I was speaking with the legendary Conrad Hall, ASC a few years before he passed away and he was bemoaning the lack of serious films being made at the time. There was always fun to be had watching popcorn movies he admitted, but occasionally we need to see something with a little more substance. Hall was impossible not to like and when he said that he appreciated going to the theater to “have a good despair,” I knew I was in the presence of a kindred spirit. My inclination has always been toward the hopeless stories of common characters. Never mistaken for superheroes, they’re recognizable as real people, their trials easy to identify with. The best of those films evoke their low-down feelings in a “…there but for the grace of God” sort of way. But what makes them so seductive is that the malaise they bring about is easily shaken off before reaching the parking lot.
That’s not so with a certain other group of movies.
A filmic equivalent to the Seven Deadly Sins exists – and they can be just as damaging to your spiritual well being. They don’t leave you with a residue of sadness. They cause a need to rush home and pour a stiff drink. I’m not referring to exploitation films or grindhouse fare; that junk can’t be taken seriously enough to do any harm. This list is A-level stuff, made by the best people in the business. I can’t imagine they intended to evoke such a tough reaction but I’m hardly alone in this assessment. It’s no backhanded compliment to say the movies noted below have gnawed on me for days. While I recognize the quality of craft and admire their achievement, I find them profoundly unsettling.
Five Easy Pieces (1970; Bob Rafelson\Laszlo Kovacs, ASC)
Play It As It Lays (1972; Frank Perry\Jordan Cronenweth, ASC)
Taxi Driver (1975; Martin Scorsese\Michael Chapman, ASC)
Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977; Richard Brooks\William A. Fraker, ASC)
Hardcore (1979; Paul Schrader\Michael Chapman, ASC)
Sophie’s Choice (1982; Alan J. Pakula\Nestor Almendros, ASC)
Star 80 (1983; Bob Fosse\Sven Nyquist, ASC)
The problem no doubt lies more with me than the films, but I think Hall would agree there’s a big difference between having a good despair and being depressed. As the cinematographer for Fat City and The Day of the Locust, he knew his way around the darker recesses of the cinematic soul. What they all share though is a streak of nihilism. It’s not overtly displayed and probably wasn’t a part of their original plans. But it exists as an overall mood that crushes hope and denies appeal to a higher power, even if it’s just another human being. At their center these movies are infected with a poison that wears away at one’s resolve. You’re not aware of it while watching, but it’s affecting you on various levels nonetheless.
I don’t think a director can deliberately create such an unpleasant atmosphere. Surely there are examples of an intentionally heavier nature that don’t approach this status. If anything, it’s an amalgamation of factors that go beyond the constructs of plot, acting, design or photography. Maybe it had something to do with the state of the world or collective temperaments of the people making the movie at that specific time. I don’t know. As oblivious as they may have been, you can’t deny that these filmmakers captured lightning in a bottle in an amazing way.
Too amazing, if you ask me.