by Tim Van Schmidt
Catch 22 ***
Absurdity is different than comedy. Sure, they’re similar, even related, but absurdity is more of a shake-your-head-in-disbelief kind of thing as opposed to out and out laughter. “Catch 22” is an absurdist classic if there ever was one.
The story follows the efforts of a US bombardier in the Mediterranean to get relieved of his flying missions. He has seen too much and can no longer control his emotions but as he tries every angle available to him, including being certified insane, he just seems to get in deeper. The insane angle is what the movie is named after- you can get out of action if declared insane, but you can’t be declared insane if you are sane enough to admit insanity.
That “catch 22” isn’t just about the bombardier’s state of mind, it’s about everyone in his bombing unit, from the guys he flies with to the commanding officers. Everything about everyone in the movie is twisted in some way- from the profit-hungry supply guy who works tirelessly to make a profit for everyone in the unit while trading off lifesaving gear like parachutes to the commander who insists that no one can “see” him when he is in the office, but are allowed to “see” him when he is not. But there’s more- like the guy who rapes and murders a local woman but then doesn’t get arrested by the MPs rampaging up the stairs. The entire movie is full of it.
Finally the bombardier realizes that he must take his fate into his own hands- that no one around him is capable of helping him, or even would if they could. It’s a dark comment on the Armed Forces and society in general. All of this is illustrated by the performances of a stellar cast including Orson Welles, a young Jon Voight and an even younger Martin Sheen. But the movie is Arkin’s showcase as an actor, his frustration at the absurdity of it all mirroring what many in America were feeling about the Vietnam War- and war in general.
Some ten years after “Catch 22” was released, I visited the town where part of the filming took place- San Carlos, Mexico. We caught a ride from the town to the desolate bay where much of the action occurs. There wasn’t anything left there to mark the filming, but the bay, with its beautiful clear blue water, was just like the beginning of the movie- the dawn breaking over the hills with subtle nature sounds suggesting a natural peace. My experience was not marred by the horrible racket created by the war planes of the movie- it was just quiet and deserted. This natural background was a long way away from the absurdity of the movie- and I think that was partially the point.
Directed by Mike Nichols…1970…122 min…featuring Alan Arkin (as Yossarian,) Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Susanne Benton, Charles Grodin.
Five Easy Pieces ***
An oil rig worker, played by Jack Nicholson, leaves his rough and tumble life to return home to see his ailing father. Brought up as a concert pianist in a family of musicians, Nicholson’s character finds conditions at home distasteful- almost as distasteful as the relationship he is having with an uneducated, uncultured waitress. Nothing pleases this guy and he lets anyone within ear shot know it with either an eruption of negative emotion or a sharply delivered snide comment. Despite the fame of the “chicken salad sandwich” scene, this movie drags considerably with stiff dialogue and lousy sound mixing.
Directed by Bob Rafelson…1970…98 min…featuring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Sally Struthers, Lois Smith, Helena Kallianiotes, Susan Anspach, Ralph Waite.
THX 1138 ****
What is left of human beings if you take everything away from them, standardize everything they use and regulate their actions by intense, invasive micro-management? In “THX 1138,” what’s left is an unsettling core of emotions that even enforced sedation cannot eradicate.
The world of “THX 1138” (88 min…1971) is spare and tightly wound. There are no decorations of any kind, no colors. There are no possessions and no legal love. Religion is a screen in a phone booth or a living room hologram. There is work, consumption and routine. The bathroom medicine chest prescribes medication and informs authorities of irregularities in behavior.
In this environment, rebellion takes the form of even the least bit of personal discovery. That’s where “THX 1138” takes off. A female- LUH- has been tampering with the sedatives of her male roommate, THX. The result is a feeling of sickness for THX, whose job is handling highly sensitive, highly volatile radioactive material. He slips in his job and is disturbed by the change in his concentration.
