s insanity, lamenting in a final soliloquy that while Alan may be a sexually dysfunctional religious nut/animal abuser, at least he’s free, maaaan, while Dysart is the worst thing in the world: a middle-class professional in a boring marriage. It’s the same sophomoric, bourgeois romanticism for psychosis as seen in Garden State.

Would that Equus was merely offensive; unfortunately it’s also extremely boring. I’m aware of the inherent challenges of adapting theater to film, making the abstract concrete and inevitably losing the energy of live performance. I saw Fences. But I’m not reviewing the play; I’m reviewing the movie, and while Equus goes to some effort at adaptation through techniques like flashback, it’s not enough. It’s just terribly drab and talky and it numbs you. Never before in my life has a 1970s beaver shot struggled to hold my attention, but I was just waiting for it to end, which it soon did, with exactly the gross conclusion anyone even half-watching would expect.

Signs It Was Made in 1977
Posh horsey girl Jill (Jenny Agutter) asks Alan on a date to a porno theater. The porn is one of those Swedish softcore things, and the main character is 16. There was some other stuff I wrote down, but I’m tired and don’t know where my phone is.

How Did It Do?
Equus was generally well-received, earning a 71% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but that should be taken with a big asterisk. Many of those early reviews came with the caveat that it could never measure up to the play, and that expectations should thus be lowered. Many, for example, criticized the realist take needed to bring it to the screen. For the most part, critics seem to be ignoring the film in favor of praising the play.

Equus received three Academy Award nominations: Best Lead Actor for Burton, Best Supporting Actor for Firth, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the original play. None won; Burton, amazingly, never would.

Director Sidney Lumet, who had spent the entire 1970s on a hot streak, would see his reign as a hitmaker and award-winner come to an end the following year, with a borderline-incompetent film adaptation of The Wiz. And Equus briefly returned to notoriety in 2007, when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe performed nude in a revival, not so much because he was 17, but because he had become a children’s icon and was doing something risqué in (a work that no child would ever want to watch anyway, I hope).

Next Time: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Oh, God! (1977)

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Oh, God!
Dir. Carl Reiner
Premiered October 7, 1977

Warning: this film depicts the Godhead.

Last December, I rushed to see Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, Silence. Although Scorsese is Catholic and I’m Jewish, It was the best depiction of faith I’d ever seen in a Hollywood movie; dealing with the rarely-depicted conflict between two equally moral choices: is it better to save yourself to honor God another day, or to sacrifice oneself as a light in the darkness?

Alas, such is the state of religion in America that Silence flopped while B-grade fundamentalist exploitation films profit wildly as they extoll bitter fantasies of government persecution, deranged loveless courtships, and most of all the understanding that God will grant you wishes if you worship him the right way. It is this underhandedly cruel, almost Randian philosophy that gives truth to the strawman argument promoted by the juvenile “New Atheists” that faith is nothing more than a belief in fairy tales.

Yes, this is a super-heavy intro to a comedy review, but it’s relevant because of how much Oh, God! is emblematic of where that all began. Popular culture is no longer capable of dealing with religion in a mature manner. Not that it was ever that easy, but the conversation has been so dominated by one particularly immodest, anti-intellectual brand of Christianity that society at large has lost grasp on the big questions. The closest we’ve come to a another movie like Oh, God! is Bruce Almighty– a movie that ignores the issue of faith altogether and, just like the hacks at PureFlix, treats religion as a superpower (theologians typically refer to this as “Scientology”).

Sure, Oh, God! is funny. It’s been blessed by the talents of Director Carl Reiner, screenwriter Larry Gelbart, and legendary comic George Burns as the man upstairs himself. But what makes Oh, God! truly great is that it gets this.

For all its sense of humor, Oh, God! is probably Reiner’s most serious-minded film, even mocking how Hollywood has dumbed down our understanding of Him. Jerry Landers (John Denver) is a nebbishy but earnest assistant manager at a California supermarket. He’s a good man, not the best, and not particularly special. So he falls prey to the luck of the draw when God invites him, first only by voice, then in the form of a kindly, wry old Jewish man.

In an exchange not unlike that at the burning bush, Jerry is not confident for the challenge. He’s not a nonbeliever? God doesn’t mind.“Religion is easy. Faith is the hard thing.” Believer or no, it’s still the Me Decade, and the new faith leaders are heretics like televangelist Willie Williams (Paul Sorvino). People invest so much faith in themselves that they expect God to serve them rather than the other way around. And where does that lead us? War, greed, environmental degradation, and unhappiness. God quotes Voltaire, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” And at first, nobody believes Jerry. And even when they do, they’re the wrong kind of people; he’s still a joke for the public’s mockery and an embarrassment to his wife (Teri Garr) and kids. But God’s a nice guy. And that makes Jerry, and the audience, feel a lot better.

