Each week this summer I profiled the summer movie blockbusters that helped me fall in love with the movies and changed how I see the world. Here they are:
Summer of 1975: Jaws
It started 47 years ago this week. Amity Island and its Great White Shark problem. And the notion of the summer blockbuster initiated by this movie Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg. Which will lead to the latest summer blockbuster: Jurassic World: Dominion produced by Steven Spielberg. All it will take to get the story started is what screenwriters call The Sacrifice. And that would be that blonde haired woman sitting by herself and contemplating a late night swim. It will only result in her death and (some would say) the death of American cinema. Don't do it, Chrissie!!!!
Read more about it here: Remembering The Summer Of the Shark - Richard Rothrock
Summer of 1977: Star Wars
Few moments have blown me away the way the opening shot of George Lucas’ sci-fi masterpiece did. And sitting there listening to the giddy excitement rippling through the audience that day at the Capitol Theater in Charleston WV, I could tell they felt it too. This was something unique. This was something we had never seen before. And we knew the movies would never be the same again.
Summer of 1979: The Muppet Movie
I had been a fan of The Muppet Show for most of its TV run and this was the Muppets’ big screen debut. That summer I was hanging out with my high school friends and reluctant to face the fact that my family was moving from West Virginia to Michigan soon where I faced a friendless senior year. Into that gloomy time came this marvelous jewel of a movie which managed to give me laughs and hope and some valuable life lessons (“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending.”) that I have held onto ever since. Thank you, Jim Henson.
Summer of 1980: Airplane!
While audiences that summer were going nuts for The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining, this was the movie that had me laughing and laughing over and over again. It was one of the few movies I had to see twice because I missed some of the funny lines the first time around due to audience laughter. With its combination of bad word puns, knowing satirization of famous movie and TV moments and conventions (particularly the disaster movies of the 1970s), and just plain stupid & random humor all spun together into a classic comedy concoction, few movies have so completely changed the notions of movie humor the way this one did nor contributed more running lines to our pop culture. And it gave actors like Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves a second wind to their careers by lampooning the stalwart men of action they had made careers playing up to that point. Surely one of the funniest movies ever made. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
Summer of 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg’s adventure classic (produced by George Lucas & written by Lawrence Kasdan) accomplished the same things that the original Star Wars did. It reinvigorated a moribund genre while also serving as a loving tribute to the Saturday morning serials both filmmakers had grown up on. It had everything I have learned to expect from a summer blockbuster: a novel idea, a cool lead character, a witty and tantalizing love interest, a funny and inventive script that shined a light on an unexplored or alternative bit of history, and amazing action scenes done with originality and verve and featuring F/X not seen before with a little bit of spirituality and the supernatural tossed in for good measure. A movie that sends you out of the theater ready for more. For me, no other summer blockbuster since has quite topped this one. “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”
I still marvel that I saw this 4 times in theaters: June 1981, July 1981, December 1981, and July 1982. That’s right, Raiders spent over a year in theaters. Can you imagine that today?
Summer of 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
This may have been the summer of E.T., Rocky III, An Officer & A Gentleman, Blade Runner, and Poltergeist but this is the movie from that summer that has stuck with me. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains for me the only movie that fully captured the spirit of the original TV series. Hot off his debut movie Time After Time (which I love), director Nicholas Meyer got the most out of what was expected to be a modest sequel: great chemistry between the original cast, edge of the seat action sequences, a philosophical script with a literary bent, and special kudos to Ricardo Montalban also reprising his role from the TV series as the villainous Khan. It all added up to an entertaining blockbuster with an unexpected emotional climax that had us all in tears. IMHO, none of the subsequent movies or spinoff series (except Next Generation) have topped this one. “Live long and prosper.”
