Sunday, May 31, 2009

Three Half-Ironies

I didn't feel an immediate "in" for a post on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, so I thought I'd take a page from Nicholas Rombes and freeze the film at the :10, :40, and :70 minute marks...

In themselves, these stills evidence a fairly deliberate widescreen composition and cinematography. Still #1 to me captures the distinctive aesthetic sensibility of the film... it is at first glance the kind of vista landscape shot we associate with the New Hollywood Western/road movie, but it's actually a composition exploiting foreground and the diagonal. Shot #2 is perhaps a textbook rule-of-thirds illustration. 

Beyond the formal traits, the shots exemplify three facets of the theme. Glenn gets at the crux of the theme when he notes the "lyrical clash between classic Western genre traits and 20th century progress." Like many of the 70s American films, Thunderbolt and Lightfood combines genre and allegory; in this instance, the genre film seems sandwiched in between and exposition (a preacher who turns out to be a criminal) and resolution (a schoolhouse preserved as a hollow marker of History) with weighty allegorical dimensions.  In the above stills, however, we get the bare genre elements with larger meaning: the car (which Peter so well diagnoses), the male buddy-couple, and the gun. The thematic project of the film seems to be to take each of these and repurpose it, infuse it with irony. 

The cynic in me thinks the film actually says less about violence, masculinity, and mobility in American life than it conspicuously shows that it is saying something about these things. Or perhaps, it is sincere in its ironic critique, but that the critique is so close to other films (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, $, Jeremiah Johnson, etc.) that it's hard for me to take it as something other than second-order seriousness.

It's particularly worth pointing out the gender politics of the film. This is the sort of film that would be (and perhaps was) a prime target of a certain era of feminist (Molly Haskell) and gay/lesbian (Vito Russo) criticism. My first inclination would be to move beyond the contemporaneous gender critiques, but in sum I think they're spot on: there's a misogyny and homophobia that hides behind the half-ironic pose of critique: the narration allows us to know that these anti-heros are flawed (because of homophobia and misogyny) while not ever putting the spectator in empathy with, say, the women of the film. Or else, these elements are written off as the generic part of the film, while the "real" auteur film hiding beneath is about more high-minded truths. I bring this up in part because the contradiction so pervades the film (the almost-gay kiss, the drag, the prostitutes, the youth making out) and in part because it gets to the genre-auteur contradictions of the New Hollywood.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Grand Theft Cimino (Random impressions: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot)

It used to be that if someone asked me to name the ultimate 'car film', Three Lane Blacktop would pop into my mind first. But not anymore.

There is not nearly the same level of car fetishism in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but Cimino is definitely trying to say something with autos. The title characters are in seven different automobiles before credits roll, four of them they stole. And even though they are always moving, they don't seem like they get anywhere.

Even a plan is worked out by drawing on a car.

Parallels to the Western genre are no clearer then when the cars are "taken to water".

There are so many scenes where the cars are not on any road at all. It is really strange and yet, because of the scenery, oddly beautiful and familiar. Replace the car for a horse and we have a period-piece.

It feels like, in the hands of another, less sincere director, the off-road abundance would approach tacky; the connections with the Western would be heavy-handed. Instead it comes off subtle and grounded in a reality that masks it. It wasn't even affecting me on the first viewing.

Jeff Bridges brought such an energy to this performance, a playfulness and spirit that worked so well with the material. When an actor makes choices that so totally create an understanding in the viewer that the words are spilling right from the character's mind, it's magic.

The sorrow and pain that Lightfoot has is only revealed cryptically, and contrapuntally to Thunderbolt. Like in the scene where Lightfoot talks about how he started on the road, after meeting a woman on a train. "Now you can't stop" Thunderbolt interjects. Lightfoot looks at him. It's a full shot, but we can still see, through Bridges' look, not just an acknowledgment of that truth, but a sadness in it as well.

Maybe someone can help me understand the significance of Thunderbolt having the white convertible Cadillac in the end, which Lightfoot revealed is his goal in the beginning of the film. Did Cimino simply want him to die a "hero" in his dream car?

Once again, the FotMC is blessed with another interesting and rewarding selection that fell under my radar all these years. Looking forward to other discussions. Thanks Glenn.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pearls of Wisdom: The Death of Friendship in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

The New Hollywood of the early 1970's merged their love for European Art House cinema with traditional home-grown genres (Western, Noir, Musical), challenging cinematic forms and expectations to establish new possibilities within narrative storytelling. Hopper, Penn, Rafelson, and Bogdanovich laid the foundation for Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas. But these filmmakers either descended into artistic obscurity or ascended to blinding mainstream stardom. Somewhere on the fringes of these polar opposites resided a few filmmakers keen on blurring even the most standard aesthetics, forcing the viewer into an uneasy and fascinating cinematic space. This is the realm of Michael Cimino. 

On the surface, Michael Cimino's debut film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) appears to be a standard Clint Eastwood vehicle, co-starring Malpaso regulars George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis along with a young and spry Jeff Bridges as the titular Lightfoot. It's a heist film with comedic trimmings and road movie ruminations, all framed by a changing view of the West. However, looking at it in historical context, when American audiences were still reeling from the devastating social and political conflicts of the 1960's and early 1970's, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot presents an uncomfortable and complex clash of ideals between a naive, empowered youth and a disgruntled old-guard. Ironically, these altercations often take place in golden fields of wheat, or alongside rivers flanked by angular mountainsides, often framed by cloudy blue skies; or Anthony Mann country. Cimino and Eastwood see this power struggle as a key factor in certain harrowing situations, and it's no accident characters are left with the tragic results alone and uncertain. 

As far as debut films go, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot makes an astounding impression. The lyrical clash between classic Western genre traits and 20th century progress formulates a deceptive pattern of shifting tones, where comedy and tragedy are flip-sides of the same stubborn coin. Each character defines themselves based on this tension, ultimately complicating the traditional master/disciple relationship by revealing a deep sense of longing and regret. In the end, the pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the film take on an unsettling resonance when the very idea of friendship becomes smothered by greed and jealousy. 

I'm eager to see what everyone else makes of this poetic and haunting film. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mabuse Wrapup

Before we move on to May's selection, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I want to thank the club for the chance to host this month's film - and for an excuse to keep rewatching Mabuse The Gambler (and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse) for a month... That was a major motivation for choosing this film: I found it fascinating, full of things - stylistic, thematic, structural - that I thought were there but wasn't quite sure - but without some kind of external pressure, I'm not sure I would have put the time into it.

I'm certainly glad I did - the Mabuse films are as rewarding a batch of films as I've watched in a while, and they are films that lead me out from them as well. I hope I manage to continue working through Lang's filmography; I hope I get the chance to go backwards to watch films like Fantomas and other Feuillade (and others - maybe Joe May) series'. I hope I get some more posts out of these films - one of the things I most like about writing on the internet is that it doesn't quite have to be finished - you get to work through ideas in public, a bit, posting drafts and revisions and sketches, in ways you can't really do in other forums. The chance to keep coming back to the idea is a valuable one...

Anyway - I hope I haven't bored you all to death, and sorry for picking such a monster of a film. It could have been worse, I suppose - I could have been inspired to write about Berlin Alexanderplatz. I have to credit Eric Rentschler for this fascination with German film: I am taking a class with him (at the Harvard Extension School), and it has been very inspirational. And for Lang, it is hard to beat Tom Gunning's book...

And now - I'm looking forward to Glenn Heath's discussion of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.... Before I turn into Mabuse myself...