The Lost Weekend (1945)

Here’s where it gets real:  this is the first Best Picture that makes a genuine attempt to address the issue of alcoholism.  Even today, addiction is a tricky subject.  Despite growing evidence of the biological underpinnings of substance use disorder (the term that’s more in favor in the literature), the longstanding stigma of the disease remains.  You wouldn’t think I’d pause the film to grab a beer halfway through, but guess what?  I did.

Don Birnam (not Draper) is a writer who has a great novel somewhere inside him – autobiographical, of course, because there’s really no other kind of great novel.  Unfortunately, he spends most of his time tracking down where his next drink will come from.  There are a few scenes where Don frantically searches in his hiding spots for a concealed bottle that remind me of similar scenes on House – the clever addict secreting away a supply so he can get his fix later.  Of course, there are also a few parts that remind me of the afore-alluded-to Donald Draper, particularly in that season when he spent half of each episode on a bender.

Of course, our main man is both a writer and an alcoholic, two things that seem to go together often.  I don’t think writers are more likely to have problems with addiction than those in any other profession, but I’ve certainly noticed a kind of cultural atmosphere of drinking that surrounds writers in a way that seems more consuming than it might be for, say, an accountant.  Writers spend so much time alone that when they get together, they’re either socially anxious and need something to lubricate their interactions or something.  Or there’s the myth that booze or drugs fuel creativity.  I don’t know.

Although it’s clear that this film portrays a character that’s a little too histrionic for today’s acting tastes, I think its depiction of addiction and how it’s viewed by society is worth observing.  Don is usually helpless in the face of his alcoholism, but he certainly doesn’t lack self-awareness about how it’s affected his life.  We get a brief interlude in the middle where Don relates to his cautiously friendly bartender the plot of his as-yet-unwritten novel, about an alcoholic writer who falls in love with a girl.  Along the way, he spends an evening in the drunk ward at Bellevue, and we catch a glimpse of what kind of recovery treatment someone could expect in this era (not much).  Don’s full enough of self-loathing to push away his girlfriend and brother, the support network who relentlessly stand by him, waiting for him to reach a point where he’s willing to accept help.  The only sour note is the ending – his moment of epiphany comes all too easily, and I have trouble believing that he’s suddenly going to get better.

As a side note, I kind of loved the music because it reminded me of an episode of Star Trek.  I discovered that the reason why is because the soundtrack used theremins, those electronic wooowooooo instruments that feature so prominently in science fiction.  And in other random comments, I loved that somebody described a place as chichi, using a slang word that I thought was coined much more recently than 1945.   And final observation:  best moment of the picture might have been the lounge lizard breaking into song, “Somebody stole a purse!”

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Addiction

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Delirium is a disease of the night.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I love the song “Riptide” by Vance Joy, but, not having seen the movie, didn’t realize that the lyrics in the middle referred to Midnight Cowboy:  “There’s this movie that I think you’ll like/This guy decides to quit his job and heads to New York City/This cowboy’s searching for himself.”

It works as an introduction to the film, or at least the first ten minutes or so.  Once the cowboy makes it to New York, more things happen.  He tries to make it as a gigolo; fails.  He meets Ratso Rizzo; they don’t get off to a great start.  Out of desperation, the cowboy eventually moves into Rizzo’s shitty apartment in an abandoned building, which would still probably be out of my price range.  They enjoy some totally-not-gay times together, stealing coconuts and dancing in an unheated kitchen to keep warm.  Then one of them dies.

This film holds the distinction of being the only Best Picture winner to have been rated X, though it was later downgraded to R.  I sort of wonder what qualifies a movie for an X rating – I’ve certainly seen more scandalous stuff in your typical R-rated movie of the current era.  Hell, I’ve seen worse on premium cable TV these days.  I suppose it’s the hints of gay sex acts that were considered too hot for theaters.  It’s certainly not because there are any actual penises shown in the making of this film.

So, my theme this week is Dustin Hoffman.  I can honestly say that, despite his long and prestigious filmography, I don’t think I’ve seen a single movie of his.  Maybe I’m wrong.  In fact, in looking at his IMDB listing, I can confirm that I have seen a few films on which he holds a credit.  Just not the big ones, the classic films that everybody’s seen (hence my little blog project).