Summer of 1983: WarGames
While guys that summer enjoyed Return of the Jedi and girls reveled in the dance fantasy of Flashdance, I found myself falling under the spell of this imaginative doomsday thriller. Director John Badham’s movie speculated in a very effective way how the Cold War prejudices and computers might unintentionally bring about the end of the world. But it also foreshadowed the coming world of computers and the internet and made it look fun. Matthew Broderick was delightful as David Lightman a teenaged hacker who unintentionally contacts NORAD’s war games computer and sets off a scenario that makes the U.S. military believe they are at war with the Soviet Union. Ally Sheedy was equally fine as David’s gal pal Jennifer with supporting turns from John Wood, Dabney Coleman, Barry Corbin and others both comic and dramatic. Supposedly, when U.S. president Ronald Reagan saw this movie he thought it might be time to end the Cold War before this fiction became fact. “Shall we play a game?” – NORAD computer
Summer of 1984: Once Upon a Time in America
Audiences watched Ghostbusters and Gremlins that summer but I waited to see Sergio Leone’s gangster epic, his first movie in 12 years with an all-star cast headed by Robert De Niro and James Woods.. Even then as I sat down in a nearly empty theater for a matinee showing I knew I was going to see a truncated version. Leone’s movie ran nearly 4 hours but The Ladd Co. had rejected that cut and edited their own 2 ½ hour version for its American release. It was a mess alright but a beautiful and very moving mess (not to mention very violent!) brilliantly directed by Leone with one of Ennio Morricone’s most haunting scores. De Niro and Woods played childhood pals who chose a life of crime to escape their abject poverty and, for a time, became gangsters of consequence during Prohibition. The Ladd version told of their rise and fall in a straight chronological manner Leone never intended. When I saw the full version months later, I discovered that Leone had crafted a narrative that moved back and forth through time with the older De Niro looking back on his youth from the regret of old age. Because in the end all we are left with are our memories. It is a perspective that means more to me the older I get.
If you want to learn more about the movie, check out my blog entry here:
My Father & Me & "Once Upon a Time in America" - Richard Rothrock
Summer of 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
No one expected Robert Zemeckis to follow up his 1985 blockbuster Back To the Future with something even better but that is just what he did. Who Framed Roger Rabbit told a familiar film noir tale. In late 1940s Los Angeles, private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) tries to figure out why cartoon superstar Roger Rabbit is the chief suspect in a series of murders that are rocking Hollywood. What made Zemeckis’s fantasy unique was its blend of real life and cartoon characters in the same frame. In an age before Cartoon Network, when the Disney Channel was a pay cable channel, and Looney Tunes were only seen in cut up form on broadcast TV, Zemeckis brought all the classic cartoon characters together in one movie: Betty Boop, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, not mention the entire gallery of Looney Tunes and Disney personalities. I can still remember the squeals of delight from the audience each time a classic character appeared, or the roar of applause when the two kings of classic animation Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny had a scene together. But the character who stole the show was Roger’s buxom cartoon wife Jessica Rabbit (beautiful voiced by Kathleen Turner). And we have all been forced to re-examine our notions of the femme fatale and our male gaze ever since. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
Summer of 1989: The Abyss
I was not expecting to love this movie as much as I do. I had seen James Cameron’s 3 previous movies (even Piranha II!) and really liked 2 of them (NOT Piranha II) but none of them blew me away like this movie did. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio play an estranged couple leading a team of oil drillers marooned in their underwater rig at the bottom of the ocean while a hurricane rages above and Cold War politics plays out within. (We tend to forget that the Cold War was still alive & well when this movie came out). It all leads up to a close encounter of the underwater kind and the beginning of CGI in the movies. Cast and crew mostly filmed at the bottom of a flooded cooling tower at an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina. The shoot was so gruelling and some of the scenes so hazardous that Harris and Mastroantonio refuse to discuss this movie to this day nor have anything to do with Cameron. And yet they deliver two of their best performances here (Mastroantonio should have gotten the Oscar). Over the course of the movie (spoiler alert!) they manage to rescue their team, salvage their marriage, and, oh by the way, save the world. Cameron’s script is his best to date. The underwater danger feels very real (in some cases, it was) and it ends up having some very relevant things to say about love and what makes life worthwhile. It remains my favorite Cameron movie. I cannot recommend this one enough. “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.”
Summer of 1993: Jurassic Park
Is there anything more to say about this groundbreaking Steven Spielberg thriller? A group of scientists spend the weekend previewing a new theme park populated by cloned dinosaurs. Naturally, things go wrong, human greed intrudes, and they end up fighting for their lives in a series of action scenes that have almost all become iconic. It has always amazed me that all author Michael Crichton did was recycle his premise from 1973’s Westworld but use dinosaurs instead of human-like robots. But otherwise the story is the same and it doesn’t matter. What continues to get me even after repeated viewings is the wonder we feel each time we first glimpse the resurrected dinos whether it is a foraging brontosaurus or an ill triceratops. It is like watching our wildest childhood fantasies come to life on screen. And isn’t that what the movies are meant to be all about? Still wish they hadn’t made those raptors, though. “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”
Summer of 1994: Forrest Gump
It seems right to end this series about my favorite summer blockbusters with Robert Zemeckis’ heartfelt tale of a maybe not as smart as others boy who still gets ahead during the height of the baby boom era (1955-1980). And he does so by simply seeing through the social facades of the people he meets to connect with the human being inside. To paraphrase from another movie, he “has a way of seeing the beauty in others, even, and perhaps most especially, when that person cannot see it in themselves.”
