Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Director William Friedkin, Roy Scheider
An unmitigated disaster. A poster-movie for the Last Act of 70s Cinema: Megalomaniacal Directors Gone Wild. Friedkin made Oscar-winner The French Connection and box office behemoth and critical darling The Exorcist back-to-back, did a bunch of coke, screwed a bunch of models, and decided to remake a classic 50s French thriller, The Wages of Fear. Friedkin refused to cast any stars, spent the studio’s money like a self-destructive Dostoevsky character on a bender, shot his movie in South America (shooting a major Hollywood movie in a Third World country was the thing to do back then, and always went off without a hitch. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog), threw tantrums, fired people left and right, and released his film at the same time as Star Wars. Awesome. All of this is very memorably detailed in Peter Biskind’s classic book on 70s film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
How it Holds Up:
Phenomenally. Watching it nowadays, you can take away all the hoopla surrounding Friedkin turning into Colonel Kurtz to get his movie made, and the fact that if you saw Sorcerer in the theaters when it came out, you had also probably recently seen The Godfather Part 2, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, Nashville, and a dozen other high water marks in the history of the medium in the theaters as well. Watching it without all that extraneous shit clouding your judgment, you quickly realize that you’re in the hands of an absolute master of visual storytelling. Give Friedkin three shots–with no dialogue–and he can tell you more about the characters you’re watching, their motives, their situation, and their chances for achieving their goals than most directors could do with several scenes and as much dialogue as they wanted. The economy of storytelling in a Friedkin movie is almost insanely productive. Friedkin was also one of the first–if not the first–mainstream, big budget Hollywood directors to incorporate “documentary-style” shooting and acting techniques into fictional films. He may have been first, but amazingly, he still has yet to be matched in this department. Watching a movie Friedkin made in his prime (and let’s call The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer his prime), it’s hard to watch a more standard movie without noticing all of the artifice and Movie Conventions on vulgar display. Friedkin doesn’t talk down to his audience, doesn’t assume they’re stupid–you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on. But this isn’t some artsy European movie about alienation and existentialism: the plot of “Sorcerer” revolves around four fugitives from different parts of the world hiding out in an unnamed Central American banana republic who agree to drive two trucks full of nitro glycerin over a treacherous mountain road in order to escape their desperate circumstances. Friedkin’s marrying of artsy, “European” cinematic techniques with good old fun, pulpy, Hollywood genres was his (and a lot of other 70s directors) genius.
Influence: A mostly forgotten movie, “Sorcerer” has still influenced many great contemporary filmmakers if considered as part of the whole “documentary-style” action movie tradition invented in those days on the fly in films like Z, The Battle of Algiers, The Day of the Jackal, and The French Connection. Steven Soderbergh borrows liberally from these filmmakers, particularly in The Limey and Traffic. Paul Greengrass–best known for The Bourne Supremacy but perhaps should be best known for Bloody Sunday–pretty much owes his career to these guys.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Director Hal Ashby, the extremely weird Bud Cort, and Maude (Ruth Gordon)
A minor classic. Reliably name-checked whenever weekly newsmagazines run trend pieces on older women dating younger men. Considered the “greatest love story of all time” by Cameron Diaz’s character in There’s Something About Mary.
How it Holds Up:
Let’s just say that I considered Harold and Maude a classic for the first 28 years of my life because of the way other people talked about it…and then I saw it. Even taking into account the fact that comedies rarely hold up after their era passes–the only stuff from the 70s that’s still actually funny is Woody Allen, Monty Python, and bits and pieces of Steve Martin–if I were a hack regional newspaper movie critic, I’d write that Harold and Maude produces “more groans than guffaws.” The fault, I suspect, lies in the clashing styles of the screenwriter (first-timer Colin Higgins) and director Hal Ashby. Ashby isn’t a household name, but he should be: after Harold and Maude, his next two movies were The Last Detail”(with Jack Nicholson) and Shampoo (with Warren Beatty. Shampoo–one of the best movies of the 70s, and that’s saying something–in particular is so subtle, underplayed, and naturalistic it’s almost impossible to imagine it was made by us vulgar Americans. The Harold and Maude screenplay, on the other hand, is broad comedy existing in that world of Comedy where the laws of physics and reality can be bent and broken if it means getting a “laugh”–which if we’re feeling generous we’ll call “magical realism,” and if we’re not we’ll call “hackneyed writing.” Harold stage mock suicides for his mother to find that would result in institutionalization if they didn’t take place in a movie, and Maude’s “healthy” “lust for life”–exemplified by her stealing cars on a daily basis and leading policemen on high speed chases for the innocent thrill of it–is just plain grating in its over-obvious pedantic intent to “wake us straight folk out of our stupor.” It’s basically Catcher in the Rye if Catcher in the Rye was made into a movie, then some hack writer wrote a novelization of that movie version, and then another movie was made out of that novelization. All of this zany comic buffoonery flies in the face of Ashby’s natural understated, realist style, and that as much as anything explains why the movie ultimately fails.
In spite of it all, the existence of Harold and Maude has more than paid for itself for contemporary movie-lovers: it’s difficult to imagine the cinema of Wes Anderson existing without Harold and Maude. He basically cribbed half of the tricks in his book from this movie, which I have no problem with, since he improved them with the other tricks in his book a thousand-fold.