PRINT October 1969


The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, More, The Gypsy Moths, The Rain People, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

The Wild Bunch has a virile ribbon image, often an aerial view, of border life in 1914 Texas, stretched across a mottled wide screen in which there are so many intense, frontal details—five kids marching in a parade with their arms linked, a line of bounty hunters riding straight at the camera—that the spectator’s store chest of visual information is constantly widened. Someone seems to have studied all the frontal postures and somber-sharp detailing in Civil War photographs, as well as the snap-the-whip, across-the-page-compositions that Homer often used as a perfect substructure for the spread-out, pastoral, early 1900s. There is a lunatic intensity in exploiting this archaic photography, getting the inside effect of life in movement, having people in rows, the pride and uprightness of a pose, emphasizing dishevelment in peasant huts or the dry-dusty exit from a Mexican walled city.

From this pulverizing attempt at photographic beauty, the movie becomes a bloated composition. There is an unpleasant feeling of expense, of enormous amounts of money being spent, tons of footage being shot in order to get one slow-motion instant that will stamp home Peckinpah’s obsessive theme: that man’s propensity for cruelty and self-destruction is endless. This expanding and slowing gets unbelievable effects: a bridge blowing up with nine men on it, all sinking in a row, facing the camera. They drop at the same time and rise up again out of the water in unison, only to sink again, and, with ebbing force, bob gently up and down while floating downstream. Probably the best second ever filmed showing fumbling ineptitude in the face of ungraspable horror: a young sergeant’s instant realization that a quarter of his troops are going to be crushed to death.

What is unique in The Wild Bunch is its fanatic dedication to the way children, soldiers, Mexicans looked in the small border towns during the closing years of the frontier. An electric thrill seems to go through the theater when Lucian Ballard’s camera focusses on groups of kids: two pale blonde children, straight and sort of stiff, holding on to each other in the midst of a gun holocaust. There are others crouched down next to buildings, staring out and cringing. If is remarkable enough to focus on kids in a shoot-em-up, but the BallardPeckinpah team, without condescending to the Amish-like children, gets this electricity with positions, the coloring of hair, hats. These rough Pershing uniforms have been in Westerns like Rossen’s Cordura, but here there is a crazy fanaticism woven into the cloth and shapes.

With all its sensuous feel for textures, the engineering of events that take place from three different points of view, the movie is ridden with a flashy, Rubens-like virtuosity. Even the dry, fantastically unified, visual characterization of Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton doesn’t escape the éclat of Peckinpah’s hectic drive. Part of Peckinpah’s love of gusto and bravura involves repeated scenes of raucous belly laughter—by kids watching a scorpion devoured by red ants, by a badly acted young sadist making a production of holding three prisoners in a bank, by paeans to camaraderie built through the laughter of five buddies—that are an outright case of bad judgment and poor observation.

Very close to the end a beautifully vehement exchange between two squarish, beyond-the-pale criminals creates the mood for the unbelievable ending. William Holden, his face clammed up and looking as battle-worn as it should, says in defense of Robert Ryan, who has betrayed him: “He gave his word.” Borgnine, with great contempt: “He gave his word to the railroad.” Holden replies: “It was his word.” And then Borgnine: “It’s not your word that counts but who you give it to.”

This mind-stopper is of the genre of Burt Lancaster’s explanation in The Gypsy Moths, for his career as an exhibitionist sky diver: “A man can choose his way of dying as well as his way of living,” or the young German student turned junkie in More who says: “I wanted the sun and nothing was going to stop me. If I had to die to discover life that was okay too.”

With Ryan’s remarkable death-like portrait and some good spontaneous combustion acting by other old Hollywood war-horses, Wild Bunch is an old style action film filled with these modern non sequiturs that suggest an effort to find some deeper purpose or point for the travelogue that goes on elsewhere. They serve only to highlight the drifting content and the weird alternations in current films between an obsession with death and situations in which the people strain for some point over which they can do some willful, extended, fake laughter.

Easy Rider, a sparsely written cross-country movie with a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on extravagant motorcycles, is marred by draggy, romantic material: chunks of time spent on glinting handlebars, hippies solemnly sprinkling the earth with seeds at sundown, ghastly Bachrach portraiture. Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than pretty good in its handling of death, both the actual event and in the way the lead acting, like Ryan-Holden’s in The Wild Bunch and Shirley Knight’s in The Rain People, carries a scent of death. The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, less programmed than Peckinpah’s, come out of nowhere, involve an explosion of grief-stricken acting (Fonda and Hopper), and are snipped off. The finality and present tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside, and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and burning cycle.