Along the way he is on hand or plays an unintentional role in some of the biggest cultural and political events of his time from Elvis to Vietnam to Watergate. He even ends up with Jenny, the girl of his dreams! All of it underscored by some of the greatest rock hits of the era. This movie is about many things but ultimately it is about 1) what we do with the legacy (good or bad) that our parents leave us, 2) how life never works out quite the way we expect, and 3) how quickly it all passes by. The son becomes the father; the daughter becomes the mother; and the cycle begins again. And how the best moments in life are the ones where we step back and take a moment to enjoy the beauty of being alive. “Sometimes [in Vietnam] it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out... and then it was nice. It was like just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou. There was always a million sparkles on the water... like that mountain lake. It was so clear, Jenny, it looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn't tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It was so beautiful.”
In the end, what Forrest learns about life has become how I see it as well: “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”
Each Monday this summer I will profile the summer blockbusters that helped me fall in love with the movies and changed how I see the world. One more installment left!
Summer is coming to an end. Autumn begins to rear its lovely head (it’s my favorite time of year). But there is still time for one last dip in the ocean of summer before it all goes away for another year! So come on in the water, everyone!
This week’s issue contains:
The Girl In the Basement – Novel Update
Sunday Nights With Walt 5th Anniversary Celebration
The Latest on Before Noon
Looking Ahead to 2023 – American Kids and Plymouth Undead
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The Girl In the Basement – Novel Update
Most of my creative efforts this summer have been spent completing the novel version of this horror screenplay. Progress has been steady over the past two months and I am pretty happy with the results. As of today, I am 161 pages in (about 2/3s through) with a goal of completing it around Labor Day. Still planning to have it out as an eBook this October. Check back for further updates.
And if you would like to join the Girl In the Basement email list and receive daily updates on my progress, just email me or reply in the comments section below.
Sunday Nights With Walt -5th Anniversary Celebration
Hard to believe but this November marks the 5th anniversary of the publication of Sunday Nights With Walt by Theme Park Press. I have a number of things planned to celebrate this occasion and raise awareness of the book and its subject matter on social media and across the internet. I will keep you apprised of those as well.
And if you haven’t picked up your copy of Sunday Night With Walt: Everything I Know I Learned From “The Wonderful World of Disney” then click here. It makes a wonderful gift for the baby boomer in your life. Or for anyone who wants to learn more about this influential TV show.
The Latest on Before Noon
Before Noon didn’t make the cut last month at the Fan Fiction & Screenplay Festival. I was massively disappointed by this but nothing to do but soldier on, right? I am still trying to figure out how to spread the word on this project. I have been doing a lot of research but, apparently, marketing fan fiction is something people don’t do much of so I rather feel like I am reinventing the wheel here. Too bad because I think it is one of the loveliest things I have ever written.
Don’t know about Before Noon? Learn more about this work of fan fiction here:
What is "before noon"? - Richard Rothrock
And if you would still like to read it then please email me.
Looking Ahead to 2023 – American Kids and Plymouth Undead
Following up on my post earlier this month “Life In The Key of 60” I have put together my release schedule for the next several years. For 2023 I am aiming to get two projects out and into your hands.
American Kids will finally arrive next May – 40 years after the summer which inspired the story. This is Volume 2 of my Paul Ruddick Chronicles trilogy. It tells the story of college age workers who spend the summer working and partying and bonding at a midwestern amusement park. They had hoped to put off growing up for a few more months only to discover that Life has other plans in store for them.
Then next October will come Plymouth Undead, an unconventional horror take on the first Thanksgiving. We find the Pilgrims and their indigenous neighbors battling an unexpected Old World curse that the white settlers have unintentionally let loose on wild America. Looking forward to both of these.