That is, until LUH and THX have a meeting of the minds and they become illegal lovers. THX feels guilt over the situation- he dreads going back to work without proper sedation- but a flood of unregulated human feelings are too strong to ignore and they make a plan to escape the self-contained urban environment that is their world. The authorities step in when THX shows signs of instability at his work station and he and LUH are arrested. What follows in “THX 1138” is the grim process by which the society treats malcontents- starting with drugs and continuing with torture and manipulation.
Then, it gets really weird. THX determines to leave his detention area and one of the characters who joins him identifies himself as a hologram. This mind-twisting element, however, does not distract from THX’s quest for freedom.
There is an element of humor in “THX 1138.” In a moment of tongue-in-cheek, the introduction of the movie includes scenes from the 1939 Buck Rogers serials- certainly a friendlier and more robust vision of the future than director George Lucas’. The calm progress of the officers chasing THX and the hologram is laughable as they jiggle a door handle and encourage the runaways to “stay calm.” Also, the actual reason that THX ultimately succeeds is funny in itself- a case of the system working against itself.
But in the last moments, when THX confronts the outside world, the humor is brushed aside for an exhilaration that can only be symbolized by a huge, burning sun. It’s not a beautiful sight, it’s an awesomely humbling sight and indicates the challenge this city-dweller will have to survive. But that he is there, on the edge of his world and another, is what counts. Even in the haze of drug-enforcement and intense control, the human spirit yearns for more, for a horizon, for a challenge and that someone- anyone- steps up to meet the challenge is ultimately why we will survive as a species. THX, in that last scene, becomes the everyman hero, someone to pin the future on.
“THX 1138” features Robert Duvall (THX,) Maggie McOmie (LUH,) Donald Pleasence (SEN,) also including Don Pedro Colley.
The Omega Man ***
This adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” turns the angst of Vincent Price’s Robert Morgan of “The Last Man on Earth” into the robustness of Charlton Heston’s Robert Neville. “The Omega Man” is an action movie mixing the horror elements of “Last Man” with contemporary pacing. Yes, this movie centers around a plague-like disease that has affected everyone but one man, a scientist, whose solitary days are filled with chasing the murderous plague victims who in turn torment him at night. But then add in fast cars, machine guns, interracial romance and a little humanistic proselytizing to make things snappier, hipper and a lot more entertaining.
Heston plays his plague-resistant hero with some flair. Being the “last man” is not all bad since he has his pick of any car, food in abundance, lots of liquor and a private seat in any movie theater. He almost looks happy in the beginning sequence as he breezes along the empty streets of Los Angeles in a convertible. But he is not able to maintain his composure all the time. A calendar on the wall, a car dealer’s dried up corpse or imaginary telephones ringing all spark the unsettling realization that he may not be all that sane despite his cavalier attitude. Sudden, jarring flashbacks call him to the reality of the situation time and time again.
Much more developed in this movie is the role of the plague victims. In “Omega Man” the victims are not vampires, but have become a disease stricken mob called “The Family,” led by a self-righteous character named Mathias, a former TV commentator. The Family has taken upon itself the task of erasing human history by burning books and destroying art- and hunting Neville. This cat and mouse game between the Family and Neville provides plenty of opportunity for the action sequences that pepper this production. It all comes to a head when that malevolent balance between Neville and the Family is disturbed.
This was one of my favorite movies when I was a teenager and I saw “Omega Man” several times in the theater in its initial run. I really dug the “last man on earth” fantasy and couldn’t help thinking how I would react if I was placed in that position. Heston’s treatment of his character was almost enviable- he had style, he had deadly skills to protect himself, he was bright and sassy- despite being a little cuckoo. But more, I liked the social commentary that attached itself to the story. Anthony Zerbe’s character in particular makes some very strong statements, but then so do other characters.
