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.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 545: Easy Rider (1969)

I guess this film is a bit like Kerouac or any of those other self-styled poets of the American road, as in it’s something that has been influential and has attracted plenty of love, but is also equally reviled by those who just find it bloated and self-serving. To be fair, these are mostly straw man arguments to a certain extent; aside from a few snide comments I’ve seen, I’m just assuming the existence of this film’s detractors, because my mind itself is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, these characters are like empty ciphers for some metaphorical telling of the American Dream/Nightmare, drugged-up hipsters (though the more I see of the 1960s counterculture, the more segments of it feel more like libertarian neo-conservatism than real progressive belief) on a road journey that self-knowingly takes in all the contradictions of city vs urban life, hippies and drop-outs vs those on a demented vision quest, and everyone in between. You don’t really learn very much, is what I’m saying, because there’s a lot of posturing and smugness… and yet, on the other hand, there’s something a little bit gorgeous about this evocation of the road (probably in part thanks to cinematographer László Kovács), compelling in its nihilism perhaps, but I like the music and I enjoy the ride, even if I don’t always particularly like the company.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Dennis Hopper; Writers Peter Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 December 2000 (and more recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 26 June 2022).

The Shining (1980)

This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.


I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Of his late films, I think this is probably the most widely known, particularly because of its iconic Jack Nicholson performance as the writer Jack Torrance going stir crazy while holed up with his family in the Overlook Hotel over winter. It would be easy to dismiss Nicholson’s work here as overly mannered, but Kubrick was never a director to restrain his actors, and he tended to guide all of them towards a kind of gurning monomaniacal over-the-top performance style, almost incantatory. It gives his films something of the quality of a trance, and the line between reality and dream (or some other fugue state) is always blurred. Where this was very much text in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it’s rather more hinted at here, though the primary clue is in that final image of the old photo showing Jack front and centre at a 1921 New Year’s Eve party in the hotel. He’s like a malign spirit haunting the place, and he’s not the only one.

There’s plenty of stuff in the film to unpick, and indeed there are entire films dedicated to doing so (like Room 237 [2012]). Quite aside from the many levels of interpretation, what I like about the film is its sense of space. Those rides that the kid takes on his tricycle around the building remain unnerving, from the low camera angle, to the precise sound design as he moves from carpet to wood floor, to those blind corners which could reveal anything. Knowing in advance (as I did, having seen the film many years ago) that the dead girls will be around one of them hardly lessens the tension. The same sort of tension is created near the end with the snow-bound hedge maze outside, when Jack is implacably tracking his family through it while wielding an axe.

There’s lots of little stuff like that, along with the bigger enigmas, that draw the viewer in to the film world. None of it is perfectly explicable, and nor should it be, but I can imagine wanting to return to the film in another few decades to check that Jack’s still there, looking after the Overlook Hotel.


CREDITS
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King); Cinematographer John Alcott; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013.