I know about Dustin Hoffman, mostly through parodies of his famous roles.  Forrest Gump features a throwback to the “I’m walkin’ here” scene.  There’s the dog character who talks like his Rain Man character on Animaniacs (let’s not even go down the rabbit hole of references in children’s programs that kids couldn’t possibly get).  In the course of watching all of these films, I’ve been noticing the source material for a lot of jokes that I didn’t always fully understand.  There are probably far more that I don’t even remember (and honestly, it’s surprising enough that I have pretty solid recall of so many references that I didn’t get).

I’ve read that Dustin Hoffman took a big risk for this role as the scuzzy Ratso Rizzo, immediately following his clean-cut character in The Graduate (another classic film I’ve never seen – and still won’t for some time, since it didn’t win Best Picture that year).  Rizzo is an interesting character.  Initially, I was afraid that he was going to turn out to be the old standby character – the homophobe that is secretly gay himself – and he sort of is, though I think it’s handled more deftly than the typical I’ll-bet-you-never-saw-this-coming storyline.

Jon Voight’s character, the cowboy Joe Buck, is a bit harder to figure out.  We keep getting these bizarre, and usually distorted, flashbacks to his youth, starting with his childhood with an odd grandma.  Then there’s this scene that keeps popping up with a woman, and people chasing her down.  I don’t know what to make of it, or even which parts are real and which are some paranoia-fueled dream.  Nor can I figure out whether Cowboy Joe is meant to be gay himself – would a straight man prefer to sell sexual acts to other men rather than pick up a few dishwashing shifts?

I wish I could say the ending left me emotionally wrecked, but I would describe my reaction more appropriately as “confused.”  I liked the film well enough, but I couldn’t get a handle on where it was all headed, so it just felt a bit abrupt.  Like this blog –

 

Theme:  Dustin Hoffman

First Time Watching?  Yup

Final Verdict:  Sunshine and coconut milk

Crash (2005)

At the risk of exposing my lack of attention or inability to follow non-linear storylines, I have something to confess:  I know there’s a “crash” in this movie, maybe even multiple crashes (including metaphorical ones, oooooh), but damned if I can figure out who all was involved and what happened to them.  Because, okay – there’s the crash in the beginning with the black guy who turns out to be a detective, and it’s apparently a big one, but it’s also noteworthy that it’s nighttime.  Later on, though, we see the wife of the movie producer in a (different?) crash, but it’s daytime.  What gives?  It’s not like they called this movie “Crashes.”

Although I tend to struggle with large casts of characters, in theory I like the idea of stories with multiple threads that overlap and interweave, and on the surface, Crash is entertaining for that.  I’ve read that this film is generally considered to be overrated and undeserving of its Oscar win, so I was expecting a hot mess.  I don’t really find it to be a hot mess so much as a bit heavy-handed and ultimately kind of unsatisfying.

Pretty much every character in Crash is either reprehensible with a brief moment of redemption or generally okay/sympathetic until they do something terrible.  At best, we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that everyone is just moments away from spewing blatantly offensive insults toward people of different races from us.  While there may be some truth to that, it would be nice to see a movie that addresses racism in its subtler methods.  It’s easy to look at a character like Matt Dillon’s (I didn’t pick up the names while viewing the movie, and I’m certainly not going back to look them up now) and say, “Wow, what a racist; I am definitely a way better person than he is.”  Far harder is to look at the more insidious ways we are terrible to each other.

My favorite character was the locksmith, the young Latino guy who was accused of being a gang member.  He’s one of the few who came out of the movie looking pretty decent, and the scenes with his daughter were the only ones that inspired a genuine emotion in me besides discomfort.

I was also reminded of a lesser-known TV show that I think pre-dated this movie but used a similar conceit.  It was called Boomtown, a police procedural that took place in LA and featured the unusual trick of showing each week’s crime from the perspective of various characters.  When it worked well, it was a really clever method of storytelling, revealing surprising things about the lives of the detectives, uniformed cops, journalists, district attorney, and EMTs involved in cases.  There were also far fewer racial slurs and assholes, so there’s that.  Maybe I’ll just go back and rewatch it on DVD.

Crash:  better than advertised.  Because it was advertised to be utter crap.  It’s also worth pointing out that, among a swath of unrealistic circumstances in the movie (all these people keeping bumping into each other in such a massive city!), the most improbable:  a black guy gets pulled over by the cops in a suspected stolen vehicle and gets out of it without being shot by police or even arrested.  I don’t even think that’s supposed to be funny.

 

Theme:  crossing paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Probably an unprintable racial slur