Monday, June 18, 2012

Screening Log: Samurai Driver Edition

            Two notes before we begin. As noted, I saw The Warriors at MoMI as screened as a Blu-Ray. I think this gets to a point I had a tweet discussion with sometime last year. The Warriors Blu-Ray looked quite good on a big screen, and everything was crystal clear. But I think that’s why the film lacked a punch. It needed to be extra grainy, scratched up, and skipping in places. Some films are perfect for the digital conversion; others, deserved to be treated like shit, one could say. My second update, and this is brief, is to tell you all check back here over the next month for updates on a big project coming up that I think most of my readers will quite enjoy. More on that at another time, as the details become more concrete.

-A New Leaf, 1971. Directed by Elaine May. 35mm projection at Museum of the Moving Image.
-The Warriors, 1978. Directed by Walter Hill. Blu-Ray projection at Museum of the Moving Image.
-We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972. Directed by Mauriece Pialat. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Kill and Pray, 1969. Directed by Carlo Lizzani. Betacam projection at Film Forum.
-The Last Run, 1971. Directed by Richard Fleischer. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives.
-Ulzana’s Raid, 1972. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives. 

            Last week I had a couple back and forth tweets with (the mysterious) Ted Nope on Twitter regarding Michael Mann’s Thief, and the idea of the samurai-like characters of urban America. Nope claims, “Characters who live by strict codes are dull as dirt,” and he certainly has a point. Those who live by a code and isolate themselves from all other contact, are often one note, and can move only in one direction. I’d argue Thief gives Frank much more than a code—he’s impulsive and angry, clouded by visions of a dream he’s stitched together on paper, and still hopeful of a world where he is no longer who he is (and for the counterpoint, see Drive).

            In fact, for a counterpoint to Drive, see The Last Run, Richard Fleischer’s masterful film that is reminiscent of many of the great “last hurrah” films of the 1970s that popularized the late careers of Robert Mitchum and John Wayne. Our hero though, is actually George C Scott, who was more at the height of his career when he made this (the year before was Patton).

            Why The Last Run remains something of a forgotten classic seems like a crime against humanity. It’s an intense thrill ride across the European coasts, a neo-noir back dropped by a man reaching for meaning in his life while saving the lives of the innocent, paying for crimes that haunt his past. It’s beautifully photographed by Bergman regular Sven Nyquvist and scored with an intense, almost avant-garde sound by Jerry Goldsmith. And it’s a total blast that really gives you a sense of what it’s like to burn rubber.

            The film was released in 1971 to middling reviews, many of them citing the exit of John Huston from the film (he and Scott apparently did not get along) as the cause of the film’s banality. I don’t know what movie they saw (I didn’t read the Huston tidbit until after seeing the film), but Fleischer gives the film a cross between a hard noir and an Antonioni-stylized isolation. Scott plays Harry Garmes, an old getaway driver whose retired for the last nine years, living on a costal Portuguese fishing village. He’s pulled out for one last job, which he says he is doing not for the money, but for himself. The job is simple—take an escaped convict across the border to France. Of course, it turns out to get much more complicated.

            I bring up my discussion with Nope because in many ways, Grimes is that Samurai-figure of American iconography (there’s a final bit near the end that speaks volumes to his relationship with his BMW 503). But he’s much more a figure of the noir era than anything else. Details about his past are slowly unburied, revealing a man who almost had the perfect life, and then lost it all. His relationship with Trish Van Devere in the film is full of similar promise. This is not a man who wishes only for the job. He wants more, but like all figures of noir, he can only have one ending.

            One of the oddest quotes in the reviews is from Roger Greenspun in the New York Times, who claims the chase sequences, “seem to move at 30 miles an hour.” There is a certain slowness to the editing pattern, but this simply just strikes me as moronic. The film’s highlight sequence, between the BMW and a Jaguar is thrilling. It’s shot with both long takes that give us a sense of these two figures dancing through the European landscapes, as well as some intense close-ups that demonstrate that these cars mean business.

            And why can’t the American driver be the samurai of our urban landscape? Why must we avoid figures of classic values, simply because the time for them has passed? The Last Run is a perfect vision of why we return to these legends and myths, placing them in our contemporary world to remind us that there’s good out there, even among the criminals. Grimes fights not for the criminals, but for the job. That the job, even if immoral, is a noble one, worth proof of his worth. American figures have always been defined by their abilities as professionals (see: the entire work of Howard Hawks), and a man's worth is only as good as his job. The perfection of that job is the perfection of man, and thus the samurai driver emerges. The driver lives for his car and for the chase. He is only as good as his driving (and not to reiterate what I've written countless times before, this is the opposite of what Drive does by turning their myth into a psychotic).

This is a must see film; it’s playing again at Anthology on Wednesday and Saturday (in a pristine 35mm print). See it. You won’t be disappointed.

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