This summer on Facebook, I have been profiling the summer blockbuster movies that influenced my life. If you are not on Facebook, you can view the whole thing here:
SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE - Richard Rothrock
It has proven popular enough that I am going to continue it into the Fall. Starting next Friday Sep 2, I will be profiling my Top 5 favorite football movies followed in October by my Top 5 favorite horror movies. Be sure to check them out!
What happened to “How The CBS Late Movie Expanded My World & Changed My Life”?
I know I have been promising this entry for most of the summer and I have actually worked on a BUNCH of it but it has turned out to be something longer than a normal blog entry. Not to mention that several of the movies I discuss have reappeared in the past couple of weeks so I am rewatching them (some for the first time since that summer of 1976) and figuring out a way to do this as a series of posts later on. Thank you for your patience!
So that is about all from here. How has your summer gone?
Back on September 6!
**If you haven’t heard, Jaws (1975) will be back in theaters everywhere (including IMAX) beginning next Friday, Sep 2. If you haven’t seen it on the big screen, please consider checking it out!
(3300) JAWS | Official Trailer | Experience It In IMAX® - YouTube
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Yesterday, I talked about seeing the 1974 adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY for the first time, the impact it had on me, and how it colored my life after that. For me, that is the true indicator of a great film: it not only moves you and entertains you, but also changes your view of film as well as your view of life and the world. You are not the same person after seeing it.
Today, I am looking at GATSBY as a film scholar would: analyzing how the film rates and whether it succeeds as a work of art. I did watch it again this week for the first time in a couple years and, even after all these years, I still think it is great despite some minor flaws. Here’s why:
SPOILER ALERT!!!! KEY PLOT POINTS REVEALED BEYOND THIS POINT
1. The lead performances of Robert Redford & Mia Farrow
I will admit that I find Redford’s performance in the film a tad uneven. There are many scenes where he is dead on as Jay Gatsby (particularly in the second half of the film) and there are other scenes where he seems wooden and tentative (especially in the scenes where he first meets Nick). It is difficult to tell whether Redford is playing the character as tentative or whether it is Redford himself. I know Redford had disagreements with director Jack Clayton over the interpretation of the character as well as Clayton’s directing. (Redford once stated that he learned how not to direct a film from Jack Clayton). I often wonder if the tension shows up there on screen. Cast members have remarked that Redford seemed remote during filming and preoccupied with the growing Watergate scandal which he would end up filming two years later in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Or we may just be reading all of this into his performance. However, from the moment Gatsby meets Daisy again, Redford’s performance kicks into high gear and he IS the definitive Gatsby for the rest of the film.
Mia Farrow as Daisy falls into the love her or hate her category with critics. I have always found it to be fabulous. She was not Paramount’s first choice for the role (thank God they didn’t get Ali MacGraw!) but her performance is arguably the best in the film. She does a brilliant job capturing the many layers of Daisy’s complex personality. Think about this for a second. Farrow has to simultaneously convey: 1) why Gatsby would have fallen in love with Daisy all those years ago and made regaining her the center of his life while at the same time showing us why she ultimately is not worthy of the adoration Gatsby showers on her, and 2) show Daisy’s shallow and flippant side, her dislike of facing the consequences of her actions while keeping us sympathetic with the character. Farrow balances this brilliantly. Daisy, ultimately, is what she calls her daughter, “a beautiful little fool”. We may dislike her choices but we never dislike her. No less a critic than Pauline Kael called the performance Oscar-worthy and I agree. I still think it is Mia Farrow’s best role.
2. The supporting players
Whatever people think of Redford and Farrow, there is no denying the supporting players are nothing short of brilliant.
Bruce Dern magnificently captures both the allure and the brutality of Tom Buchanan. We can see why Daisy and Myrtle fell in love with him while also seeing the dark side underneath. Tom is cruel but we understand why he is. He is a man of privilege who feels he has the right to do what he wants with whom he wants and he also has the right to protect what he has against any such interlopers whether they be Gatsby or Wilson. Or even Nick.
Sam Waterston is equally brilliant as Nick Carraway. This is the film that launched his movie career. It is not easy playing a character that mostly watches but Waterston is lovely. We can always see the emotions playing across his face as Nick observes and takes it all in. He is the audience’s surrogate up on the screen and we always know what he is thinking. And when the rich are behaving badly, Nick is there to point out what we are thinking.
