The Hustler (1961)
I first heard about this film in, of all places, Andrew Chaikin’s factual book A Man on the Moon: a NASA astronaut mentions The Hustler as being one of his favourite movies and makes references to it during a mission. The protagonist is a pool hustler named Fast Eddie, played by Paul Newman, who goes up against the unbeaten legend Minnesota Fats. After losing to Fats in a match lasting more than a day, Eddie’s confidence takes a heavy hit; he is desperate to take on Fats again, but may have to resort to unsavoury means to get the money he needs.
The pool match between Eddie and Minnesota Fats, which takes up most of the first act, feels like a classic duel – it ends up becoming more about endurance than skill, as Eddie weakens while Fats just keeps going. When the match is over, we spend a lot of time just following Eddie: some parts of this segment are interesting, like his mutually unhealthy relationship with an alcoholic woman, but much of it feels aimless. For much of its length, The Hustler is a quiet movie which leads you to focus on its characters: Eddie does go through an interesting character arc, from a cocky kid to a pathetic wreck to trying to find his feet again – but he’s not a terribly likeable character, and he doesn’t seem to learn anything until right at the end.
Taxi Driver (1976)
This Martin Scorsese directed film stars Robert de Niro as former Marine Travis Bickle, who gets a job as a New York taxi driver since he can’t sleep at night anyway. The cinematography of the film is great right from the get-go: its strange opening with unsettling theme music and smoky streets, and the dark venal environment that Travis is presented with as he roams the city in his cab. Travis is a curious character, crude in many ways but more thoughtful than you would expect – he doesn’t seem to know what he wants in life, and unfortunately, for most of the movie, I didn’t really know what was supposed to be happening either. He does get some purpose from other characters he meets, like the presidential campaign volunteer whom he dates briefly, and the child prostitute played by Jodie Foster that he wants to save. But more often than not, I didn’t understand what Travis wanted to do or what the point of the whole thing was. This is a film that I think I’d probably like better on a second viewing: first time round, I didn’t really get it.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a janitor at MIT who reveals himself to be a maths genius by solving a problem presented to students. The resident maths professor is keen to cultivate Will’s talents – unfortunately, Will is unmotivated and occasionally engages with criminal behaviour with his friends. He is referred to therapist Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams, who hopes to get through to Will and determine the roots of his difficult attitude.
As in the previous film, Will is a difficult character to figure out – he’s contradictory in many respects, and there’s uncertainty about what he wants or what drives him. Most of the time when he’s onscreen, the focus is on other aspects of his character besides his intelligence and grasp of facts. However, I did find him likeable and good to watch. Every scene between Will and Sean has something worth watching: there’s almost a battle between them as Sean tries to properly connect with Will and figure him out. There’s talk about the nature of love and how relationships work – Robin Williams has one particularly good monologue where he talks about the difference between learning through books and experience. I also liked Will’s relationship with his girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver) – the interactions between them feel natural, sometimes undignified, and very far away from cliche movie romance. The writing – by Damon and Ben Affleck – is really good, though the traditional ‘second act low point’ comes along rather abruptly, and the ultimate explanation for Will’s behaviour feels simplistic after the rest of the movie is more in-depth.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Joe Gillis is trying and failing to make it as a writer in Hollywood, and evading repossessors in the meantime; one day, in the process of doing the latter, he finds himself seeking shelter around an old house. The house belongs to Norma Desmond, a reclusive and unstable woman who used to be a big silent movie actress. She is desperate to make a comeback, and recruits Joe to help her with the script she has written. With the convenient and comfortable living space that Norma offers him, Joe is sucked into her world, despite knowing that her dream almost certainly won’t come true.
This is another very well written film: I liked the insightful, honest style of Joe’s narration, and lines such as “I was always big – it’s the pictures that got small” and “There’s nothing tragic about being 50, unless you try to be 25.” Norma’s house – compared to Miss Havisham’s in Great Expectations – is a very detailed setting that reflects the character herself very effectively, down to the rats in the empty pool. But the real highlight of the whole thing is Gloria Swanson’s incredible performance as Norma, taking what is already a very striking character on paper and making her even more so. Swanson nails the expressions, down to the look in her eyes, as well as often showing her teeth in an unnerving way. From the beginning, Norma’s emotions can change very quickly, and it soon becomes clear just how unhinged she really is. You feel real pity for her, but also worry about how she will react in those moments when reality catches up with her fantasies. I was really invested in just how the relationship between Joe and Norma was going to progress, even though the very beginning of the film gives away how it ends and it’s not hard to guess the circumstances.
Ewan McGregor plays Mark Renton, one of a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh: the film follows him dealing with the various consequences of his habits. Pretty much all the elements of this film are of a very high standard – except maybe for the story, which takes a while to get going. The style is unique, the soundtrack fits very well, and the atmosphere is appropriately dirty and nasty. The acting all around is very striking, often with jerking movements and animalistic behaviour. Particularly memorable is the scene where Renton is locked in his bedroom, going through withdrawal symptoms and hallucinating: watching him writhe beneath the sheets, with the bedroom walls moving around him, definitely appears feverish and makes you get a feel of what he’s going through. This isn’t a film I ever expect to watch again, though. It doesn’t pull any punches – it portrays a scary world in an honest fashion (“Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”) and made me feel very uncomfortable. You know a film’s got something going for it when it inspires such strong emotion, even when it’s something you’d rather not feel. I recognise the quality, but the subject didn’t appeal to me.
In other news, Camp NaNoWriMo is dead in the water for this month. Firstly, I got lost in random drabbles and notes for a different project; second, I’m preoccupied at the moment with a new audio project. So let us see what July and the next Camp brings.