I also liked the irony that was put into some of the scenes of “Omega Man,” particularly in the beginning sequences when Neville is cruising around by himself. Neville chuckles to himself when he sees corpses lying on top of bags of money spilling out of an armored car. The scene where he watches the movie “Woodstock”- a pretty fresh release at the time- is particularly poignant. The news of the plague- being delivered by pre-disease Mathias- is being broadcast to corpses sitting in chairs. Cool details help inform the story where the flow of action can’t in “Omega Man.”
All in all, “Omega Man” remains a pretty good ride. Maybe some of the make-up looks dumb now and the music soundtrack is most certainly dated, but the film continues to offer strong questions about what is wrong with humanity. Not only does humanity cause its own calamity, but those things carry on even after the plague. The Family lashes out at what it no longer understands and Neville has turned survival into bloodlust. Hope, however, comes when Neville finds something worth protecting.
Directed by Boris Sagal…1971…98 min…featuring Charlton Heston (as Robert Neville,) Anthony Zerbe (as Matthias,) Rosalind Cash, Paul Koslo, Eric Laneuville.
A Clockwork Orange ****
The future in England is not a nice place when thugs rule the streets. There is some science to this- like the deplorable process the killer Alex goes through to become conditioned against violence.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick…1971…136 min…featuring Malcolm McDowell (as Alex,) Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke, Sheila Raynor.
According to “Cabaret,” pre-World War II Berlin was a place of decadence and fear as reflected in the whirlwind lifestyle of a cabaret singer, the staid Englishman who gets caught up in it and the rise of the Nazis. The wild and irreverent cabaret stage scenes are the strongest thing about the movie, Joel Grey stealing every scene- but also featuring Liza Minnelli’s riveting vocal power, something much more mature than the flighty character she plays.
Directed by Bob Fosse…1972…124 min…featuring Liza Minnelli (as Sally Bowles), Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson.
Soylent Green ****
The future is crowded in “Soylent Green” and it makes just getting up and down the stairs difficult, let alone getting any police work done. But a murder of a rich man necessitates an investigation. Edward G Robinson plays the old man who “goes home.” The dinner scene is delightful. The food riot scenes are frightening.
Directed by Richard Fleischer…1973…97 min…featuring Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Edward G Robinson, Dick Van Patten.
The Double Headed Eagle: Hitler’s Rise to Power 1918-1933 ***
Directed by Lutz Becker…1973…93 min…featuring Adolf Hitler, Buster Keaton, Josephine Baker, Hermann Goering, Josef Goebbels.
A harrowing, unflinching black and white look at the rise of controversial comedian/social critic Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman nails Bruce’s bits and monologues on stage while Valerie Perrine oozes the self-destructive distractions- sex and drugs- that end up unraveling both of their lives.
Directed by Bob Fosse…1974…111 min…featuring Dustin Hoffman (as Lenny Bruce,) Valerie Perrine (as Honey Bruce,) Jan Miner, Stanley beck, Guy Rennie, Martin Begley.
A Boy and His Dog **
“A Boy and His Dog” is a mixed bag of a movie experience. On the one hand, it is a harrowing vision of a post-apocalyptic America. On the other, it’s a wisecracking comedy that mixes the absurd with the dumb.
It starts with multiple images of atomic explosions- one after the other- blasting everything away in its path. From there on, the action takes place in the dusty landscape that is left over, focusing on the tattered people scratching around in it. Dangers include roving bands of mauraders, rapists and thieves as well as deadly radioactive mutants of some sort. In the society that develops, cans of food are money and sex is a brutal necessity, but extremely hard to come by. People still gather together in a village of sorts- paying for an open air bath, haircuts or to see pornographic movies- but it’s a tense, volatile and grimy scene.
That’s where Vic and Blood come in. Vic is a loner who stays on the fringes of it all, watching for his chance to snatch some food for himself and his canine partner, Blood. Blood and Vic communicate with each other- via telepathy, apparently- and this is where the wisecracking comes in. Vic and Blood have a love-hate thing going, bantering back and forth over the situation at hand. Blood’s cynacism provides for some dry, fatalistic humor and Vic provides some human stupidity. Anyway, the deal between the two is that Vic provides food and the dog uses his unusual radar-like sense to spot eligible females. The wasteland they move around in is identified as being Phoenix, Arizona and despite the desolation, there seems to be plenty of activity. Some of the scenes are Fellini-esque in their bizarre wildness.