Last but not least, Scott Wilson is brilliant as George Wilson. It is a gut wrenching balls to the wall performance. Just watch the scene where his friend Michaelis tries to comfort Wilson after Myrtle’s death. Wilson just rambles on about how she died and who is at fault while he plays and plays with that pencil in his hand. He never says he plans to kill the man who did it but the ripping of the pencil let’s us know what he has decided. Why none of these actors were nominated for Best Supporting Actor continues to mystify me.
Even more surprising for being overlooked is Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson, especially since she won the Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actress (and is far better than Ingrid Bergman who won for her rather caricatured performance as the missionary in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS). Myrtle is a spitfire. mercurial and short tempered. Like Gatsby, she wants to climb out of her situation and rise in the world. Her manic energy and drive powers every scene she is in. She lacks Gatsby’s patience to build her dream year by year. Her present is too unbearable. She wants her future NOW and she’ll do what it takes to get it even if it means breaking windows and running desperately out into the road to seize it before it literally passes by.
3. Jack Clayton’s direction
I realize Clayton’s direction of the film is also a love it or hate it proposition. We also know in retrospect that this is the film that destroyed Clayton’s career (he would make only one more film before dying in 1995). But I believe Jack Clayton was one of the unheralded masters of the long take with many scenes here played out in one shot. The compositions of the scenes in GATSBY are dead on as the camera tracks and pivots and moves in and out of a scene making sure to be in the right place at the right time to make just the right dramatic point. Study Nick’s first dinner party at Tom & Daisy’s. Look how the camera is in just the right place every time to properly define the characters and their relationship to each other.
Look at the previously mentioned scene above between Wilson and Michaelis. It is a one shot scene with the camera slowly moving in on Wilson’s grieving face, and yet Clayton always keeps part of the window frame between the two men, symbolically showing the wall between them even as Michaelis tries to comfort and reach his friend.
The same is true for the party scenes. It is Clayton’s long takes that allow the drunken energy of the parties to come through and make us feel we are actually there. Kudos as well to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe who perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1920s. I am again mystified as to why Slocombe wasn’t even nominated for Best Cinematography when the winner that year was the rather pedestrianly filmed THE TOWERING INFERNO.
The one downside of long takes is that scenes end up playing out in real time which means films done that way end up longer. GATSBY comes in at 143 minutes. Ironically, that makes it the same length as Baz Luhrmann’s new, supposedly zippier version of GATSBY.
4. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay
Coppola was hot off of THE GODFATHER (1972) when he penned this adaptation. He was also a last minute replacement for Truman Capote who failed to deliver a satisfying script. Despite that, I do think the screenplay captures both the spirit and feel of the book, both Fitzgerald’s dialogue and Nick’s narration. Coppola invents several moments not in the book that nicely give insights into the characters and foreshadow future events. When Gatsby first shows Nick his Rolls Royce he asks if Nick wants to drive it. “No thanks,” Nick replies, “I don’t think I’d want the responsibility.” Nicely foreshadowing when Gatsby’s car kills Myrtle with Daisy behind the wheel. There are dozens of little such moments throughout.
Much of the criticism for the film (the length, Clayton’s direction, Coppola’s screenplay) revolves around the invented scenes in the middle of the film. Since Nick narrates the book, we never see what happens inside Gatsby’s mansion during those summer weeks after the romance is rekindled. Clayton and Coppola try to fill in the blanks with scenes of the two discussing their past. Even though the scenes are not in the book, the moments they discuss are (their previous romance, Daisy’s wedding to Tom, why Daisy did not wait for Gatsby to come back from the war). That is precisely what a good adaptation should do: fill in the blanks while still staying true to the source. One can disagree with Clayton and Coppola’s choices but I believe it was a conscious artistic choice which works.
Others have complained about the total omission of Dan Cody, Gatsby’s original mentor who provided him entry into the world of the rich. I can see where they would be unhappy about that but the movie doesn’t miss his absence. It would have required another extended flashback and enough of Gatsby’s true background is revealed over the course of the film to make it work without Cody.
My biggest gripe against Coppola is that he does not close the film with arguably the most famous closing line in a 20th century novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
5. The time machine quality
Yesterday, I mentioned that seeing the film made me feel I had actually gone back to 1925. The film still has that quality today and it is directly attributable not only to Slocombe’s cinematography but also to John Box’s brilliant production design and Theoni Aldredge’s costumes. Both brilliantly capture the look and fashion of the times. Aldredge won an Oscar for her costumes; Box was not even nominated.
