Wednesday, September 21, 2005

MOOM PITCHER REVIEW: THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1974, directed by John Schlesinger)

If you ask me, one of the best things to come out of the Amerigan post-Vietnam/Watergate era was a healthy sense of cynicism! Y'know, that sarcastic "bad attitude" regarding all things high, mighty and downright stodgy that developed amongst not only the general working stiff populace, but the arts and crafts makers who were finally peddling some rather tasty shards of produce to their eager consumers because of it. Maybe it was because this was a time when anti-authoritarianism was being marketed to lumpen youthproles like myself that I remember it so fondly, but you also gotta remember that it was that oft-loathed in retrospect Gerald Ford time 'n place (and could you think of a better guy to exemplify those days?) which not only gave us discordant rock of a punk style and otherwise but snide satire, HOLLYWOOD BABYLON and a whole slew of movies that for once seemed to mirror some gritty realities that didn't make it past the early-thirties once the Code came into being. And, with or without any "retrospect" to rely on, I found this state o' affairs to be pretty positive with regards to civilization as a whole, a timespan where for once people could see things as they really were instead of through typical Pollyannaish glitz. Especially from a thirty-year perch it's not hard too see that roughly the years 1973-1976 were times when a curmudgeonness and caustic glances at "culture and society" (yech!) seemed to be firmly etched into the psyche of gulcher USA, and it's too bad that disco, Jimmy Carter's Mr. Rogers-inspired snakeoil shill and overemotional Social Worker doogooderisms hadda replace the seething bile within only a few short years!

So that's why I was looking forward to viewing THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, a film that I remember got hefty attention upon release way back in '74 yet seems to have been totally forgotten thirtyplus years down the line. After all, LOCUST was one of those mid-seventies flicks that was so dour it even turned its own death-mirror on the whole image of tinseltown and right at the height of its power and popularity (1939, the year of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ and maybe a few films I'd actually enjoy watching!), and it sure seemed interesting enough fitting in beautifully with the whole seventies trend towards "nostalgia" even if this film set out to destroy the rose-tinted hindsight of thirties Hollywood. But Cheese Louise, espying the dark underbelly of classic Hollywood through a mid-seventies aura of despair and disgust sounds so tasty, and since I was one of those wee li'l kids who always wanted to know what went on in alla them "R" rated movies that the more "with it" stoolboys got to see then why not give this flicker a chance since it sure seems a lot more, er, scrutinizing than a lotta the mooms being made these days.

Still, for all the promise and retro-decadence such a film begs for, all I gotta say is that I was expecting much more outta this flick than what was delivered. William Atherton as the gosh-darn-it young artist out to make it big in Hollywood just doesn't cut it with me, looking more or less like a modern-day (2005 as well as 1974) young soap opera actor on the "way up" trying to slam more of that "New Hollywood" into the old model failing miserably. I mean, I'm STILL seeing young doofs like him trying to bring back everything from "film noir" to pseudo-Bogartisms even this late in the game, so maybe I oughta credit him for being the first dolt to do it all! Femme lead Karen Black as the slutzy starlet who can't face the reality of love or stable relationships does have her "moments" if only to show the vacuousness of her existence, while longtime fave (not nec. mine) Burgess Meredith is certainly not up to earlier TWILIGHT ZONE/NAKED CITY standards here as Black's dying alkie father (the scene where he's peddling patent medicine door-to-door doesn't elicit the kinda pseudo-Chaplinesque pathos I'm sure hotshot director John Schlesinger, or most audiences for that matter were looking's a wonder why Meredith ever got nominated for a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar unless someone at the Acadamy felt sorry for him). As for the rest, well most of the supporting cast really doesn't elicit any sorta deep affection for anything. Maybe that was the point, though I woulda expected more outta old hands like Bo Hopkins as the cowboy/extra who runs cockfights with his over-testosteroned Mexican partner on the move for Black, and especially Billy Barty as another piece of H-wood flotsam albeit his earthiness was at least one redeeming factor even though his appearance can have the same uneasy feeling on me that midget wrestlers used to have on my cousin.

If you must know (and maybe you do wanna given you've read this far), the only character of any real interest here is Donald Sutherland's oafish Homer Simpson (and no, it's not exactly clear if this guy is the template for the more famous cartoon character, though in some ways he coulda been). Amidst the Hollywood phonies and lusters at least this guy can elicit a lotta rah-rahs perhaps because the goof's so lovable like a big teddy bear or the president even, and despite Simpson's near-retarded behavior, emotionalism and gullibility (as well as his inability to see through Hollywood sham) he is the only real man in a film fulla truly airhead wannabes and callous studio heads who don't care one iota whether or not their actors live or die (as in the battle sequence where the hilly soundstage collapses before everyone's eyes).

Still, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST comes off like a series of what could have been potentially powerful scenes strung together very haphazardly. The "Big Sister" seg. (with Geraldine Page as a mock Aimee Semple McPherson wowing the rubes) hits you seemingly out of nowhere (although it does add to the film's gist of Hollywood as this huge zilch-dimensional dream you just gotta buy into), and even the climax where Sutherland gets torn to shreds by a raging mob at a movie premiere after stomping to bloody death bratty adolescent "actress" Adore (played by Jackie Haley, later to star in a series of teenage cherrypop features) seems totally outta nowhere without any real stable lead in or reason for that matter. Perhaps under the direction of a less-connected director DAY OF THE LOCUST could have been cohesive, but even with the potential and mid-seventies grit trying to revive classic Hollywood form it misfires, not by a mile but just enough.

But as far as Old Hollywood morphing into the New goes, the casting couldn't've been better. Natalie Schafer of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND fame plays the madam at a house of ill-repute where Black moonlights when she needs the extra cash for her father's funeral amongst other things, while I even caught Florence Lake of the old Edgar Kennedy comedies in a quickie scene visiting Meredith at his bedside. Bill Baldwin (you've probably seen him on JACK BENNY and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER!) is great as the radio announcer at the movie premiere who actually thinks that the crazed riot ensuing is due to fan fervor giving the carnage a hyperbolic play-by-play and hey, Alvin Childress shows up in a post-AMOS 'N ANDY role, albeit he's once again reduced to playing a butler and even in "new" Hollywood for that matter. (And I think I saw Stymie Beard as a chauffeur, uncredited natch!) Who knows, maybe DAY OF THE LOCUST was after all the perfect mix of classic Hollywood and the aforementioned new cynicism, or maybe the best intrusion of Old Hollywood on new turf since MYRA BRECKINRIDGE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I take it you never read the book? It's one of my fave books. Schlesinger's film does suffer by comparison to the book, in particular William Atherton as Tod is a weak point, and Karen Black is miscast (a little too old for the role). It is a bit glossy considering the subject matter. I don't know if you've ever seen "What's The Matter With Helen" but based on that film I'd say Curtis Harrington would have been the perfect director to do that film. Nevertheless it is a good film - as are Kazan's "The Last Tycoon" and the aforementioned "What's The Matter With Helen", also 70s films cynically looking back at Old Hollywood. - Michael Snider