SPIELBLOG: 2. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS

HOLLYWOOD – SpielBlog is a soup to nuts film by film rundown of Steven Spielberg’s film career.

I came to Steven Spielberg’s first film very late. Only a couple of years ago. I might have seen some of it on TV as a kid but I never sought it out and its fame was obscured by the mega-fame of the subsequent Jaws. But The Sugarland Express is a beautifully shot tragicomic road movie with a surprisingly dark undercurrent.
In the early seventies, a debut movie was released of a young filmmaker. ​Based on a true story, it told the slim tale of two naive young lovers from Texas who go on the run from the law and become the targets of a media frenzy as they are pursued. The film was called Badlands and the director’s name was Terrence Malick. The similarity in subject matter meant that Pauline Kael reviewed both films together in The New Yorker. Kael didn’t much care for Malick’s first film comparing it unfavourably to Spielberg, even though her praise of Spielberg frequently sounded patronising: “I can’t tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good moviemakers have got by without being profound.”
Her argument was that as a craftsman and an entertainer – both of which counted as feint praise from Kael – Spielberg was one of the most promising debuts in a long time. He was a product of a Hollywood machine, albeit one that was firing on all cylinders and would produce some of the best films ever made over the span of the decade. In fact, watching the film today, it seems easy to imagine it could have been the work of Robert Altman or Arthur Penn.

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Goldie Hawn was the star attraction as Lou Jean Poplin, or single mother, petty criminal who decides to break her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out from a low security prison in order to rescue their baby who has been placed in foster care. Lou Jean and Clovis have no grand plan and their witless progress is only facilitated by the overkill of the response moderated by the restraint of Captain Tanner (a fantastic Ben Johnson).

Having stolen one car and totalled it, they then steal the car of the policeman Patrolman Slide (Michael Sacks) who was pursuing them, and taking him hostage head for Sugarland where Baby Brandon is feeding steak to the family dog. They’re pursued by an increasing convoy of police cars, as well as a TV news team and ultimately crowds of well-wishers.

The photography is superb, celebrated cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond can take some credit, but Spielberg’s shot choice is already there. His ability to tell a story visually, to marshal background detail and juxtapose different elements, to find beauty and grime in the same location is truly stunning and goes someway to justifying Kael’s enthusiasm.

Ironically, the film would pick up Best Screenplay at Cannes, whereas this is probably the weakest element. The characters aren’t well drawn and at crucial moments make staggeringly dumb decisions. Whereas Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek imbue their leads with an edge of sociopathic charisma in Badlands, here Hawn and Atherton come over as doomed lovers via Dumb and Dumber. To be fair, Atherton seems the most knowing of the two, occasionally his expression betratying that he knows how this is going to end but he’ll go for it anyway. But just when the possibility of pathos scratches the corner of your eye, he’ll prove himself as dumb as a brick in the next scene. (He would later reappear as the eminently hateable asshole in Die Hard and Ghostbusters.) Goldie Hawn, meanwhile, was reaching for a more dramatic role, but the character is underwritten and – crucially – irritating. Her squealing when delighted and hollering when angry are equally annoying and it is ultimately Lou Jean who is the motivating force for the dumbest decisions.

And then there’s the police cars. The excessive demolition derby of police cars seems to be an obsession in Seventies American Cinema. John Landis in The Blues Brothers for instance goes all the way. It’s the mad cap chase that would lead to such capers as Smokey and The Bandit, Convoy and The Cannonball Run. I can’t help but suspects Spielberg likes the look of the flashing strobes on the roofs of the cars and the different angles he can get them from. When Captain Tanner wants to show his contempt for a pair of duck hunting vigilantes, he smashes the strobe light on their car like a general ripping the epaulettes from a disgraced officer.

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As with Duel, I get the feeling Spielberg is consciously making as big a film as he can out of fairly slim material. With Duel however the simplicity worked int he film’s favour. Here, there is more ambition but paradoxically The Sugarland Express ends up as a smaller film overblown. A superficially embossed calling card which isn’t funny enough to be a comedy or thoughtful enough to have something to say. There are glimpses of darkness on the edge of town. The two snipers brought in to assassinate the outlaws provide a brief glimpse of workmanlike malevolence, with the bullets stuck in their ears to protect them from the noise.

As a calling card it of course worked. Getting him the next job of his breakout Jaws. It also significantly provided him with John Williams, the composer and collaborator who would contribute significantly to his future success.

SpielBlog by noted film critic John Bleasdale is also published here and will continue next week.

SPIELBLOG: 1. DUEL

HOLLYWOOD – SpielBlog is a soup to nuts film by film rundown of Steven Spielberg’s film career.

