Ordinary People

The atrocious opening joke of anodyne scenes in the Midwest (curved road with Curved Road sign) coupled to Pachelbel in the hymnal that’s a nightmare, establishes the comedy this is, and the playlet following this the one it isn’t.

Naturally, there’s a feint toward Frost’s “Home Burial”, and a good deal of ambience from The Graduate threaded among a fine, merciless film whose point is quite elsewhere, in The Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby”, where just such a wife faces just such a collapse, the Freudian basis of which is acknowledged after the breakthrough in the psychiatrist’s office by a little joke on John Huston’s Freud, an exterior of the girl’s window as she opens the curtains and peeks out.

The twist of the opening is from George Roy Hill (you can, if you look for them, find influences of Pollack and Ritchie in the direction, among others), and sets up a characteristic and distinctive technique of precisely preparing material and delivering it flawlessly with a surprise follow-through. This reflects the overall structure, which is a function of the atrociously acerbic punchline, in which the mother is replaced by the son.

The technique is admirably seen in the bowling date sequence. The girl confesses her inability and proves it in the next shot, then at McDonald’s the son confesses his infirmity and is interrupted by rowdy merrymakers somehow recalling the Russian acrobats in Ken Russell’s Isadora. The technical point of observation is the solidity with which each step of this sequence is exactly prepared onscreen (note the blonde, for instance, in the booth behind the girl).

Hitchcock has his “cruelties”, and Wyler his “severities”, but there’s something new in Ordinary People provided by Redford himself, who sometimes lends a villainous portrayal a coruscating iciness generating heat by friction. It’s as well to mention Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles for another viewpoint treating the same theme skillfully to another purpose.

 

The Milagro Beanfield War

Redford has taken his cue, I believe, from the later works of John Huston. The visionary element is the key, and to this there must be a sacrifice of certain directorial elements. The photographic side is allowed to ride roughshod, and the editorial department fairly runs amuck. This is as nothing, however, a stylistic flourish or furbelow, a wide net on the right side.

At the same time it is minutely constructed, primarily from Carol Reed’s Flap, with an awareness of Herbert J. Biberman’s Salt of the Earth and a little modulation toward David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave. One of the old men of Milagro looks alarmingly like Henry Travers in a long white beard, because he had a change of heart in The Bells of St. Mary’s and also played a guardian angel.

The complex mechanism turns on a pig rooting in the beanfield, which provokes a spate of shooting that leads a college student from New York to pray to the Savior (not to be confused with Miracle Valley developer Ladd Devine, Jr.) for the life of a very vague old-timer.

 

Quiz Show

The elaborately casual style is a magic trick in the grand manner, with more than one false bottom and a number of derisory perspectives. Its sticking point is the true story, around which it constructs a semblance of the Fifties, the time of Eisenhower (not long after Gentleman’s Agreement) and poets like Mark Van Doren and John Shade. The era is not evoked but rather represented, despite the ardent intervention of John Turturro and Paul Scofield—it dissolves into an appearance like the rest.

The quiz show scandals vanish into an exposť of anti-Semitism and then thin air. This is a film for a time like our own, when the “credibility gap” has become a “crisis of confidence,” shadow is substance, and the appearance of anything is its all.

The technique of pounding gavels and dynamic camera movement is now familiar to us from our own game shows, and incorporates material from All the President’s Men and The Way We Were.

 

The Horse Whisperer

The best way to approach this film is to understand it as a joke told by Montanans around the campfire, a screen is placed between them and the audience, who see colorful views and an elaborate presentation of the joke for dudes. Now, these are cowboys and cowgirls of genius, they act out the dilemma of a New York couple just as nice as you please, and even act themselves, God-fearin’ folks, sensitive and good-natured as they are, but enjoying their own performances a bit, too. It’s all in fun, which isn’t to say it isn’t serious, and many a home truth spoken in jest has a gloss of tender kind good humor about it, so as not to offend strangers.

“You have to be a man,” says McLintock, “before you can be a gentleman,” and likewise it takes a woman to be an extraordinary woman. The wife has left off that preliminary step, the husband is buffaloed and works at his lawyering to be worthy of her. The image is of a girl and her horse, they fall and she walks with a stick.

Mark Twain understood the pleasures of elaborate composition in the telling of a very simple joke. A joke is about as fundamental a form of art as you can get, short of cave painting, and that might be caricature, too. “Easy as lying,” Twain would say, or riding a horse.

 

The Legend of Bagger Vance

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and note, if you’re of a particular mind to, the elegant construction of the twin nebbishes (derived from Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack, perhaps) who together make one great American athlete.