Originally posted on Once upon a screen…: Welcome to 2018! I began last year’s anniversaries post by noting that 2017 began with more than a little trepidation. At that time, I feared for our country and the people in it.…
We have finally arrived my friends at the final “official” film for this project. I saw nearly eighty films in 1984 that I have posted on so far. There are several more films from that year which I saw in the next year or subsequently on home video, and those will be added as the opportunity arises. This however, completes my planned list for the project. The film version of George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare arrived late in the year and I deliberately put it off to the end to serve as a capstone to my favorite movie year. There is a rarely seen version from 1956 that starred Edmond O’Brien, but the Michael Radford directed version is definitive, at least up to this point.
My experience with the film came in a screening in Westwood California on a bleak day in December. In an exclusive location in order to qualify for awards season. I trekked over to that side of town on my own because I was a fan of the book and the music for the film was to be supplied by a contemporary act that I was quite enamored of. It turns out that the music was one of the most controversial elements of the film, but more on that later.
Completing the trifecta of “Save the Farm” movies of 1984 is this Mark Rydell film starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. Like Country, the Jessica Lange starring film earlier in the project, “The River” was set in contemporary times and featured a story about the economic hardships faced by family farmers. The 1980s were a crises point for middle level farmers in the U.S., a combination of easy credit in the 1970s combined with expanding markets had encouraged heavy borrowing. The good times however could not last. The Farm Crisis became a political hot potato and the policies of the Reagan Administration to address it were seen as harsh,and the farmers make effective political hay out of those solutions. While there are elements of the debt issue included in this film, most of the hardship the family in this story endures is a result of natural and man made water issues.
The film is book-ended with two dramatic moments where the Garvey family farm is being flooded. At one point, evil corporate type Scott Glenn says that sooner or later the River is going to get them. He may be right but the inspiration behind this story is that the farmers will continue to struggle for the life that they see as their legacy. The river however is only one of the many challenges the family in this story faces.
For years, this film has grown in stature after being a passing failure in 1984. The reason is simple, the version that played in the U.S. was a butchered cut of the original vision of Director Sergio Leone. The widely hailed original cut that played in Cannes that year was also a truncated version since Leone had originally seen this as being two films of nearly three hours each. Very much like “Blade Runner”, “Once Upon a Time in America” actually has several variations that people have seen and commented on. There is apparently a version that was assembled and released in Italy two years ago that includes at least one scene with Louise Fletcher who is nowhere to be seen in any of the versions publicly shown prior to 2012.
In 1984, for some reason, I never saw the 139 minute version that the American studio distributed. It was originally released June 1 in the U.S. , and I would be preoccupied by Star Trek, Streets of Fire and the next week, Ghostbusters and Gremlins. I was also in the process of applying for a teaching position and interviewing [I did not get the job until the second time I applied the next year], so I was pretty busy. By the fall however, things were more calm and I saw in my hometown paper that the acclaimed version of this movie that had received rapturous reviews at Cannes before the disastrous opening in the U.S. , would be playing at the Century City Fox Theater for two weeks. I can’t remember all of the people who went but I had a distinct memory of my pal Steve Holland and a guy who had been on the USC Speech team when Steve and I were coaching as graduate students, Matt Chappa, both being there. I also know that it was the original version because the only way I have ever seen this film is in the non-sequential manner in which Leone had planned it.
Are you interested in a Michael Crichton movie about Technology going wild? No not the one with Dinosaurs on the loose. How about Robots gone wild? No not the one with Yul Bryner that is being adapted for an HBO Mini-series. This one is about robots that are “Runaways”, that is they have gone out of control and threaten people or property in some way. Throw in a plot concerning an evil genius using micro-chip technology to weaponize robots and build a “smart bullet” and you have this next entry on the project, science fiction with Tom Selleck.
For me in 1984, this was a highly anticipated film because one of the co-stars was making his motion picture debut. Gene Simmons the bassist and singer of the rock group Kiss, a band that I have been of fan of since 1976 was signed to be the villain of the story. The idea that he was going to star in a movie with Tom Selleck jacked me up tremendously for the Christmas season in 1984. There were four big science fiction movies coming out in early December, and as a regular reader of Starlog Magazine I anticipated each of them.
In the early 1980s, I read a couple of John LeCarre novels and there was a great TV series that played on PBS featuring Alec Guinness as the spymaster Smiley. It was my friend Art Franz however who was the real fan. He ate up all those books and read everything he could find about the British Spy scandals of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I know that we saw this movie opening weekend and I’m pretty sure it was a foursome which included our wives. Unfortunately, I can’t remember Art’s exact reaction to the film. I think we were both impressed with it, but he may have had some reservations. Since he passed in 1993, I don’t always have a buddy to see a spy movie with that can talk about it fluently. I know, that except for the James Bond films, I don’t ever go back and revisit those films unless they are action based. Maybe that makes me a little shallow, but it did mean that today, when watching this film for the project, it was almost like seeing it for the first time. I did not hold many memories of the film, and the plot threw me for the first hour because it was not exactly clear what was happening.
I was blindsided by the fact that the movie was directed by George Roy Hill, a director who had filmed several of my favorite films but was not known for a distinctive style. The procedural nature of this story does not lend itself well to fancy visual story telling techniques. The plot is drama heavy not action oriented, so in a way he is a good choice for the film, but the lack of distinctive technique probably makes the movie feel a little bit lethargic.
Stories based on Faust are everywhere. When I was in High School, I did an interp piece from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét, it was my first exposure to the story of a man who sells his soul for wealth and fame. Not too much later I saw “The Phantom of the Paradise” a contemporary rock scored film using the same concept. In 1977 there was a short lived TV show called “A Year At the Top” , about two musicians from the hinterlands who sell out to make it big in pop music, and as I remember it, it was a sit-com with music sequences. After the success of the original “Oh God!” with George Burns in the title role from 1977, it was followed by “Oh God!, Book II” in 1980 and then this movie, which finally gets to the Faustian bargain that I was hinting at before.
The original premise of George Burns as God, is twisted around this time so that he has a dual role, and plays God’s opposite for the majority of the picture. Where God had been portrayed as a doddering old guy in a golf cap and jacket in the first films, the Devil, in the form of Harry O. Tophet [HOT], is a slick early hipster in dashing sports coats and tuxedos. He also has a few other distinctive characteristics that will give the movie a little pizazz.