TV movies come with their own constraints. The budget is low; the schedule tight and the ambition narrow. Steven Spielberg got his shot with a Richard Matheson script based on his own experience driving home from a golf game the day JFK was shot. But Duel broke through a ten day shoot and the threat of Gregory Peck – whose casting would have seen Spielberg booted – to become one of the best TV movies ever made.
Duel starts with the car’s POV as we drive through a city towards the freeway. On the radio a comedian (Dick Whittington) prank calls the census. He’s bothered because although he’s the man of the house he doesn’t think he’s the head of house and he doesn’t know what to put. Right from the get go with have this idea of male insecurity, anxiety that the thin veneer that makes up civilisation and enables a weakling to live in apparent safety is a vaporous illusion. ​
The allegorically-named David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is the perfect foil. A familiar TV face, Weaver’s one notable film credit was a ludicrously over the top motel janitor in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Everything about him is unattractive: his stupid sunglasses with lenses the colour of urine, his sub-Burt Reynolds mustache and his whiny voice-over voice. His wife complains about him not standing up to another man at a party who was ‘practically raping’ her. He suspects the mechanic of trying to con him with talk of a new radiator hose. His appointment is with a man who has to leave for Hawaii. You suspect David is never going to Hawaii.

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The 1955 Peterbilt Truck that will terrify Mann and chase him across the mountains and through the desert is everything that he is not. It’s dirty, where Mann dabs at his neat mustache with a napkin, spewing foul smoke. It’s assertive where Mann is deferential. It seeks conflict. It’s industrial and working class compared to Mann’s office stiff wardrobe and monogrammed briefcase. And whereas Mann is the embodiment of male anxiety, the Peterbilt is basically a large cock on ten wheels, loaded with the number plates of previous victims.

The conflict escalates with a black sense of humour. What is apparently a misunderstanding and then vindictiveness, slowly escalates into a deadly hunt. The relative sizes of the car and the truck, the speeds and the road are expertly conveyed. This is Mad Max level brilliance and yet was filmed in 13 days (three days over schedule) and on location against the wishes of a studio who wanted the whole thing done on a sound stage with back projections.

Along the way Mann meets up with a variety of grotesques who show for the first time Spielberg’s vision of a banally-indifferent-when-not-actually-corrupt America. These are the same people who will want to keep the beaches open because it’s the Fourth of July weekend. Mann’s stop at a roadside eatery is full of menace. Any of these people could be guilty and Mann hasn’t the confidence to just say to the room “Hey, who’s driving that rig out there?” Of course, he picks on the wrong guy – mostly every decision Mann makes is frustratingly obviously wrong. Mann takes plot-convenience naps and seems blissfully unaware until the last second that a massive truck is heading for his phone box. Weaver’s performance is obviously what Spielberg wanted – he was a huge fan of Touch of Evil – but you can’t help but wonder what Richard Dreyfuss would have done with the part.

Just how much the world is in sympathy with the truck and out of sympathy with Mann is hit home again and again. From the clientele of the truck stop to the school bus driver, everyone seems to distrust Mann and be indifferent to the Peterbilt. The funniest example of this is the woman with the rattlesnake ranch right next to the phone box – ‘What a weird place to keep snakes!’ Mann exclaims. (By the way look in the reflection of the phone box and you can see Steven Spielberg standing beside the cameraman and watching the scene. Charitably we could say this is his Hitchcockian cameo for what is essentially a Hitchcockian thriller, something the score is relentless in pointing out.)

Stripped of all help and isolated, Mann must face the truck alone. The final showdown is expertly conveyed. Shot from multiple angles with seven cameras, Spielberg ended up only using the one shot in slow motion for the climactic crash and cliff dive. It is this kind of decisive restraint that marks him out as a director of genuine vision, even so early on. The way we have read ‘Inflammable’ on the back of the truck all this time, but then it doesn’t explode when it goes over the cliff. This is 1971 so endings always have to have a hint of the ambiguous rather than the audience pleasing catharsis.

Duel got good ratings and reviews as TV Movie of the Week and ultimately some re-shoots to make it feature length. Spielberg used it as his calling card, touring it round festivals in Europe. It was a TV movie that looked like it should be on the big screen. And that was exactly where Steven Spielberg was heading.

SpielBlog is also published here and will continue next week.

TOP SPIELBERG FILMS BILLY ZANE-D BY JAMES CAMERON

HOLLYWOOD – It’s the new trend that is taking over Hollywood and all of Steven Spielberg’s films have now been Billy Zane-d.

To Zane a movie is to digitally insert Billy Zane into a film in order to ‘heighten dramatic tension.’ The first Zaned movie was Titanic. What many people don’t know about James Cameron’s 1997 disaster movie is that Billy Zane was never actually a regular member of the cast. The film had been shot in its entirety but test screenings showed that audiences found the boat v iceberg story less than gripping.

James Cameron takes up the story:

The unsinkable ship versus the immovable obstacle: the iceberg! We thought we had the whole kit and shebang, but it turned out that audiences needed more dramatic tension. Who knew? So we digitally inserted Billy Zane in the role of Cal and we gave him a gun. Just to make the Titanic seem a little more dangerous.