Leave it to a 40-year-old comedy film to be the best God movie on the market.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Mrs. Landers uses a bizarre mini exercise machine that looks like a novelty telephone. Network television goes off the air sometime after midnight. Jerry appears on Dinah. The Reverend Willie Williams pays six figures a year in income tax.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $51.1 million dollars, Oh, God! was the most financially successful comedy of 1977, the sixth highest grossing film of the year worldwide. This was so shocking to me that I assumed the data was including some later release I didn’t know about. It wasn’t. This was huge. Huge enough to become a trilogy, huge enough for my (totally non-religious) mom to endlessly nudge me toward renting it at Blockbuster back in the 90s.

She’s not the only one. Oh, God! made many top 10 lists in 1977, Gene Siskel especially loved it, and it has a 72% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Less favorable criticisms from the time largely amount to it either being too silly or not silly enough (sidenote: it’s not very silly). Ironically, audience reviews on RT are generally not as positive, with the vast majority of negative reviews coming from youngish New Atheists lumping it in with the likes of God’s Not Dead and fundamentalists upset at the film’s suggestion that God makes mistakes and experiences remorse (which, of course, is something that’s also in the Bible). Typical.

Next Time: Equus

Julia (1977)

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Julia
Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Premiered October 2, 1977

Here are three facts about Fred Zinnemann’s Julia: A conventional historical drama, it debuted to box-office success, critical acclaim, and huge awards buzz. From that moment on, it became the subject of multiple controversies, each bigger and stranger than the one before. And all of this is more interesting than the actual movie.

Despite the title, Julia isn’t the main character. It’s more like in Rebecca, a mostly absent figure driving the action. Amazingly, Rebecca had zero screentime in her movie and yet had a thousand times more personality than Julia is ever allowed. But she’s only getting the worst of it; as none of Julia’s characters are adequately defined, nor are their actions adequately explained.

The story is taken from a single chapter of Pentimento, a memoir by playwright/social activist Lillian Hellman. In the mid-1930s, Lillian (Jane Fonda) dreams of excitement abroad as she approaches middle age and struggles to write her first play. Encouraged by her mentor, the legendary pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), she goes to visit her lifelong friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) in Vienna, only to find that she has been brutalized by pro-Nazi demonstrators there. In spite of the unfortunate circumstances, the events compel Lillian to complete her play, which is a smashing success and makes her the toast of Broadway.

While visiting Paris, Lillian is recruited by secretive anti-fascists (represented by Maximilian Schell) to meet Julia in Hitler’s Berlin en route to her scheduled arrival in Moscow for a literary conference. All the while, Lillian flashes back to her adolescence with Julia in a series of unaccountably homoerotic digressions which contributes nothing to the movie save its running time.

Under Zinnemann’s direction, most of Julia is lifeless and dull. The adaptation process doesn’t help. In a memoir, or any first-person narrative, it’s easy to identify with the main character, because they are our window into the story. Film doesn’t offer us this kind of intimacy, and screenwriter Alvin Sargent does nothing to bring Lillian to life.

The only moment of tension is when Lillian is charged with transporting Julia’s cash to Moscow by train in a fur hat, convinced that the other passengers in her compartment are Nazi spies, and only then because handles the situation so terribly, covered in flop sweat in the dead of winter.

It’s a rare success for the film, and appears to have been portrayed as it was at behest of the Hellman herself, but this faithfulness to the author is somewhat at odds with Zinnemann’s decision to frame the friendship between Lillian and Julia as an unconsummated lesbian romance, in deference to Lillian’s real-life involvement with Hammett, which is portrayed with an oddly platonic air. Unless I’m reading this completely wrong– and considering the movie’s inept approach to tone, that’s totally possible– it’s a truly bizarre choice, especially for the 1970s, especially for the portrayal of a real person who was alive at the time.

Finally, Jane Fonda as Lillian. I have yet to see a performance by Fonda that improves any movie, and here she does not disappoint, projecting to the cheap seats as if hypnotized into thinking herself onstage rather than in a movie. Inasmuch as there is a role to be performed, it calls for dignity, but is performed with over-the-top neurosis, in sad contrast to great smaller performances by Robards and Schell (who’s been killing it this year).

But failing as a movie is the least of Julia’s problems.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Lillian’s steam-powered train to Berlin leaves the Gare du Nord…passing under the overhead electric lines for the under-construction TGV.

How Did It Do?
Holy shit, we have a lot to deal with here.

Julia grossed $20.7 million against a $7.84 million dollar budget. At the time, critical reception was almost entirely positive, but now holds a somewhat less auspicious 72% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. History has not been terrible kind to this movie, and not only because of its aesthetic lifelessness; whereas most film controversies fade with time, Julia’s only got bigger.

First, the Oscars. Julia was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards, and Best Supporting Actress for Vanessa Redgrave. In 1977, Redgrave’s nomination was protested by the militant far-right Jewish Defense League for of her financing and narration of the pro-PLO television documentary The Palestinian (the JDL later blew up a bomb in front of a theater where it was showed). The Academy was no friend of the JDL, but when Redgrave strove to distinguish her fondness for Jews in general with her antipathy toward “Zionist thugs,” conflating the JDL with Zionism in general, the audience reacted with gasps and boos, and later a redress by Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky– who then ironically announced Julia as the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay.

