What's a movie you saw a second time years later and it was something else?
It’s been a hard week — for America, as usual, and for me, ditto, and maybe for you too (go on, flatter yourself!). So let’s do one of our fun shared-experience games.
What’s a movie — I’ll allow books and plays, too, but movies are the easiest layup — that meant something to you when you were a kid or a young adult, but when you saw it again as an older person, the impact was seriously different?
For some of us, changes in taste will do it: That which tickles the juvenile palate may seem over-sugared to the adult. Or maybe not! I don’t think I’ll ever love Mary Poppins, for example, any less as a grown-up than I did as a child. I’ve gotten jaded since, for sure, but that just means I see through things meant to deceive a child’s eyes, and I think what Mary Poppins offers, as silly and even hackneyed as it may be, is sincerely a point of view that it near universal with children but is not on that account childish.
But the one that sticks in my mind now is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves. And it isn’t that I didn’t like it when I first saw it nearly forty years ago. It’s that I didn’t see the same film then that I saw when I revisited it a few years back.
I was a teenager in 1975 — also a budding film nerd — and I’d heard good things about Night Moves from the smart critics of the time so I went. And while I was watching it in a Fairfield County theater, I knew I was seeing quality. But there was a lot I wasn’t seeing.
You probably know the basics: Harry, played by Gene Hackman, is a private investigator who’s getting on and should accept the straight job his estranged wife — with whom he’s still friendly and sometimes intimate — thinks he should. But Harry’s not a joiner. He thinks there’s something he’d miss, coming in to shore like that, though we don’t really see what that might be; what we mainly see is his discontent, and that pursuing a new case about teen runaway Delly and shady characters she’s fallen in with in the Florida Keys is his alternate way of working things out.
But here I am, describing it from my old-man perspective. At the time I was greener than an underripe avocado and I saw nearly none of this. I knew Harry was a detective and a working guy, but I didn’t have a good fix on where he was on the economic scale, because I came from the working class and I saw Harry had an office and a desk and worked with his brain and I couldn’t relate; also I didn’t get that a big thing with PIs, and a bigger thing with Harry, was not having a boss, a freedom that came (and still comes) with economic liabilities.
So I underestimated right off the bat that aspect of Harry’s struggles. (It’s interesting how much of modern pop culture relies on obfuscation of financial realities. But in the late 20th Century Harry’s sitch was probably clear on contact to 90% of adult viewers.)
That wasn’t all I missed. I kind of knew the girl’s mother, a blowsy Hollywood divorcee, as a type, for example, but I didn’t see much past that. (When the plot showed how damaged she really was, I took it as an attribute of the type, not the character. Which really reduces the impact.) As for Harry’s wife, well, she had short hair, an assertive manner, and was kind of bitter, so I assumed she was a sophisticated modern divorced housewife of the sort my better-off m buddies had for mothers — cool, I figured, but nothing I could relate to.
It’s important to know that Penn’s moody approach — downbeat, the popular term was then; do people still use it now? — was a lot more common in 1975 than it is now. Harry’s lower-middle-class milieu back in that rougher age, when there were fewer shiny tech surfaces and cheap Chinese knock-offs of rich folks’ clothes to make people of such means look classier, had a lot in common with what you’d see on TV detective shows. (Movies were cheaper then so you didn’t mind going to one and seeing something that looked kind of like TV if it had other things you couldn’t get at home, like swears and tits.)
In terms of mise en scène, Night Moves has something common with The Rockford Files. But there was a definite step-up in quality if you knew how to look for it, which I didn’t, then — and a lot of that, in this case, was Bruce Surtees’ photography. Look at the header image: That’s just a degraded screen shot of one of his many cool set-ups but how gorgeous it is! His stuff was just story-telling and scene-setting but with a ton of mood, and an invitation to look for more than just the basic visual information.
With regard to Penn’s style: It’s funny, I was pretty sensitive to his eccentric, rabbity cutting rhythms (though I didn’t know Dede Allen had at least something to do with it), but I didn’t get how much he created the film’s distinct elliptical, murky mood. (Michael Small’s music helps too — sometimes funky, sometimes poignant, always spare and allusive.) I just thought a lot of it happened at night, or on overcast days.
And much of the little bits of meaning in conversation eluded me – for example, in the first meeting of Harry and Arlene Iverson, mother of the missing girl:
Arlene: Are you the kind of detective who, once you get on a case, nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman—
Harry: That was true in the old days. Before we had a union.
Now, that scene is played pretty chipper, all smiles, and it just seemed like patter to me then, but now I can see how hard Harry’s pushing her off. (I can also see how different this is from how the noir directors of old Hollywood would have done it —they probably would have gone straight to “stow it, sister.” But in Harry’s world, unlike Philip Marlowe’s, such people aren’t usually so straight with one another.)
When Harry’s down in the Keys dealing with Delly, I didn’t quite get how he was reacting to her: When he’s alone with her and sits backways on a chair, for example, she tells him, “I read in a book once when a man sits in a chair like that he’s afraid of women.” “Sounds reasonable enough to me,” Harry says. I was slow for my age and didn’t get the full import.
Delly is way too young to be up to what she’s up to, and back in 1975 I guess I knew that, though, like I say, I was pretty green. If I hadn’t seen it again and been reminded of it, I might have assumed the filmmakers just had Sexist 70s Brain. But looking at it years later, it struck me that everyone in the movie absolutely knows Delly’s too young — well, maybe not the schnook Harry beats up — but most of them are exploiting her anyway. The “it was a different time” angle here is not exactly like in old films where we’re supposed to brush off the racism and sexism. When her stepfather, who more or less admits he’s hot for her, tells Harry, “You’ve seen her. There ought to be a law!” Harry says, “There is.” Young me may have been confused about what was going on but no one in the movie is.
I could go on and on about stuff that only later clicked with me. There’s Jennifer Warren as Harry’s sort-of Florida love interest who, I see now, seems to be on the spectrum — highly verbal, discursive, emotionally evasive — and how her appeal to Harry seems understandable given his obsessions. And how, when Delly’s mother says, “When I was her age I was down on my knees to half the men in this town,” you suddenly notice, beyond the green perimeter of her home, the smog-smeared outline of greater Los Angeles. Or rather, maybe you do, but I didn’t.
And there’s the scene where Harry seems to be cool with his wife, and they’re in bed having fondue, but despite the chuckles he’s down at the foot of the bed and she’s at the top, and there’s no sense that they’ll reverse that dynamic anytime soon, and they’re talking about how he tracked down his father but couldn’t bring himself to talk to him and suddenly she jumps on him and makes him look at her and says “We’ve taken a long time to get this far, I don’t want to pour it all away” — well, thirty-eight years ago that was just meaningless grown-up talk to me; now, to me, it’s grown-up talk, but not meaningless.
What about you?