Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dustbowl Dreams

Hey gang, this is Thombeau, visiting from Fabulon and Arcanta. I'll try not to be too pretentious or annoying!

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that a new generation of filmmakers was ready to address "The Great Depression" in more artistic terms than the backdrop for the struggles of the noble Joad family. Though the cinematography may be beautiful in these films, giving a haunting, almost romantic feel, the barren landscapes and weatherworn faces of the poor provided desolate images of loss and despair. It is in the midst of dusty towns and rural environs that the following three films are set. You have probably seen them all, as they are universally acclaimed and considered modern classics by many. If you haven't, you really should, and if you have then you just might want to experience them again.

By far the most popular, and arguably revolutionary, of this trilogy is Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The beauty and charisma of its leads, the great ensemble acting, the sass and violence, all make for a rollicking good time with an overtone of serious issues. However fictionalized, this was based on events that actually took place. Hovering around the periphery is the constant reminder that these were hard times; people had lost everything and were just trying to get by. Robbing banks may have been a fun and easy way to get money, but most of those banks were near empty. The famous scene where Bonnie reunites with her elderly grandmother, on a windswept hilltop, is striking for summing up the era in a few short minutes with the eyes of an old woman who has seen it all.



Seldom taken as seriously, Paper Moon (1973) is not only a great comedy, it's a fantastic evocation of a time when pleasures were simple and money was scarce. The use of period music ("Let's have another cup of coffee"), or, conversely, the silence that fills the background in many scenes, plus the attention to detail in the prop, costume, and makeup departments, create a very definite time and place. Long dirt roads and wide open spaces provide a vast context for the tiny dramas of the lead characters. Once again, a windy hilltop comes to mind: when Miss Trixie, after going winky-tink, approaches young Addie and tells her what her plans are, the desperation and determination are obvious.



The incredible Days of Heaven (1978), though portraying a slightly earlier time, fits in well with the above-mentioned films. Much has been written about the fabulous, dreamlike cinematography. The vast and endless plains seem to swallow up the characters and their intertwined destinies. The sound of the wind is almost another character. The gypsy lives of migrant workers is shown without explanation; it's simply a given. Again, people are doing whatever they can to get by. This movie, more than most, is so image-driven that it is difficult to choose only one that sums it all up. If ever possible, see this on the big screen. Please.

Other recommended films that display an essence of the era are They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and Bound for Glory (1976), but this list is far from complete. Any additions that you're crazy about?


As a footnote to this post, I simply must add that each of these films has a fantastic supporting cast. Estelle Parsons won a well-deserved Oscar for her hysterical (in every sense of the word) performance in Bonnie and Clyde. Paper Moon would not be the same without the fabulous Madeline Kahn as Trixie Delight. Also, P. J. Johnson's performance as Imogene never fails to amuse! And Days of Heaven would not be as strange and wonderful without the phenomenal narration of a young Linda Manz. Great stuff!


13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love, love, love The Grapes of Wrath (the novel--I haven't seen the film) and find the entire era fascinating.

Anonymous said...

These films are all great and I love the fact that you mention Paper Moon. But isn't Days Of Heaven set somewhere in the 1910's and not the 30's.

thombeau said...

HA! You are so totally right! It takes place in 1916! Well, so much for that! Great film, though.

Anonymous said...

"Boxcar Bertha" is an early Scorsese film set in the Depression with Barbara Hershey and David Carradine (so it's like a companion piece to Bound for Glory). It's fun in a bloody lurid way.

"Matewan" by John Sayles has a younger Chris Cooper. It may be earlier than the depression? It's a coal miners strike.

I agree, that "Days of Heaven" is the most beautiful.

It's ironic that John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath) wasn't so critically acclaimed in his lifetime, because he was too popular and too easy to read. Unlike many writers who write about "the common man", common people (including kids) actually read and enjoyed Steinbeck. Which reminds me...

"Cannery Row" by Steinbeck, dir. John Huston, with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. Great book (with sequel Sweet Thursday), fun movie. Marine biologist in Depression era Monterey (?).

thombeau said...

Ooh, I forgot all about "Cannery Row"! You know what else just came to mind: "Day of the Locust" and that "Postman Always Rings Twice" remake with Nicholson and Lange (I seem to recall that one having more of a thirties feel).

I still can't believe my "Days of Heaven" goof---and it's one of my favorite films! I guess writing this post, all of the movies sorta blurred together...

chica la bouche said...

*Sigh* how I miss Miss Madeline Kahn. There will just never be another one like her.

I personally am I big fan of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," but that one's not everyone's cup of tea and wasn't made in the 60's/70's.

thombeau said...

Oh, that was one I actually enjoyed!

chica la bouche said...

Yay, I'm not alone!

Holly Hunter was a huge highlight of that one.

"That's not my ring. I said my peace and counted to three."

Elizabeth said...

It makes sense to me that in the 60s, another time of huge national upheaval, filmakers would look back to the Depression. It would be a time that echoed the violence and change of the 60s, yet offered (in the rosey light of 20/20 hindsight) a simpler set of choices.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974 - remake of Ray's They Live by Night) is my candidate for most evocative depiction of the Depression Era. Also, I feel it's his masterpiece.

Liz said...

I loved Bonnie and Clyde and Paper Moon. It's odd that Paper Moon hasn't seen more popularity, especially with the sensation that was Tatum O'Neill.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone here seen "Ironweed" with Nicholson and Streep? I haven't, so I don't know how it compares in the "Depression evocation" catagory.

RedSatinDoll

thombeau said...

I suppose that depends on what sort of depression is being evoked!

(Yeah, I know, it's far too early for me to even try playing with words!)