Friday, 12 February 2010

My 10 Favourite Films – Part 1: Stuck In The 70s

Mark Kermode’s ‘10 Favourite Films’ list in The Observer got me wondering. I wondered...
   What the hell is Pan’s Labyrinth doing in there? It’s good, but he’s watched a lot more films than the average person and he’s still put that amongst his ten favourites?
   Why is he so obsessed with The Exorcist? It’s his favourite favourite film. He must be possessed by it, but why, I can’t fathom. Perhaps he needs a priest to exorcise it from him (cue Kermode’s head swivelling before he vomits and snarls “It’s my favourite fucking film you motherfucker!”)
   Then there’s Mary Poppins – huh, beneath that hard 50s rocker appearance he’s not a chain-swinging, flick-knife-brandishing, film critic-coshing hard nut, but a big softie who likes nothing better than to go all gooey at the sight of Julie Andrews flying via brolly power!

   To his credit, he is being honest, rather than showing his film critic credentials by automatically including Citizen Kane and at least one by a French or Italian director. That said, I like professional film critics to be haughty and snobbish, even, and expect there to be something ‘difficult’ or relatively obscure on the list. It proves they really have watched a lot of serious films and thought hard about films which demand hard thinking.
   (It made me wonder what it takes to become a film critic. You know, how he got the gig in the first place. He is the face of film on BBC2.)
   I wondered what would be in my list of Favourite Films and after a while concluded that there were a lot of from the 70s, not leaving room for all the other eras.
   Why so many from the 70s? A friend suggested it was because it was ‘my time’. True, I was a teen of the 70s and started seriously getting into films then, but I watched most of them on video years after they were released. I only saw two of my favourites from the 70s at the cinema when they came out - A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. They start and end an era of sorts, from my early teens to the start of my twenties. A lot happened in between, such as learning that I had no aptitude for learning anything at school, losing my virginity, and discovering that Work was hell.
   The wonders of the dawn of the video age...when we could suddenly replay and access all those films. Unless your local video store was rubbish, which mine was. Still, it must have had some good stuff because as I said it was an era of discovery.
   Today we have it all at the click of a button, but then, living in the sticks, miles from any cinema, never mind an art house one, Bicycle Thieves were just that, kids who nicked your bike.

   Rewind several years and A Clockwork Orange was showing at the local fleapit, a decrepit joint that didn’t care how old you were regarding film certification as long as you had the price of a ticket. Unlike another one which refused me entry because I couldn’t give the correct date of birth and worse, I had a girl with me. She didn’t go out with me for long, but long enough to enjoy one night whispering into each other’s mouths all the way through Gold.
   I was thirteen when I went with the gang to see Kubrick’s masterpiece. Has there been a better film for adolescent gangs? It was perfect. Lots of violence, some of the ol’ in-out, and a gang that reminded us of ourselves as a fantasy alter-ego, if you get my meaning. They wore boots and braces! Not that we dreamt of doing all the nastiness the droogs got up to but they were our kind, because they were mutant boot boys. And that didn’t strike us as odd considering it was set in the future. Well, we were stupid, of course.
   Luckily we shared the cinema with a gang of greasers. Oh what joy it was when Alex and his droogs laid into their rivals who, of course, looked exactly like bikers.
   Despite the film’s supposed corrupting influence we did not go out into the world and kick the hell out of tramps or rape women, but we did buy white Levi’s and shirts, and some even got bowler hats. Did we look stupid? Possibly, but we were taken over by the spirit of rebellion, of wanting to look as if we could take on hairy bikers (not the TV cook variety) and win.
   Well, as you know, Kubrick had this national treasure locked away for years, which increased its mythic status. It got to the stage where I began to think I had dreamt the whole thing. Had I really seen this cult classic? Would anyone ever get to see it again? Was it actually any good, or made magnificent by word of mouth? When it finally got re-released, I could properly appreciate it, and viewed with an adult head I found it enthralling in a whole new way. I still treasure this film, partly because of the impact it had on us then, but mostly because it remains a classic.

   Apocalypse Now was watched countless times on video, although its full force was felt in the cinema. I recall the sound of choppers moving from behind me and flying overhead. The widescreen surround sound wonder of war in all its absurdity.
   The Vietnam war became something of a fixation with my friend and me. We read the books, marvelled at the photos of grunts, and perversely came to see it as some kind of hip atrocity; the war where soldiers painted snappy ironic slogans on their helmets and listened to Hendrix whilst stoned in trenches. Coppola captured this brilliantly.
   Capt. Willard wakes up to find himself still in Saigon. In our warped minds, workaday life became Saigon and, shit, we were trapped in it without a mission. I would have liked to have taken a trip up the Thames delta into the parliamentary heart of darkness, machete in hand, to meet Thatcher.
   We read Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’, a key text for fuelling the myths we treasured about grunts who were wrapped too tight and wreaking havoc in what the New York Times called ‘our first rock’n’roll war’ in the blurb for the book. It’s a sick way to sum up a tragedy, but somehow it’s right, what with all those kids carrying the spirit of spaced-out 60s America into Vietnam.
   Brando reading poetry and telling Willard he’s just a ‘grocery clerk’...Hopper’s photojournalist...Duvall’s Kilgore...the Do Long bridge sequence (‘Welcome to the arsehole of the world!’)...I could go on, for pages, but don’t worry, I won’t.
   We quoted lines at every opportunity, and to this day I’m still prone to tell someone I’ve cooked for that if they eat it they’ll never have to prove their bravery in any other way.

   Then there’s Taxi Driver, DeNiro’s greatest role, and another obsession of mine for years. Travis Bickle, the tragi-comic (taking Betsy to a porn movie!) loner, is surely the ultimate urban outsider. He despises the scum that walks the streets at night and finally finds someone to rescue, but can he save himself from the eternal darkness of his tortured soul?
   So he winds up and hero, pumped up and primed with a Mohican hairstyle, and armed to the teeth. As if shooting up a whorehouse could really solve anything.
   There is no escape for Travis and the end never felt like the end, only the closure of a chapter in Bickle’s book of burnt-out blues. I couldn’t imagine him getting old. I imagine him dead by the end of the 70s, pulling that ‘You talkin’ to me?’ routine once too often, and finally being the one who’s given a ride, to the morgue.

To recap, so far I’ve chosen:
A Clockwork Orange
Apocalypse Now
Taxi Driver
But what about can I forget it? And Kubrick’s other classic, The Shining. I’m starting to think that the 70s really was The Golden Age...The Long Goodbye...Alien...The Conversation, and The Godfather, which is so ridiculously good, as you know, that I’m really struggling to omit that in favour of something else.
   I need an escape route from the 70s, and I’m thinking of one of Kermode’s choices, It’s A Wonderful Life. But another James Stewart classic is my way out...


  1. I'm with you on a lot of this Robin, but The Long Goodbye? I just do not see the appeal in that version. It's so BROWN... which is to say, so '70s ;) Really though, Altman is just so over-rated in my opinion. Nothing ever topped Bogart in The Big Sleep for Chandler adaptations.

  2. Ah, well, we shall always be at odds over this one. I think you're missing everything that makes this a classic. I'll be mounting the defence in a future article. I had planned to write about it anyway and your comments have inspired me to get it done.
    By the way, did you know that Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay, was also one of the writers on 'The Big Sleep'?


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