McCabe and Mrs. Miller (directed by Robert Altman) Robert Altman is one of my all-time favorites, and it’s a shame this movie doesn’t come up more often in discussions about westerns. It isn’t a cowboys vs. Indians shoot ’em up. Instead, it’s a bleak & hopeful melancholy love story. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler that stumbles into a small Western Washington town. He quickly takes a position of prominence and control in a place populated mainly by lethargic miners. To keep control, he builds a brothel and pays for three sex workers from a few towns over to live there. One of them, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), has excellent business acumen, and the two become partners in building up the town. Unfortunately, their business decisions make them a target of more prominent, more powerful men, which can only lead to tragedy. In addition, opium comes to their home, and that serves to further complicate things. Altman referred to the picture as an anti-Western, and it’s clear because it completely subverts all the tropes you expect from such a movie.
Since 1980 in the United States, there has been an unending argument that will likely never have a definitive solution. It is centered around when the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live was actually good. For Boomers, they reminisce about the 70s original cast, Gen Xers might cite the mid-1990s with Sandler & Farley, while Millennials point to Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Most people agree the early to mid-1980s is a garbage fire (more on that in a later post). I wanted to determine when SNL was “good,” so I needed to watch samples from all 46 seasons to determine where the funny was.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Written by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman Directed by Milos Forman
The United States has had a profoundly complicated relationship with mental health for the entirety of its existence. Mired in the regressive repression of religion, it was seen as proper to punish those with mental illness for behaviors outside of their control and often their understanding. What existed even further beneath the veneer of tough Christian love was a focus on conformity and the expulsion of the aberrant. Those who would not conform to societal norms were verboten, sent off to die inside mental hospitals where they would be brutalized into complete psychological oblivion. This ideology inspired author Ken Kesey to write his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Late nights sitting up with patients at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital led Kesey to believe these people were not insane. Instead, they did not behave within the conventions society had deemed proper, and so they had to be extricated from public existence.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) Written by Paul Mayersburg Directed by Nicolas Roeg
The year before Star Wars was an important one for science fiction. Once George Lucas released his blockbuster science fantasy film, anything set in space or alien worlds would be changed forever. Three major science fiction films were released in 1976: Logan’s Run, Futureworld (the sequel to Westworld), and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each movie represents a kind of science fiction story that didn’t see much traction in the 1980s, though DNA from the Westworld franchise can be seen in films like The Running Man and Jurassic Park. The Man Who Fell to Earth was made by a very esoteric filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. For my Horror Masterworks in October 2020, I rewatched and reviewed his Don’t Look Now. This would be his fourth theatrical feature and become a cult classic like the rest of his work.
Fantastic Planet (1973) Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor Directed by René Laloux
One of the most challenging things in science fiction is appropriately conveying the alien-ness of another world. So often, writers lean into cliches or just create bland, uninteresting worlds. Think of the lifeless creatures from Independence Day or the generic Grays that populate so much of science fiction. It always stands out when a filmmaker makes me feel like I am experiencing a culture, a species, a world entirely unlike my own. I have to find a way in and try to make sense in the context of that species, not necessarily my own. Fantastic Planet definitely presents a world like that but does seem to lean into elements of human behavior to tell its allegory rather than go complete alien civilization.
…And Justice For All (1979) Written by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson Directed by Norman Jewison
By the late 1970s, Norman Jewison had returned to his home country of Canada. He was getting reliable work and was known for being a director who would get the job done. Jewison would never become someone lumped into the auteur camp; he would be known more as journeyman director. This term refers to filmmakers who lack a distinct style and can take jobs in a multitude of genres delivering movies that range from adequate to fantastic. While directors like Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg are known for trademarks images or tones, Jewison was comfortable maneuvering into a much more varied territory. Just before …And Justice For All, he has directed FIST, a union drama loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa. The film was well-received by critics as a decent movie but nothing spectacular. This courtroom drama would be seen as an improvement, delivering an emotionally powerful story.
Rollerball (1975) Written by William Harrison Directed by Norman Jewison
By this time in his career, Norman Jewison was making an eclectic variety of films, never tying himself to a single genre. With Rollerball, he tackles science fiction, and while having a solid concept, the execution is incredibly poorly done. The story is so muddled & meandering with characters & conflicts so poorly defined that the film just collapses about thirty minutes in and never recovers. That’s a shame because there is certainly something here that could have been made into an interesting nightmare utopia type of film. Jewison and his collaborators just never seem to find those threads to tie it all together.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) Written by Melvyn Bragg & Norman Jewison Directed by Norman Jewison
I hate Jesus Christ Superstar. This is mainly because of Dame Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber (shout out to my Comedy Bang Bang Fans out there). I cannot stand this man’s musical theater work. I don’t like Cats or Phantom or Joseph or any of the stuff he’s ever made. It feels grossly over-produced and gaudy in a way that is a complete turn-off to me. Jesus Christ Superstar (or JCS) has not aged well and feels like a relic of the 1960s/70s hippie movement. Even then, it doesn’t feel genuine, but a co-opted facsimile of the hippies. I don’t think the film does much to redeem the musical. It looks fine, but it is certainly not one of Jewison’s best.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) Written by Joseph Stein Directed by Norman Jewison
By this time in his career, Norman Jewison had become dismayed over the political climate in the United States. It was clear that the government was meeting the multiple cultural uprisings and movements with hostility and brutality. He decided to move his family to England, which is where his subsequent few productions were based. Having gained considerable clout for his work on In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison was offered to direct a film adaptation of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. The themes of Fiddler seem right in Jewison’s wheelhouse, but it was his first musical, so that aspect of the film remained to be seen until its release. The result is one of Jewison’s best pictures.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Written by John Huston & Gladys Hill Directed by John Huston
In a 180 from the bleakness of Fat City comes this large-scale adventure film with a message. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella, The Man Who Would Be King was a story that Huston had wanted to make for twenty years. I assume Humphrey Bogart was initially in mind for one of these characters as the themes and plot feel very similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is a picture about treasure hunters going off into a land foreign to them only to learn that their quest for a fortune is doomed from the start. I don’t think there is another director who could have made this picture as perfectly as Huston.