Movie:Year: 1971 Genre: Drama
Like Do the Right Thing, I had to bake my thoughts on this film… I’m not sure how I feel about the story. It isn’t the same apathy I had for Blade Runner, but I am not excited about it as I had been with the rest of the films I’ve seen so far. While vastly different, I couldn’t help but make contrasts and parallels between these two films because the Library of Congress held both in high enough regard to preserve them due to “aesthetic, historical or cultural significance”, a theme I thought about throughout watching this film – and likely one I’ll bring up while writing about it.
Truthfully, I’ve always been curious about this film, since my days as a Blockbuster employee in college. I’d walk past the cover, pick it up occasionally and read the synopsis and then put it back in favor of something funnier (I tend to enjoy comedies – laughing, to me, feels better). I was curious, and I had free rentals so I could take anything other than a new release out for 3 days at a time. There were people I recognized, most notably Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd – who at the time were both leading promising careers in film and TV.
Yet, I always put it back.
So, when I saw it was on this list, I once again became intrigued. More time has passed and the film is now recognized for being aesthetically, historically or culturally significant, so there must be something to it. As I did my research, I became more and more curious about it and actually looked forward to seeing it. Randy Quaid, who I have loved in some of his sillier movies, was in it. Cloris Leachman, who I loved from Mary Tyler Moore and Malcolm in the Middle was in it. Eileen Brennan from Private Benjamin. Ellen Burstyn. I was surprised at how many names I recognized and was curious about the story. I couldn’t find this film through a streaming vendor, so, ironically, Blockbuster came to my rescue – I can’t believe I’m still in the system there, since it has been so long.
I’m not sure which of the three qualities – aesthetics, cultural or historical significance – the Library of Congress had in mind when they selected this film to be preserved, but if I were on the board, I would have voted for aesthetics. The film was shot in black and white, which was uncommon at the time. Bogdanovich used a lot of high contrast and lighting techniques to place emphasis, which I liked quite a bit (being a fan of high contrast black and white photography). The fact that it was in black and white made it all the much easier for me to place these characters in 1951 and 1952, when the story was taking place. The editing was a bit choppy, but it seemed to be intentional, as it was for some films from that era. I thought that, if anything, it gave the story a bit more credibility, especially as it relates to the film’s title. Another notable thing for me was the use of music in the film – all through radios (much like Do the Right Thing, incidentally) – that mostly played Hank Williams (Bogdanovich’s voice was the DJ in the film). And, I discovered that a song I always thought was a Norah Jones song was actually a cover of his song Cold Cold Heart – which was played a lot in this film (I’m not a big fan of country so my knowledge of that genre is pretty thin, apparently).
It is set in a small town, and having also grown up in a pretty small town, I could relate to the interactions of the characters – everybody knew everyone (and all their business) and news always spread quickly. I think about the LTE commercials where people, noses in their phones say things like “… did you hear…” and the response is “…that was so 17 seconds ago…” – this film had that same element only without the LTE network or our snazzy smart phones. That’s how small towns work.
The story is commonly referred to as a “coming of age” film. I usually have apprehension about films described this way because, in a lot of cases, that label is a pretty subtle way of describing “kids becoming sexually active”. Don’t misunderstand: there is plenty of that element in this story, some of which was kind of graphic (I was surprised by that, but that could be attributed to the realism of the way it was shot – it really seemed like a film from the 1950s rather than from the 1970s). To me, though, the story was more about how Sonny (who to me was the main character) transitioned from being a happy-go-lucky kid to being a man in the span of a year and through events to which sex was ancillary. It should be described, instead, as “turning point to maturity” as I saw it at least.
The story centers around three high school seniors (and soon graduates) from the fall of 1951 through to the fall of 1952 in a tiny, economically depressed Texas town. In the town is a man named Sam (the lion) who owns a pool hall, a movie theater and a diner. He runs the pool hall, he has an older woman running the movie theater and a woman named Genevieve (Brennan) running the diner. The boys – Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) – are poor, but happy. They are on the football and basket ball teams, and spend a lot of their time hanging out at Sam’s pool hall with another boy – Joe Bob, a mute that may also be mentally retarded. They also get almost all their meals from Genevieve (who is a fill-in mother for the boys) and watch movies regularly at the movie theater.
Jacy (Shepherd) is the daughter of a man that owns an oil field and Ellen Burnstyn (which surprised me… I didn’t think she was old enough to play Shepherd’s mother). Jacy is popular and pretty and one of the richest kids in the town and is the girlfriend of Duane, who she adores. Her mother, however, thinks she could do better than Duane and encourages her to see (and sleep with) other boys. At first, Jacy is repulsed at the suggestion and defends her relationship with Duane, but begins to think about her mother’s suggestions and, at a town Christmas party, accepts the invitation to another rich boy’s (naked) pool party by a friend of his (kind of a sleezy character played by Quaid) who wants to date Jacy.
At the start of the film, Sonny is dating a girl who, to be blunt, is bitchy to him. He breaks up with her. A short time later, he is asked by his football/basketball coach to take his wife Ruth (Leachman) to an appointment. Sonny picks her up and drives her to the appointment (which is a regular appointment) and brings her home. She seems to be instantly attracted to him and you can tell from the conversation she seems to feel ignored and is happy to have someone talk to her. She asks him to take her to the appointment in the future weeks and he agrees. During the same town Christmas party, they start a physical affair.