Complementing all this is Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning score which combines period hit songs with original instrumental music. He relies heavily on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” for the main theme and uses it throughout the film to great haunting effect. He also peppers in contemporary hits like “The Sheik of Araby”, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “When You & I Were Seventeen”. He deservedly won Best Adapted Score (a category I wish still existed).
Trivia: Problems with the Berlin Estate over ancillary rights is one of the reasons why the film took forever to show up on DVD and why the soundtrack has never been released on CD.
6. Minor performances
Beyond the already mentioned supporting players there are several fabulous turns by distinguished character actors who show up for a scene or two. Howard Da Silva steals his scene as Gatsby’s shady business partner Meyer Wolfsheim, (Da Silva played Wilson in the 1949 version of GATSBY). Roberts Blossom, my favorite actor to play loony old men, nails it as Gatsby’s father. And Elliot Sullivan has a wonderful scene as Wilson’s sympathetic but ineffectual neighbor Michaelis. Appropriate due has never been given to Kathryn Leigh Scott as Myrtle’s sister, Catherine.
The one character from the book that I do miss in the film is Owl Eyes, a memorable party guest who ends up being the only other person to show up at Gatsby’s funeral. Veteran character actor Tom Ewell played him in the film with Vincent Schiavelli as his driver but their scenes were eliminated from the final cut.
There are also an assortment of future stars making their debut in GATSBY. Edward Herrmann plays Gatsby’s perpetual houseguest Klipspringer and plays a mean piano to boot. Brooke Adams discusses Gatsby at one of the party tables early on. Patsy Kensit plays Daisy’s daughter, Pamela. And HILL STREET BLUES’ Daniel J. Travanti plays Gatsby’s chauffeur delivering the party invitation to Nick.
7. The pace of the film
The most common compliant I hear about the film is that it is “too slow and boring”. Most of the people who make this claim usually reveal that their first viewing of GATSBY came in a high school literature class when they were “made” to watch it. I would argue that the circumstances alone are enough to color the viewers’ reaction to the film. If it was something they HAD to see it would then be something they were predisposed to dislike.
Also, if you are looking for something with more action and verve, this is definitely not the film for you. It is a period drama featuring people sitting around talking. And I freely admit to finding a conversation between characters endlessly more fascinating than any CGI car chase or any shootout.
For me, the pace of the film is just fine. Each scene is so detailed and Clayton keeps his camera moving creatively and the actors’ performances are so on that it never feels slow or long.
8. Opening & Closing Credits
Not enough attention has been paid to either of these two expert sequences. Both are clearly set after the events of the film. Gatsby’s father’s abandoned cheese sandwich sitting on Gatsby’s bureau in the opening credits is the tip off. So is the damaged fender on Gatsby’s car. William Atherton’s beautiful rendition of “What’ll I Do?” colors the opening and sets the mood.
The end credits are done to the ironic period hit “Ain’t We Got Fun?”. As the song bounces along, a new set of neuveau riche figures and their hangers on (perhaps former guests at Gatsby’s parties) emerge from a yacht and stroll down Daisy and Tom’s dock past the green light seen from Gatsby’s house. They climb into the waiting fleet of cars, one of which is Tom’s blue coupe. Clearly, the Buchanans have sold all the things that would remind them of this summer and a new set of rich people have moved in, not knowing the significance of the objects they play with or pass by.
Across the bay, Gatsby’s house sits dark and abandoned with all of his things still in place and no one interested in claiming them. The man already almost as forgotten as yesterday’s headlines. The iron gate is closed and locked just like the hearts of most of the characters. There might as well be a sign that says, “Trespassers Beware” as in the opening of CITIZEN KANE (1941). Nick learned this lesson and moved away. Gatsby never did and paid the price.
I’ve always believed that if you can start pulling a film apart and find meaning beyond the surface of its plot then that is the sign of a superior film. For me, THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) does that in spades. It truly is great, a rich jewel of a film just waiting to be rediscovered. (****)
Life In the Key of 60
I turned 60 years old back at the beginning of this summer. Can you believe it? I can’t. For most of my life I have felt 35 years old. I felt 35 when I was 10 years old (which is why I was such a no fun stick in the mud back then!) and I still feel 35 years old today even though my body is starting to tell me differently. And I have to admit that arriving in this new decade of age has colored my notions of what I want to do in the years still ahead. Unlike when I turned 20 or 30 or 40 or 50, for the first time, I can honestly say that I am starting to catch sight up ahead of the end of this journey that we call Life. While I have no plans to “exit, stage left” any time soon ("Heavens to Murgatroyd!"), it would also be silly for me to not admit that the finish line is starting to appear around the bend like one of those bright lights Wile E. Coyote can see approaching in countless Road Runner cartoons (and we all know how that turned out!).