But that’s nothing compared to the controversy behind the movie.

Lillian Hellman was a playwright and social activist who was blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare when she refused to name names or claim to be a Communist. Her courage at the time was praised, but her reputation– or rather the mythos she had created– began to fall apart around the time of Julia’s release.

The thing is, Lillian Hellman was a Communist. Not just a Communist, but an unapologetic Stalinist who joined the party in the wake of the notorious Purge, when Stalin sent virtually the entire Soviet middle class to the gulags. Later in life, Hellman claimed not to have known the extent of Stalin’s atrocities, but that’s hard to believe, because, as Julia itself would unexpectedly reveal, she was also a conniving fraud.

Although Hellman never admitted it, the character of Julia appears to have been based on a real person, Muriel Gardiner, whom she never actually met. What’s more, many high-profile media figures, such as authors and reporters, who had been in Europe and seen the rise of fascism poked holes in Hellman’s story, and other anecdotes concerning her involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Hellman reacted with frivolous lawsuits and posturing rants about being morally superior to her peers. Some more delicate than myself call her a divisive figure, but it seems like a struggle to find defenders today, and they seem to hate the movie more than anyone else.

Next Time: Oh, God!

Citizens’ Band (1977)

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Citizens’ Band
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Premiered September 29, 1977

For Jonathan Demme: 1944-2017

1977 has not been that fun for me. Except for the release of Star Wars and a handful of debut features from major directors, there’s not much to the year. I’m mostly reviewing movies that everybody knows, and that have been analyzed to death, and I can’t provide much context for them because I wasn’t born yet. So it’s hard to write, and I really wasn’t in the mood to do extra research, but I just had to find out what the deal was with CB radios.

We’ve dealt with the CB radio craze before, in Smokey and the Bandit. But whereas that movie treats the idea of every character using CB as a far-fetched joke, Citizens’ Band, a romantic dramedy of sorts, treats it as a fact of life. In 1975, the federal government lowered the speed limit on interstate highways from 75mph to 55. Intended to save fuel and prevent accidents, the law had an adverse impact on America’s truckers, who were (and still are) subject to dangerous and arguably illegal work quotas. Around this time, those truckers began using the citizens’ band radio spectrum, which was virtually unregulated, as a way to conspire against the authorities. Like many things in the 1970s, the practice has not aged well, but it was a ridiculously popular craze at the time, to the point that First Lady Betty Ford had her own CB callsign, “First Mama.”

This all goes a long way to explaining why, in Jonathan Demme’s Citizens’ Band, the people of Union, USA can’t get enough of their $20 radios. As you might expect, they’re the catalyst for everything we see.

The story begins when trucker Harold (Charles Napier) is injured on the road while listening to a local couple have radio phone sex. The injury prompts the arrival of his wife (Marcia Rodd) from Portland…and his other wife (Ann Wedgeworth) from Dallas. Despite the realization that Harold is a genuine “traveling man,” the two get along quite well.

But for the most part, this is not their story. Citizens’ Band’s hero is young radio repairman Spider (Paul Le Mat), who saves Harold as well as the pilot of a downed airplane through his use of CB. His heroism comes in spite of the interference Union’s numerous misbehaving radio operators, so Spider sets out on his own vigilante crusade to police the airwaves, all the while wooing a schoolteacher (Candy Clark), feuding with his burnout brother (Bruce McGill), and attempting to bond with his depressed, senile father (Roberts Blossom).

At best, I couldn’t help but feel as if Demme was trying to make a Robert Altman movie. The two filmmakers have always shared a certain sensibility, but Demme is unable to balance his own energetic shooting style with Altman’s austere grandeur. In addition, the film is weakened substantially by badly timed editing. I kept feeling like the actors weren’t giving adequate performances, but gradually it became clear that the scenes were all either too long or too short, and everything fell flat.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Complaints are lodged about the newfangled 55mph speed limit. The movie is a passionate argument in favor of public airwave regulation as a matter of public good. A overly talkative woman in her 80s ruminates on her upbringing in captivity by Nez Perce Indians (holy shit, 1977 was a long time ago).

How Did It Do?
Citizens’ Band (re-titled Handle With Care in several markets; why, I don’t know) was a complete hit. Earning $36 million against a $5 million budget, just short of Annie Hall, it was probably the 11th highest-grossing movie of the year, which is quite frankly baffling.

Equally baffling is the movie’s critical reception: 100% fresh on RT (albeit from a sample size of only five critics). Still, it’s worth considering that when Jonathan Demme died earlier this year, not one retrospective I read mentioned it. And that makes me feel a bit better about not liking it. When your legacy is Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, and goddamn Silence of the Lambs, who needs some dumb little trucker movie?

Next Time: Julia