Family Life (1971)

7 11 2008

A big step-up from Cathy Comes Home but I still have some problems with Ken Loach’s type of cinema. In both films I’ve seen from him, he starts out with some intriguing, if not completely successful attempts at formal experimentation, but at some point in each film, everything drops and Loach comes too comfortable in the realm of shakycam ‘n arguing. This is not a problem for me, especially when the film’s performers are as excellent as they are here, but Loach’s aesthetic seems to be completely lost on me over the certain period of time. Cassavetes could (and did) film people arguing intensely for two and a half hours, but it was still completely captivating. Loach does the same for only a hundred minutes, but has to crawl to reach the finish line.

Loach starts this film in almost the same way as Cathy Comes Home. The first twenty minutes or so, of both films, are extremely impressive. In Family Life in particular, Loach perfects this slightly odd technique of putting the dialogue over completely random and unrelated images. This sounds slightly forced, but it really saves the film from being a talkative bogged down mess, well at least it does so for awhile. Oddly enough, the tonal transition is marked by an extremely long head shot of a character answering a psychiatrist’s questions.

At this point, Loach’s interest in creative montages seem to disappear and straight-forward naturalism takes over. Again, I have no problem with this approach, but I find Loach’s borderline conventional dramatic sensibility creeping into the pacing. Sure, A Woman Under the Influence had prolonged sequences of arguing and/or fighting, but there was just as many sequences like the ones of Peter Falk’s children drinking his beer. Loach’s film isn’t consistently brutal like say, The Life of Oharu, but even that film occasionally offers glimmers of hope. One gets the sense that the protagonist here is on a never-ending downward spiral.

I suppose Loach’s status as a “socially-concious” filmmaker reflects this structure, but it would also be going a bit too far to say his characters are simply pawns for a sociological statement. At the same time, I can’t really say that he seems to care all that much for his characters, either. This is where, how, and why the actors save the film. The lead, Sandy Ratcliff as the emotionally and mentally complicated young Janice is simply amazing to watch. Nevermind the fact that she is (very) beautiful, she also perfectly reinforces the type of frustration that her parents feel. Without her superb performance, her father, played by Bill Dean, would see more like the dad in Broken Blossoms. Instead, he’s a bit closer to one in A nos amours. The film itself is tedious and certainly far from perfect, but it is worthwhile simply for some fantastic performances.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

7 11 2008

While this is probably my least favorite of all the Boetticher – Scott westerns, it is still pretty great. At the very least, it is a lot better than Boetticher’s earlier westerns for Universal like The Man From Alamo or The Cimarron Kid. I did say mention in my review of Ride Lonesome that it is probably Boetticher’s most accessible film, but I kind of regret saying that. While that film is a perfect introduction into the man’s work, it’s not as highly likable and charming as this film. The same can be said for Randolph Scott’s performance. He’s much more upbeat here, even with the potential danger.

The first ten minutes of Buchanan Rides Alone are extremely unusual for Boetticher, as well as Scott. In almost all the other ranown westerns, Scott is a reserved and quiet man with a scarred past. While that sense of psychology is also implied here, Scott himself is much more open and even sort of funny. His character rolls into a border town and asks for a steak. To avoid giving anything away, I’ll just say it is one of Scott’s funniest moments, perhaps second only to the scene in The Man Behind the Gun where he pretends to not know how to shoot a gun.

Watching this film does reinforce how little interest Boetticher had in crafting action narratives, and quick dramatic turns. This is by far the most plot-centered film in the whole ranown cannon, but it sorts of explains why the other efforts tend to have extremely similar structures. This is really the only Boetticher film that I can think of that comes pretty darn close to being a conventional “exciting” action movie, which certainly isn’t a problem for me. As usual, the visuals and Scott’s acting are enough to overcome any tiny problems. It’s not as amazing as Boetticher’s best work, but it is a really accomplished piece of arty “genre” cinema.