Realistically, I have around 20 years left to do what I want to do, maybe a bit more. And my recent health scares in 2022 have contributed to this perspective. This week’s loss of one of my favorite authors David McCullough (age 89) and another of the iconic singers from my youth Olivia Newton-John (age 73) reinforced this. Too dark? Too much of a downer? Hey, welcome to 60! (Yeah, I know 60 is supposed to be the new 40).
But this summer I find myself, right or wrongly, in the mindset of Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) toward the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where he stands on the finished bridge, staring into a beautiful sunset and observes:
“It's been a good life. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer to the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents? What difference your being here at any time made to anything? Or if it made any difference at all, really? Particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy, but I must admit I've had some thoughts along those lines from time to time.”
I have very few regrets about my life and feel that it has, by and large, been a wonderful life. I have met some amazing people and am happy to still call many of them friends. But like George Bailey in that Frank Capra classic, I also find that several of the things that I most wanted to achieve in my life has not happened (almost exclusively in creative terms). I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way. We all fail to achieve some kind of dream or another in each of our lives. And most of what constitutes maturity is being able to come to terms with those disappointments without making an ass of ourselves (like George does before his guardian angel Clarence intercedes).
But I don’t want to become like one of my favorite writers Truman Capote (1924-1984) who spend the last 20 years of his life vainly trying to finish what he believe to be his literary masterpiece Answered Prayers and never being able to do so for a variety of reasons. Nor do I want to be another of my favorite authors Mary Lee Settle (1918-2005) who spent her career putting off her dream project (a novel about Thomas Jefferson) over and over until when she finally found the time to start writing it, she contracted cancer and died.
So what do I still want to do with my life?
Well, I still have about a half a dozen horror stories to share of which The Girl In the Basement is the first. A couple of period thrillers (Eagle Claw, The Great American Airship Mystery, Royally Dangerous). A pair of Sci-fi stories including Way Out. A couple of movie industry tales too (Me & Michael Cimino, Pure Cinema, Idyll Soldiers, Last Night In Babylon). All of them are in various forms of incompletion from outline to multiple drafts.
Paramount in importance for me are the trilogy of novels about my alter ego Paul Ruddick and his growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. I have been working off and on on them for decades. American Kids needs one more rewrite but I plan to now get it out next summer. Mountain Cross (which many preview readers consider the best thing I have ever written) is about 3/4s done. And Movie Me is a quarter written with a pretty good outline on how to finish it. Many people have asked me what novels about attending high school in the late 1970s or college in the 1980s has to say to people here in the 2020s but the events of the last couple years have convinced me that what they have to say are even more relevant today than they were ten year ago. In short, younger people, what goes around comes around. Or as Mark Twain once said: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” I plan to focus on getting these out over the next couple years.
And then there is Carnivorous River, my Gone With the Wind scale retelling of the Johnstown Flood. I have worked off and on this book for the past 30 years and have about 700 pages of it written. I figure I am about halfway. And while it may seem like an obscure subject matter, it too has become more and more relevant the more climate change extends its hand across our globe and class and economic differences threaten to tear our society apart. Don’t worry, I promise to make it entertaining in a John Jakes sort of way. FYI, this is the title the late great David McCullough (unintentionally) gave me the only time I met him. I am planning to have this tome out in 2029 (the 130th anniversary).
So that is my general plan of attack for the next ten years. And I will leave it to posterity to decide whether any of it as any value at all.
Of course, the real lesson George Bailey learns at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life is that his single-minded focus on what he hasn’t achieved has prevented him from seeing the many good things he had done and achieved. As George’s guardian angel Clarence tells him, “You really had a wonderful life.” And it is just as much about helping other peoples’ dreams come true as it is about working to realize your own. And I plan to do that too. Or as the Wizard tells the Tin Man at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939): “And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others.”
Speaking for myself, it has been a wonderful 60 years filled with moments and people I will continue to treasure. Now let’s make the next 20 years just as good.
Please click below and join me in singing along with the late great Harry Chapin in the song “Circle” (part of the greatest concert I ever attended). Thank you for letting me be a part of your life. Thank you for being a part of mine.