Billy Zane has been introduced into every Steven Spielberg film by James Cameron using ‘Avatar’ technology. Cameron told the Studio Exec:

Jaws will be much scarier with Zane on the boat, conspiring to steal diamonds. And imagine how creepy Duel is now that Zane is driving the truck. And Schindler’s List! You thought the Nazis were bad but here comes Zane with a small pistol and a thin mustache.

The Zaned Steven Spielberg collection will be available on Blu-Ray in 2017.

Image courtesy of @ThePixelFactor.

 

5 FACTS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT STEVEN SPIELBERG

HOLLYWOOD – Everybody knows who Steven Spielberg is, but do we really know WHO Steven Spielberg is?

The answer is of course ‘Yes, he’s Steven Spielberg’ and here are five more FACTS that the Studio Exec FACT squad have attained:

1.      If you talk about a television program while Steven Spielberg is in the room he automatically gets an Executive Producer credit. The same is not true of a motion picture venture. For that you need to chase Steven around a room without touching the walls or the door or Steven until he falls down exhausted. Michael Bay chased Steven around the Universal lot for seven solid days before he finally agreed to Executive Produce Transformers, a decision he bitterly regrets.

2.      While filming Duel, Steven was involved in a serious accident and a small part of his cranium was removed. For this reason, he always appears in public wearing a hat. His ‘friend’ George Lucas made a cruel joke about this in Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader is Flemish for ‘The Director of the Sugarland Express’.

3.      During the seventies Spielberg was one of the most powerful celebrity slave owners, a fact that has since caused him some embarrassment.
(CLICK HERE for more on that story). Although a well kept secret, celebrity slave owning was quite the thing and some celebrities such as Ben
Affleck continue the tradition even today, despite the controversy it causes. 
4.      He’s Amish. Although he rarely talks about religion it is understood that Peter Weirs’ “Witness” was based on the young life of Steven Spielberg. 
5.      Although many of his films have been reported to be commercially successful, none of them have actually turned a profit due to the Byzantine studio accounting system, except for The Terminal
For more FACTS click HERE.

SPIELBERG LOSES DINOSAUR

SAN FRANCISCO – Film director, Steven Spielberg admitted today that one of his dinosaurs is missing.

The dinosaurs that were being kept on an isolated island in the Pacific by his new BFF Peter Jackson, while Spielberg made up his mind whether or not to make Jurassic Park 4

Toby Turns, animal handler, criticised the bearded Duel director saying, ‘They were just lumped together and allowed to roam free. There were holes they could fall down. Not natural holes, mind. Pete Jackson would helicopter in at the weekend and dig them himself. I mean I say holes, they were more like traps.’

A shamefaced Spielberg said that he leant Terry Malick a couple of dinosaurs but hadn’t been able to get the reclusive director on the phone: ‘He isn’t even answering his Facebook messages.’


The dinosaur – a Velociraptor – is said to be ‘dangerous-ish’ and that if seen: ‘it’s probably too late the two either side of you are going to get you anyway.’

Jurassic World is to be released in 2015.

TARANTINO DISSES SPIELBERG’S SLAVE-OWNING ‘IT’S PLAIN WRONG!’

HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino has angrily asserted that Steven Spielberg is a disgrace to the directing profession and should have his cap taken off him and given to someone ‘who won’t lose it up his ass.’

The rant was provoked by the news which broke yesterday that Steven Spielberg has been a slave owner since the late Seventies, owning over two hundred Vietnamese slaves in a plantation in Dakota.

‘I’ve always admired Stevie,’ said Four Rooms co-director, flapping his hands in the air. ‘Always, always. Duel and 1941 oh and Always are some of the finest films I’ve ever seen. But Spielberg has been drifting to the right for years now. First of all with his Young Hitler picture Munich which I didn’t see out of protest and now the news that he actually owns slaves.’

Tarantino – who is working on his biopic of Jazz legend Django Riendhart entitled Django Unchained  – says that the slavery issue is very close to his heart. ‘I’ve always wanted to have slaves myself,’ Tarantino said. ‘Hey I’m no puritan. I understand that Spielberg wants to be able to kill people with impunity and get them to do whatever he wants. But there are limits.’

When Studio Exec challenged Tarantino about his friend Kurt Russell who is a vocal defender of slavery, the Dawn to Dusk ‘actor’ got quite irate  ‘Kurt is a great friend and an artist who I admire very much. What he does with human beings who he had bought at market with Goldie Hawn’s money is entirely his business.’

Isn’t that exactly true of Spielberg also then?

‘Yes,’ said Mr T (as he prefers to be known). ‘Yes. I suppose it is. Okay. Forget everything I just said. Let’s talk about my picture where’s the reset button on this thing.’

Django Unchained will be followed by The Hateful Eight.