As 1952 unfolds, we discover that Jacy has developed a crush on the rich boy in town (not Quaid, but the host of the naked pool party) who tells her that he would date her if she wasn’t a virgin. She sets out to loose her virginity, considering her mother’s advice. It is around this time we discover that her mother is having an affair with one of the men that work for her husband named Abilene. Jacy first tries to loose her virginity to Duane. He comes to visit her in a motel, excited about reconciliation with her, but is unable to perform. She gets angry with him and he leaves. A short time later, Abilene comes to their house to report to her father, but her parents are not home. He convinces Jacy to go with him to the pool hall and she looses her virginity on one of the pool tables. He then takes her back home, and is rather mean to her – almost pushing her out of the car. She comes back inside, in tears, and her mother – knowing what happened, consoles her and continues to give her advice about marriage, relationships and sex with men, admitting that love is not always the same as marriage and that she has loved a man other than Jacy’s father.
It is also around this time Sam takes Sonny (and Joe Bob) on a fishing trip. Sam has always been somewhat of a father figure to Sonny (who seems to be orphaned – there are no parents for him in this film), for Joe Bob (his father is a preacher, but seems not to interact with him much) and for Duane (who does have a mother, but he doesn’t seem to live with her as she is very poor and possibly an alcoholic). Sonny sees this trip as a special event in his life (sort of a reconciliation after an unfortunate incident where some boys ‘helped’ Joe Bob loose his virginity with a town prostitute) and the two talked about women and life, Sam shows Sonny how to roll his own cigarettes and explains how he got the nickname “Sam the Lion” (from a former girlfriend of his that he loved deeply).
Sonny tells Duane about the fishing trip – and plans Sam discussed about fishing farther away one day – and upon discussing it, both boys agreed that getting out of town sounded like a good idea and decide to go to Mexico for a few days. They gather their money and tell Sam they are going out of town. Sam gives them advice and some money and tells them to be safe. A couple of days later, they return to discover Sam the Lion died suddenly. The boys are devastated. The diner is bequeathed to Genevieve, the movie theater to the woman that runs it and the pool hall to Sonny. Some money is left to Joe Bob. The entire town attends the funeral and mourns the loss of Sam, but the funeral seems especially difficult on Jacy’s mother who, overcome with grief, has to leave it early.
Eventually, the town settles into the new normal without Sam and the kids graduate. Duane tries again to get Jacy back but she refuses so he takes a job out of town. Jacy starts to show interest in Sonny (after another unfortunate incident with Joe Bob who kidnapped a young girl) and they begin dating (he admits to having a crush on her). He stops seeing Ruth (without telling her or explanation, breaking her heart) and continues on with Jacy until Duane comes back to town to confront Sonny (who maintained that they had not slept together but were seeing each other). The discussion escalates to a fight and Duane punches Sonny with a beer bottle, puncturing his eye and Sonny has to be hospitalized and wear an eye patch. Ruth makes one last attempt to see Sonny in the hospital and he refuses to see her (notably, Jacy never came to visit). After he gets out of the hospital, Jacy comes to see him at the pool hall and convinces him to get married. They take off to elope, and are pulled over in Oklahoma because Jacy had left a note (and hoped/expected to get caught). Jacy rides home with her father and Sonny rides home with her mother. During the trip home, Sonny discovers that Jacy’s mother was Sam’s girlfriend that gave him the nickname Sam the Lion.
A few months pass, Sonny is running the pool hall, Joe Bob is sweeping the streets, and Jacy is off to college. Duane comes home to visit before he is shipped off to the Army. Sonny comes to visit him, the boys reconcile about the fight and Sonny invites him (for old times sake) to go to the last showing of the town’s movie theater before it closes (the old woman just couldn’t keep it open). The boys – and Joe Bob – watch the movie (only three in the theater) and leave. Sonny and Duane hang out for the evening and Sonny drives Duane to the bus to see him off. He goes back to his pool hall to witness an accident where Joe Bob – while sweeping the street – is struck by a car and killed. The movie ends in a very sad scene where Sonny goes back to Ruth for comfort after Joe Bob’s death. At first she apologizes to him for not seeing him for a while and then gets understandably angry, throwing things and yelling at him. He sits, stoic, and takes it all. She sits down and demands him to look at her – she puts her hand out and he holds it – they cry and she pats his hand and tells him all is going to be OK.
Even reading this now, I can’t really put my finger on what bugs me about this story. It isn’t so much that it is depressing (which it is) or that there is no resolution to anything (which there isn’t, but I can use my imagination for that part… and there is a sequel which I’m debating seeing now). I guess it is the blatant wickedness of people toward each other. I still can’t fully understand why Jacy convinced Sonny to marry her if she just wanted to get caught. It is horribly mean, in my opinion. I can’t fully understand why her mother convinced her to sleep around when she admitted later it has brought her nothing but heartache and trouble and that she’s very unhappy – who would want that for their own child? I can’t fully understand why Sonny just abandoned Ruth the way he did – wouldn’t he want to be told a relationship was over? I know the realities of these things – and have experienced all of them first hand.
Maybe that’s the reason it did not sit well with me.
Next up: Pulp Fiction #94 – This one was a favorite of mine in 1994 when it first came out and I never tire of seeing it… if it is possible to wear out MP3s, I still regularly wear out this soundtrack… I’m really looking forward to seeing this one! OR Titanic #83 – I’ll try to go in order, but there may be situations where I’ll deviate a little and I think this might be a good reason… I’ve only seen this one in a theater and it is in the theaters now for re-release and it would be kind of cool to watch it that way again. I just have not decided yet!