Meanwhile, a race of humans who have survived the apocalypse by living underground- “the downunder” as its called- has chosen Vic to add his vital seed to their dying gene pool. Vic’s taste for women splits him up from Blood and leads him right down the rabbit hole to their city. On the surface it may be the hot desert of Phoenix, but underground its Topeka- a mid-western city with marching bands, green parks and a strict moral code. Everybody is in “white face” make-up and fears the Committee, who judge their actions and attitudes and condemn many to “the farm.” Vic thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he realizes they want him to impregnate their young women, that is, until they hook him up to a machine that sucks him dry while the ladies enter the room for a mock marriage.
The end of the movie then underscores the joke part of it all. However, there really is something touching about the relationship between Vic and Blood. They really do care for each other- at the very least, depend on each other. In several scenes, Blood is teaching Vic some history lessons, so there is a sense of student-mentor to the relationship that kind of deepens it. Still, when you realize what the two do to get back on track together, you can only cringe.
Directed by LQ Jones…story by Harlan Ellison…91 min…1975…Don Johnson (as Vic)…Susanne Benton (as Quilla June Holmes)…Jason Robards (as Lou Craddock)…Tim McIntire (as voice of Blood)…Hal Baylor (as the henchman robot Michael).
Death Race 2000 **
Directed by Paul Bartel…1975…80 min…featuring David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth.
Logan’s Run **
Let’s get this straight from the beginning. Even though the pacing, soundtrack, special effects and acting for this movie have aged not so gracefully, hence the two star/poor rating, “Logan’s Run” is still worthy watching for the sci-fi fan. That’s because the production values of the movie do not particularly overshadow the strong themes running through it- such as perceptions of aging, the cult of youth, blind acceptance of authority and the hope that change brings.
The action takes place in the 23rd Century and Michael York plays Logan 5, a terminator for the society that has developed in domed cities following global disaster. This society has lived in the domes for so long that they have forgotten what is outside the walls and the focus is on comfortable, sheltered living. However, at age thirty, residents are compelled to yield to a ceremony called “Carrousel,” a public process where the oldest members of the society are “renewed.” Those who do not yield become “runners” and that’s where Logan and his “sandman” comrades come in. Most people yield because they believe what they have been told, but some rebels compell the authorities to assign Logan new duties to flush them out.
From there on, “Logan’s Run” becomes a journey filled with compelling concepts, if not convincing production. The principal twist has to do with aging and youth. At the time the movie was released- 1976- the “youth culture” that boomed in the 1960s (that everything cool and hip was also young) had become well entrenched in mass America. “Logan’s Run” presupposes a society where everybody is young. It becomes a false paradise based on an insidious cycle. When faced with what they are missing- old age- citizens react with curiosity and amazement, not horror. The movie ends up challenging the “don’t trust anyone over 30” mindset at the same time as it encourages a “question authority” attitude.
Despite the rating and what I have said about the production values of “Logan’s Run”- the best way I can describe that is to say that the movie looks more like a cheesy television show than a big screen effort- I still enjoyed watching it. I loved the fantasy images of the over-grown landmarks of Washington, DC. But the underlying questions the movie brings up elevate it from being just another interesting visual curiosity. Also featuring Richard Jordan, Jenny Agutter, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Peter Ustinov and Roscoe Lee Browne. 1976.
The Man Who Fell to Earth ****
An alien “invasion” may be as simple as a single being visiting our planet in search of water. What’s worse is that we may be more dangerous to the alien than the alien is to us. Who better than David Bowie to illustrate the potential harm human decadence could do to an innocent alien mind?
