Giant (1956) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Should James Cameron require any suggestions on how to structure a family saga featuring exclusion, rebellion, adolescence, revenge and racism without relying on repetitive action beats he could do worse than check out this towering epic. There’s a seamlessness to the screenplay that allows the director to move quickly along, drama and conflict that initially tear a family apart in the end bringing it back together.

The story charts the romance of Texan rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) to socialite Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), their marital conflict as she exerts her personality in a male-dominated world, her battle with Bick’s older sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) for control of the household, and the infatuation of ranch hand Jett (James Dean) with Leslie.

First child Jordan (Dennis Hopper), pushed unwillingly into masculine pursuits by Bick,  bucks his father’s long-term plan by determining to become a doctor. Second child Judy rebels against the extravagant lifestyle and opts, along with husband Dace, for a small spread, the cattleman’s version of a mom-and-pop operation. Third offspring Luz the Second (Carroll Baker) romances the older Jett, now an oil millionaire, and Bick’s business rival.

Racism and exclusion form the core of the picture. Leslie is shocked to discover her father’s employees living in abject poverty, that he will not countenance the cost of improving living conditions, partly on racist grounds, partly on the American principle that it’s every man for himself, a race in which losers are left behind like sores to fester. Jordan marrying a Mexican brings these issues to the fore, especially when his grand heritage cannot protect her from humiliating racism. Bick and Leslie bicker, fall out, make up, are exploited by their children, who can always find one or the other to take their side in any dispute.

Sure there are some terrific lines but the best scenes are simply visually dramatic. Luz, furious at Leslie encroaching on her territory, lames her rival’s favorite horse by riding it with spurs digging into its flesh. A huge crowd welcomes home a white World War Two hero, a handful of people the Mexican equivalent, only when the train pulls away do we see the draped coffin. The introverted by now incoherent Jett unable to summon up the words to complete his proposal to Luz the Second. Terrified four-year-old Jordan atop a horse, not being able, or willing, to ride the worst sin in Bick’s world.

Bick, restraining himself from launching into a fistfight with Jett in the wine cellar of the oil man’s opulent hotel, throws an item at racks of bottles, only to see it topple back, the camera remaining on Bick’s face as we hear the successive toppling of rack upon rack upon rack. Jett, all the wealth he could ever want, wakens from drunken slumber to an empty banqueting room, guests long departed.

A tiny house, as grand as it is, sits in the distance on a massive plain. The passing of time is delineated in relation to horsepower. We are introduced to Bick staring out of a train window watching horses which almost match the speed of the train. Then it is a plane which outruns a car. Finally, when speed, as a demonstration of inherent power, is no longer of the essence the family, in a car, is happy to be overtaken by a speedster.  

The power of wealth, the power of power, its corrosive impact on those sharing in what it can bestow, the damage inflicted on those who get in the way, is the other great theme, spelled out not in dogma or speeches but in human cost. And no matter how powerful, someone is always bigger. The dominant Texan cattleman is easily overtaken in the wealth stakes by the oilman, whose political donations ensure tax exemption.

The vindictive Luz gains revenge on her brother by bequeathing Jett a small parcel of land, just enough to prevent the cattleman from owning everything as far as the eye can see and far beyond, just enough to cause irritation.    

And this is before we come to the performances. It’s hard to choose between the three principals. Elizabeth Taylor (The Comedians, 1967), fiery, humane, loving, submitting unwillingly to the superior male, arguing her corner, fighting for the rights of others, brings a superbly complex character to brilliant life. But Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) , in a less showy part, is just as good, conflicted, stubborn, initially shy, forced to take on inherited stances, only at the end standing up against what he formerly believed. And you can hardly take your eyes off James Dean, hiding behind a Stetson or a bottle of whisky, inarticulate, lost, greedy, infatuated.

John Huston used to aver that in any given scene the camera did all the work, that with three or four people to choose from, all on screen at the one time, the strongest performer would attract audience attention. Here, that attention constantly flickered from Taylor to Hudson to Dean, as, almost without exerting an acting muscle, they battled for screen dominance.

Taylor was ignored come Oscar time, but Hudson and Dean split the vote allowing Yul Brynner to sneak in, Mercedes McCambridge nominated in the supporting category, Stevens winning his second Oscar. The supporting cast had tremendous depth: Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969), Mercedes McCambridge (99 Women, 1969),  Sal Mineo (Escape from Zahrain, 1962), Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963),  Jane Withers (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) and Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960). Fred Guiol (Shane, 1953) and Ivan Moffat (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) adapted the Edna Ferber bestseller.

I saw this on the big screen in a 4K restoration which means it’s probably heading for streaming and/or DVD but if your local arthouse chances to program this any effort to see it will be well worthwhile.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

Just goes to show what a little bit of reimagining can do. A companion piece to The Wild Angels (1966) but which takes the viewer in the opposite direction, turning the characters from perpetrators of violence to its victims, adding in a stonking soundtrack and a bit more philosophy, though holding on to the long tracking shots of motorbikes that defined the Roger Corman approach. From the bare bones of the Corman movie emerged a cinematic – and box office – miracle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda, developing a character trait he revealed in The Wild Angels, senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil. As revelatory is the performance of Jack Nicholson, here effectively making a bid for stardom in a part that would snare an Oscar nomination.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now. 

 

Easy Rider (1969) *****

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Selling a picture to the public and selling it to cinemas were two separate marketing skills. The easiest way to guarantee bookings for any film was to promote the box office figures through the trade press – as here in the British “Kine Weekly.” Columbia had cleverly booked the movie into one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End where it was almost certainly guaranteed to break the box office record. But even the studio must have been taken aback by the way Easy Rider pulverized the previous record.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

Success in London was no guarantee that a movie would perform as well all over the country. Columbia continued to book it into smaller venues in the hope it would repeat the London experience of breaking box office records. When it did the studio took out another advert in Kine Weekly to let exhibitors know.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now.   

Of course, the Easy Rider soundtrack itself summons up memories of the era and it is worth listening to just by itself and you might even want to go all the way and listen to it in the original vinyl.

Below is a link for the DVD.

   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Rider-DVD-Peter-Fonda/dp/B00LTK2Z44/ref=sr_1_1?crid=YSG6SCL8QQF9&dchild=1&keywords=easy+rider+dvd&qid=1596660339&s=dvd&sprefix=easy+rider%2Caps%2C153&sr=1-1

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