There’s quite a portrait dead-center of Easy Rider: young Southern lawyer, ex-athlete, town drunk, good-natured and funny. Practically a novel of information, this character’s whole biography is wonderfully stitched from all directions (a lawyer’s son with a shaky but established position in the town, with an unbiased scorn for his own mediocrity), sprung in short time without being obviously fed. The Nicholson acting of “George” is done with dishevelment, squinty small-town gestures, and a sunniness that floods the performance.

More is the oldest of movie stories: down the sluice with a poor duck who has fallen into the hands of a heroin heroine, Mimsy Farmer. The film is a voyeur-ish, fondling showcase for two new beautifully tanned non-actors, a nice unpretentious boy and a blonde slim animal who barely accompanies her clothes through a whitewashed Antonioni island. It’s encyclopedic on rich hip clothes.

A Place for Lovers, a De Sica concoction in which Faye Dunaway knows she’s dying from the first reel and is unable to act one speck of disease, has zero credibility or interest, although scripted by a team of six writers. At any given moment she is an icicle version of Mimsy Farmer posing for another fashion spread in Harper’s Bazaar. Mastroianni’s performance suggests a compassionate chauffeur or else a slightly overweight poodle following the mysterious lady around. One of the best laughs is watching Dunaway working on the subject of despair.

The ridiculous idea in The Gypsy Moths is that Deborah Kerr, an unhappy small-town wife, should run off with a parachute trickster. Like a frozen food, glummer and slower than Robert Stack, she has trouble crossing the street—and Lancaster wants her to travel with his parachute troupe. A singularly square movie for this period, more stolid than Frankenheimer’s last coin waste The Fixer, it still has the pretension of presenting the “real America.” Every other shot is a preciously done insert that some assistant director achieved after the main shooting was over (a poison-pen portrait of the high school band warming up for July 4th) followed by a pointless Inge-type scene of a typical family wake featuring Lancaster’s red-puffy face about to explode from acute decency. Gene Hackman and Scott Wilson just weather the cape dance and are the film’s only half-assets.

The Rain People is a fine example of acting and writing that exploits modern dislocation, the mulling, glumness and revery of people in tight places. One of the countless current films that are basically travelogues, this one is made up of Warhol-type monologues in telephone booths and motels along the turnpike. Actually, if Francis Coppola’s film had something stronger than the pastel Le louche image and a more intense identity in its grim, preoccupied Long Island heroine, it would be harrowing as well as touching, because James Caan and Shirley Knight must think about acting 24 hours a day, and are good at drawing the spectator inside the mournful textures and grotesque-sad moods of turnpike life. There are some excellent scenes in one of those masonite-monstrous motels and in the home of a 100% real and idiotic Virginia family, with Shirley Knight doing the keyed-up New Yorker trying not to believe what’s going on around her.

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice comedy treads skillfully on a questionable, overworked subject: the all-round crassness, eyesore appearance of anyone who lives around Beverly Hills. It’s amazing that it keeps such a questionable cast (Natalie Wood, Bob Culp, etc.) absorbing despite the fact that every inch of the film is intentionally played in a quasiabstract-clever area generally hailed as “satire.” This is a very self-contained movie. Charles Lang’s hot-hollow camera hawks the bodies and faces as closely as the one in Faces, but the put down acting at every moment is a half-snobbish Elaine May mimicry of middle-class patois that is both an abstraction and a generalization. The script stays right on top of its subject, which isn’t the wife-swapping scene or the sensitivity institutes, but gullibility; how easy it is to get sucked into the latest turn in fashionable mores, and the humiliation of resisting or going along. A crucial part of the tight structure is the patient, unpretentious playing through of a scene: each segment, like a Nichols-May bit, is a dialogue played long and shot in one take.

I sort of liked and admired Mazursky’s handling: inside the dialogue is the gracious, savvy-filled shrewdness of a Burns-Martin second banana who knows how to set up his partner, keep the dialogue moving, and amiably swallow mistakes and crassness. Someone has to be a small genius to even make palatable such a Weird Bunch cast, less than a genius to use them in the first place, and no genius to rig their normally loud personalities with mile-long eyelashes, oxblood suntans, and underwear made of daisies sewn into shaving cream froth.

The most interesting scene: a psychiatrist, a cynical Buddha with a velvety cogent voice, goes through an hour with patient Dyan Cannon. Just the registering of her embarrassment, and geyser-like involvement on his face, soft as a cloud and enormously sensitive as well as half asleep, seem to soften and wipe out the loudness and instant-compromised modernity that threatens to sink the movie.

Manny Farber