Directed by Nicolas Roeg…1976…139 min…featuring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind ****
What happens to ordinary people when extraordinary things begin to happen? Nobody understands until the grand entrance of an alien space craft, from which disembark missing people.
Directed by Steven Spielberg…1977…132 min…featuring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Lance Henrikson.
Empire of the Ants **
Directed by Bert I Gordon…1977…89 min…featuring Joan Collins, Robert Lansing, John David Carson, Albert Salmi.
“Eyes of Laura Mars” **
Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones…Laura Mars, controversial fashion photg…glorified urban violence…psychic ability…John Neville (Tommy) …w/ Brad Dourf, Rene Auberjonois…dir. By Irvin Kershner…story/screenplay by John Carpenter…love theme sung by Barbra Streisand…(104 mnin. Columbia
Superman: The Movie
Of course, Superman is science fiction. Technically, he’s an alien. Sure, being from another planet- Krypton- doesn’t seem so bad when the alien is as handsome as Christopher Reeve. But Superman is an extra-terrestrial all the same and it’s explained in this movie.
Directed by Richard Donner…1978…143 min…Marlon Brando (as Jor-El,) Gene Hackman (as Lex Luthor,) Christopher Reeve (as Superman/Clark Kent,) Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp.
Dawn of the Dead ***
Relentlessly pursued by flesh eating ghouls, a small band of survivors hole up in a shopping mall- briefly enjoying the benefits of a world gone insane before the final carnage begins.
Directed by George A Romero…1978…126 min…David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross.
The China Syndrome *****
For the holidays one year, a friend gave me a book on film history. Actually the volume was an attempt to identify the top movies in each genre. I poured over the various chapters and went in to my Netflix que and entered a bunch of the more interesting selections. Then I forgot about them because as time went, that list got pushed down in the que by newer releases. However, once in a while, one of those classics bubbles up from that list and “The China Syndrome” was one of them. I’m glad I saw it too- it is a taut drama that stands up well over time.
“The China Syndrome” is a phrase that refers to a nuclear power meltdown- the reactor literally melting into the earth, maybe all the way to China. This is the worst case scenario that nags at the characters who cross paths over an accident at a nuclear facility near Los Angeles. From one direction comes a television reporter and her film crew, who happen to be there when it happens. From another direction come employees of the company that runs the power plant. One man in particular sniffs out the negligence and flaws that created the first incident and takes drastic action to prevent another one from occurring.
Scientifically accurate or not, the details in “The China Syndrome” build believeably into a wave of intensity that does not necessarily reflect the physical action. There is action, to be sure, but also tense scenes of waiting, watching the sets of dials in the control room, waiting at a hearing for the evidence that doesn’t come, waiting for the media to arrive in the movie’s climax.
Despite the focus on the safety of nuclear energy, “The China Syndrome” is just as much about the television industry. A lot of the movie passes through the cameras and into big channel control rooms where technicians and producers shape the news. There are ironic moments to be sure- like when they cut away from the breaking news about the nuclear power facility to a commercial for microwave ovens.
I didn’t realize before seeing “The China Syndrome” that I liked Jane Fonda as an actress so much. She is a very strong presence in every scene she’s in and I’m not just talking about her mane of flowing red hair. She walks and talks strong and I do not think this is just a function of her character. Jack Lemmon is also strong, but in a different way. His character is not particularly confident, but really wants to do the right thing. Lemmon handles this struggle with confused, nervous energy, creating a memorable and heroic character despite himself.
Directed by James Bridges…1979…122 min…featuring Jane Fonda (as Kimberly Wells,) Jack Lemmon (as Jack Godell,) Michael Douglas, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Wilford Brimley, Daniel Valdez.
The Shape of Things to Come **
A poorly conceived and executed production based on HG Wells’ book.
Directed by George McCowan…1979…98 min…featuring Jack Palance, Carol Lynley, Barry Morse.