Criterion Sunday 550: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I suppose if there’s a theme to BBS movies, the titles collected by Criterion in the box set “America Lost and Found”, then it’s a sense of the crumbling of the American Dream, or at least that peculiarly mid-20th century vision of it. I mean, it’s certainly deserved, but what these films do is shine a light on confused white men in what should be bastions of that Dream wondering what happened, and that’s no less the case with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern here, as brothers David and Jason. Jason has designs on Atlantic City, but keeps getting into trouble, and when David comes into town it’s largely to survey its noticeable decline. The film feels a bit unfocused at times, but then again so does American society, and the more I think about what Rafelson has put on the screen, the greater fondness I have for this rambling and at times surreal film (sequences of the two on horses on the beach make the Criterion release’s cover art, while elsewhere we have Nicholson compering an audience-less Miss America pageant, amongst other little flourishes). While watching it, I wasn’t quite sure what it all added up to, but in retrospect that may be the point: nothing quite adds up, because this is a story and a society destined to fall apart. The title explicitly anchors it in capitalism, referring to the original Monopoly board (complete with its misspelling of Marven Gardens), and this is a city that has sadly foundered on the promise of a dazzling future, just like these characters, just like all the characters in the BBS movies (whether Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show or even the Monkees in Head).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writer Jacob Brackman (based on a story by Brackman and Rafelson); Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, Julia Anne Robinson; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 July 2022.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.

The Hateful Eight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern; Length 187 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Nebraska (2013)

My take on Alexander Payne’s films that I’ve seen is that they lament the way that masculinity is threatened or is in decline. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but they always seem to me to be very male-centric films. With Nebraska, the decline on show is very much physical, dealing as it does with the stooped and broken figure of 80-year-old Walt (played by Bruce Dern) trying to collect the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstake. He’s abetted on this quest — very much reluctantly — by his son David (a hangdog Will Forte), and together they move from Montana to Nebraska, trailing back through Woody’s own family history. Still, whatever the pleasures of these two characters (and both are very well-acted), for me the film’s highlight is Woody’s cranky wife Kate (June Squibb), who is unconstrained in her criticism of both her husband and son, and their foolishness.

The film comes across as a picaresque journey through parts of America which aren’t so often seen on film, with something akin to the same laconic comedy of The Straight Story (1999). You could also refract it through a different set of musical reference points, as looking at that poster it evokes a classic rock vibe, like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen — who after all had an album of the same name, which had a sort of similarly mythic middle-American bleakness to it. In the film, having travelled to Nebraska, Walt re-connects with his brothers and their extended family, and it’s certainly not clear whether this was a worthwhile thing, especially once they learn of his ‘winnings’ and start to gently (and, in the case of his nephews, not so gently) exploit this for their own gain. In this regard, there’s a fine appearance by Stacy Keach as an old friend he meets in one of the gloomy local bars, who hides a mercenary streak behind his show of warmth.

Perhaps what’s most noticeable on first encounter, though, is the black-and-white cinematography. However, it avoids a zingy, high-contrasty effect, but rather goes for a range of greys in between, suggesting perhaps the vastness and uniformity of a lot of middle America, as well as a timelessness to its storytelling. It doesn’t go out of its way, in other words, to be showy, and just adds a further layer of wistfulness to the film’s elegiac tone.

It’s the uniformly strong acting which is the real asset of this film, although as mentioned above, I felt more warmly towards Squibb than Dern in this respect, the latter mainly doing a sort of stooped mumble and constantly having to look bewildered and confused. Will Forte is particularly good, and I don’t know why it should be that comedians (and both he and Bob Odenkirk, who plays his brother, have experience on Saturday Night Live, amongst other such shows) put across such good portrayals of lives which, if not crushed, have at least not fulfilled their potential. It’s not that the film is about unhappy people — in their ways, they all seem perfectly contented — as it’s about ones who are just fundamentally unremarkable. There are plenty of occasions that might in another movie prompt some sententious homily, but Payne thankfully never goes down that route. And as the movies goes on, we get more of a sense of the opportunities the elderly characters had earlier in their lives, and the different paths that their lives could have taken.

This isn’t a film of regrets, though. There’s a melancholy, but it never overwhelms the characters or the story. Like those reference points, it’s still fundamentally about men on a quest that brings them into contact with their insecurities and fallabilities, and if it were just the two men then I’d probably feel less warmth towards this kind of self-regarding narcissism, but I don’t know, maybe I just have a weakness for quiet stories about lost lives. I don’t want to make grand claims, but to me the film Nebraska feels like a film about how people lie to themselves to keep going in life, and the necessity of those lies.

Nebraska film posterCREDITS
Director Alexander Payne; Writer Bob Nelson; Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Φαίδων Παπαμιχαήλ; Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013.