I have to admit that over the last couple of years I have developed a bit of a fascination with the early-to-mid seventies. Part of this I believe has stemmed from the many thrift store runs my wife and I make. I always find myself drawn to things from about the time just before my birth, partially I think because the glassware, clothes and music/media my parents bought in the years just preceding me remained in the house for many of my early years, and then quickly in the mid-to-late eighties were mostly thrust off in favor of new items. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise really, working class Midwest couples do this: you buy a house, then you buy things for the house, then you have kids and once they are a bit older and more established in the routines of school and play you treat yourself to new things. So more and more when I go into the thrifts what catches my eyes are things from just the periphery of my memory: green glass wine goblets, glass coffee tables, Billy Joel records (the good ones* where he tended to use a lot of Fender Rhodes), cordouroy slacks and big, funky psychedelic ties.
Through this mounting little fetish I’ve also become interested in film from this era, especially the ones that show people how they dressed and places how they were built and decorated, ie red brick, stucco, those aforementioned glass coffee tables, thicker carpet, wood-paneled walls, what have you. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you probably have an Aunt who’s basement is like this. One where you remember many a childhood family gathering taking place. Go seek it out to clarify. Or, rent The French Connection.
The French Connection was not exactly what I expected, but then again I don’t really know what I expected. It is one of those movies I’ve never been sure if I’d seen at some point during my childhood or if the images and facts from it that clung to my peripheral mind were simply the amalgamation of all of the clips from shows like Siskel and Ebert or Best Movie Scenes Ever countdowns. If I had seen it I didn’t remember much of it, other than the famed car-chasing-elevated-train sequence so I was pleasantly surprised.
Not that I expected it to be bad. And not that it was necessarily great by any means. There was a lot about it that was great, but there was also some issues of pacing I questioned, even though now with two days retrospect maybe those issues seem more charming than undermining. I don’t know, I’ll have to watch it again. And I will because it’s good enough to buy so maybe any derogatory issues are redundant. Either way it goes to show what a different approach was used back in this particular era of film. The Documentary thing is big in films now with releases like Quarantine, District 9, or the one that started this modern revival, The Blair Witch Project. But here in 1971 is William Friedkin, freshly influenced by watching a film called ‘Z’, (which I know nothing about but have added to the top of my que on Netflix after hearing Mr. Friedkin talk about it in response to questions about TFC) crafts a gritty, almost ‘real-time’ drug-and-cop drama that shows, or documents for us almost as much of the usually trivial, frustrating ‘waiting’ that an investigation of this caliber would naturally precipitate, juxtaposing mad Santa Claus-donned dope busts and breath-holding car chases with cops sitting around drinking bad coffee, loosening their ties and trying to out think the bad guys.
And it’s brilliant. A little hard to watch at times, but never a tear drop less than fascinating.
To tie it back into my lead-in, The French Connection is also amazing for a period-o-phile of the early 70’s because it captures the people and places of its setting in their authentic colloquial existence. The streets are filthy, the cars are big and beautiful and iron** and the fashions range from the Corleone-suave to the What’s Happening mish-mash of funk, flair and poverty. Drugs are ‘grass’ or ‘uppers’ or ‘downers’, chief among them being heroin. Heroin is big and helps color the mood of the period because at that time, if you read about the actual French Connection, there was a whole shit ton of it coming in from Turkish poppy farms via France and of course what would disco and leisure suits be without every third person nodding off on the glass-topped bar or sequin-strewn dance floor?
The cast is fantastic too. Everybody in it but especially the leads. It’s been too long since I’ve got my Gene Hackman on and I’ve been meaning to toast Roy Scheider since his death a little over a year and a half ago. But what really ties the whole film together, and what I probably would have liked it a lot less without is Don Ellis’ amazing score. As a friend philosophized to me recently, this was the era where the studio bigwigs didn’t necessarily understand the drug culture other than to see that it had definitely outlasted the sixties and appealed to a whole new generation of moviegoers who they were afraid to lose or alienate. Due to this avants like Ellis were brought in and given fairly free reign. The result of that here is a dark, eerie and almost PCP-nightmarish tone that hits in bursts and then disappears for long periods of time, affecting us as much by its absence as its presence. The final scene of the film takes place in a dirty, dilapidated warehouse and is so perfectly complimented by Ellis’ moogy, syrupy dabblings that what you see and what you hear seem to meld together, carrying the final, enigmatic confrontation into a new realm of experience for the viewer, one where sound and picture are one dream-like data feed that may make you feel alone in the dark and fairly certain that bad things lay just around the corner.
Of course now I am due to re-watch the subject of my very first Time Machine Go!!! here on Chud about a year and a half ago, the infamous To Live and Die In LA, not only because it is that also Friedkin but it is the film where he tried to out do TFC’s car chase by staging the ‘against traffic on the 110 Freeway’ scene that quite literally rears its head in my mind every time I drive into the heart of this massive satellite Metropolis I live in.
Takashi, set the controls for 1984 and more Wang Chung than any man should be allowed to ingest!
* And of course when speaking of Billy Joel the word good is only relative.
** Much like the first half of this paragraph thus far.
*** Good thing too because no Honda Civic or Yaris (*cough*laugh*cough*) could stand up to the abuse Hackman’s car takes in this one, regardless of how many IPOD jacks or hip-hop hamsters you pack in ‘em.