One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 8
By Laurence Lerman
Admittedly, the last month of life in our city and beyond—as presented to us in print, online and over the airwaves—has played as a non-fiction movie that warrants—that demands—more of our attention than any kind of fictional narrative the world’s moviemakers could spin.
Last week, after easing out of a near round-the-clock absorption with the news, I dipped my toe into the depths of the new HBO Max service, which for me meant some 2,000-plus streamable movies—many culled from the Turner Classic Movies and Criterion Collection libraries. I’ve screened some half-dozen movies since I began, three of them on HBO Max and the balance from other easily accessed sources. Two of the outliers star the musician/actor Kris Kristofferson. He’s not a talent I’ve ever felt a particular affinity for, so I’m at a loss as to how his films came to represent a third of those I watched over the course of the week.
With such a sprawling collection on HBO Max to choose from, I began with a classic: 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. I figured it was an easy pitch to take a swing at—a classic right-up-the-middle—as I hadn’t seen it in close to 40 years.
Much darker and more troubling than I remembered it—those are some screwed-up kids!—Rebel Without a Cause is still best known for the towering performances of its leading trio of Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and, of course, James Dean as “Jimbo” Stark. It joins 1956’s Giant as one of a pair of Dean films that were released after his death following 1955’s East of Eden, which is still my favorite of his three. In Rebel, director Nicolas Ray notably utilizes the burgeoning widescreen CinemaScope technology of the era to maximum effect, elevating the scenes at the film’s memorable scenes at Griffith Observatory and the “Chickie Run” cliffs to melodramatic extremes.
If ever I was going to go from the ridiculous to the sublime (or vice-versa) in choosing a film, it might as well be when I have a choice of so many. That said, having seen the first three entries in the Jaws franchise, kicked off with Spielberg’s 1977 original, I decided to finish up what I started with 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge, which was on Max (along with its predecessors) and only a click away.
Awful. Lorraine Gary returns from the first two Jaws films (the only actor to do so) as Ellen Brody, wife of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider in the first entry), who has apparently died, the stress of his never-ending Shark Week driving him to an early grave. She and her grown son Michael (Lance Guest) set out to Nassau to get away from it all, only to discover that their local man-eating great white shark has followed her. A non-Brody shark attack or two follow a half-hour later, with the production’s animatronic shark going through the same mechanized gestures seen in the previous installments. The whole thing plays like an advert for the Jaws ride at one of the Universal theme parks…
Again I say: awful. But there is a brief appearance by Melvin van Peebles, writer/director/star of 1971’s Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song!
If I’m gonna head to the beach, I figured let it be with Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles and their legendary sex scenes in 1976’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, which I recently bumped into on a streaming service. It was a “Holy Grail” sequence of sorts that I’d initially seen some steamy pics of in a tattered Playboy Magazine when I was a young teen. (The images were not lifted from the movie, but rather a Playboy-sponsored publicity shoot. Years later, Kristofferson offered that his wife at the time, singer Rita Coolidge, was none-too-happy about the very, very frank photos.)
As for the movie, it’s a strange one based on a novella by Japan’s Yukio Mishima, (who was pretty strange himself) concerning a young widow (Miles) who gets sexually involved with a merchant seaman (Kristofferson). Writer and first-time director Lewis John Carlino (whose wide-ranging filmography includes the screenplays for the 1966 John Frankeneheimer thriller Seconds, the 1972 Charles Bronson assassination flick The Mechanic and, later, the acclaimed 1979 Robert Duvall drama The Great Santini, which he also directed) moves the action from Yokohama to the English coastal town of Dartmouth, which creates an evocative and atmospheric backdrop to what eventually and disturbingly goes down.
I mentioned the Sailor to a friend, remarking on Kristofferson’s serviceable performance, and he pointed out that Kristofferson was exceptional in Cisco Pike, a 1971 drama I’d never heard of, written and directed by B.L. Norton and ONE WORD costarring a French Connection-era Gene Hackman. I quickly tracked it down and slotted it for the on-deck spot. And, thus, for a second time, Kris Kristofferson was the impetus for my decoupling from HBO Max. But I vowed to return…
Falling squarely between the hippie-dippie rebel cinema of the late Sixties (1968’s Psych-Out and 1969’s Easy Rider and so on) and the disenfranchised and alienated films of the Seventies (1970’s Five Easy Pieces and 1973’s Scarecrow are good examples), Cisco Pike stars Kristofferson as an aging rocker who’s strong-armed by a psycho L.A. cop (Hackman) into selling a zillion kilos of weed (Acapulco Gold, baby) that have fallen into his hands. Cisco hits up his friends and their friends, all while risking the love of his yoga-loving girlfriend (the always-welcome Karen Black). By the final act, Kristofferson has grown more desperate, Hackman has gotten angrier, and chases and gunplay are the only way out.
Lots of drugs, lots of cruising, lots of familiar Seventies supporting players (including Roscoe Lee Browne, Allan Arbus and Antonio Fargas) and lots of music (including Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”) make for an adequate Seventies not-quite drama-thriller. But my friend was right: Kristofferson was good.
Before diving back into Max, I took a detour, a quick one, to watch Vanity Street, a nifty little 1932 crime drama from Nick Grinde, one of a number of Depression Era “B” picture directors who banged out one after the other back in the day. (Between 1930 and ’40, he directed some 32 features!)
In a tight 65 minutes, Vanity Street tells the tawdry tale a gruff cop (Charles Bickford), a down-on-her-luck local gal (Helen Chandler), a stunning showgirl (Mayo Methot), her boozing boy toy (Charles Meeker) and a murder that needs solving. NO great surprises here, but as it’s a pre-Code noir-forerunner, there’s a heathy dollop of cheeky dialogue, cohabitation and sex between people who aren’t married (oh my!) and the saucy Ms. Methot—first wife of Humphrey Bogart— sans brassiere and falling out of her wayward blouse. And it looks pretty good, too, courtesy of legendary cinematographer Joseph August. With 159 films to his credit, I’m thinking he was one DP who didn’t make it home that often.
HBO Max beckoned me to return with a title from their Criterion line-up: Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata, the filmmaker’s final work made for theatrical exhibition (they were all TV productions afterwards) and the only collaboration between Sweden’s legendary Bergmans, Ingmar and Ingrid. (As a kid, I never thought there was a difference though, admittedly, Ingmar was rarely brought up in our home.)
Emerging during a dark period in Bergman’s life, when he was living abroad and battling the Swedish tax authorities, Autumn Sonata meditates on themes of family neuroses and generational reconciliation and, as it’s Bergman, death, and how it becomes more and more of a palpable reality as when gets older. It’s certainly on the minds of Ingrid, as a self-absorbed classical pianist approaching the end of her career, and costar Liv Ullman as her somber daughter who chooses the occasion of a rare visit from mom to let loose her a lifetime of pent-up anger and recrimination. The two actresses bring their talent and intensity to Ingmar’s script, particularly Ingrid, who’d never had a chance to flex her skills like she does here—not in her Oscar-winning Hollywood performances in Gaslight (1944), Anastasia (1955) or Murder on the Orient Express (1974), nor in her neorealist collaborations with Roberto Rossellini in the Fifties.
Two Bergmans and a strong a dash of Ullman. Definitely a potent mix to end on.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.