Friday, September 21, 2007

The Savage Eye (1960)

Back when this movie came out and made some critical waves, The Savage Eye was lumped under the general genre of documentary, which is probably why they even managed to get away with the stripper scenes. But then, despite the "story" told in the film, it is indeed much more a documentary than a narrative film — for the lovers of labels, the best description of The Savage Eye is probably "experimental documentary". Like many an experimental film of yesteryear, The Savage Eye has in many ways not withstood the test of time. But in whatever way it has aged badly (ever so slightly), the film remains interesting, if not occasionally startling.
Basically, the three directors collected existing documentary footage and strung the disparate sections together by supplying a slim narrative thread, the story of the life of Judith (Barbara Baxley), an emotionally scarred divorcee who flees to Los Angeles after being dumped by her husband for another woman. As typical of a time when divorcees were used merchandise, Judith is unable to get past being dumped and slowly drowns in the listless life she lives between support checks. Judith is, of course, a further example of the throwaway society through which she wanders — an emotionally cold and alienating United States.
Judith wanders from shopping excursions to beauty salons to wrestling matches to burlesque shows to church healings to oversized gambling centers, usually as much of an observer as participant. Along the way, in place of dialogue, the off screen narrative of "The Poet" (the voice of Gary Merrill, best known for becoming Bette Davis' husband in real life after playing her boyfriend in the film All About Eve [1950 / trailer]) continually comments on and questions Judith's actions and thoughts in ad nauseam throughout the entire movie. Indeed, this dialogue eventually becomes rather annoying, for it often takes on a most supercilious tone; the film might have been much stronger had the filmmakers not relied on The Poet to continually hammer home the movie's thematic strands and instead placed much more trust in the strength of the images shown. Likewise, a slightly less dramatic soundtrack would have been an asset. The overdone melodramatics of the score supplied by Leonard Rosenman — who supplied the background tunes to films as varied as Rebel without a Cause (1955 / trailer) and Robocop II (1990 / trailer) and even won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (1975 / trailer) — quickly get on one's aural nerves.
Amongst the most striking footage, aside from the obviously shocking images of accidents and fire, are the burlesque sequence and church healing. Whatever a strip show might supposedly reveal about the alienation of US society, the aged footage reveals a substantial difference between the shows common of the past and the strip common of the present. Whereas nowadays the girls generally just jiggle back and forth on stage flashing their beaver and shaking their love-pillows in search of the almighty dollar, back at the time The Savage Eye was made the women actually had shows with artistic pretensions, complete with costumes and choreography, which seem to have had as much to do with modern dance as they did with stripping. It is highly doubtful that a purveyor of today's strip joints will ever get an actual dance show as offered by Venus, The Body (Jean Hidley) in the joint visited in The Savage Eye.
The church healing sequence is truly a disturbing one. A couple of old geezers in suits stand at the front of a long line of dried up, frustrated woman and spout the name of the lord as they lay hands and heal the various actual and imagined ailments of the flock. Numerous women go into orgasmic spasms, speaking tongues and shaking, often to such an extreme that some of the old geezers doing the heeling seemingly have a slight problem accepting it as normal. And while this scene serves well to show that when there is nothing else left to live for, you can still find god, in regard to the film's narrative it serves as the catalyst for Judith’s eventual automobile accident.
The three directors cum scriptwriters — Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick — aside from their leftist roots, shared the same basic background of cinematography, editing and scriptwriting. A labor of love, The Savage Eye took a number of years to reach completion. (The timespan needed to complete the film is most obvious in the cars Judith drives: In every other connecting narrative scene, she drives up in a new — or at least different — car, something a divorcee living check by check could hardly afford to do in real life.) Maddow, who died in 1992 and had such films as Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Asphalt Jungle (1950) in his writer's CV, was even a victim of blacklisting back in the days of the Red Scare; he eventually managed to get around it by working under the front of the non-blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Philip Yordan.

Joseph Strick's Oscar-winning documentary from 1970, Interviews with My Lai Veterans is included as an extra on the DVD. Much more a disturbing piece of cinema than The Savage Eye, Stick creates a strong indictment against the massacre and war in general without actually ever stating an opinion. The veterans he interviews span the range from the hillbilly who claims only to have seen the aftermath, the clean-cut good ol' boys who maintain they were following orders and did no wrong, to the young black guy who tells how he was ordered to shoot or be shot and seemingly can remember every single woman, child and old man he brought down. (For all those he killed, he comes across as the most sympathetic and likeable, for it is obvious that at the time of the interview, unlike the "nicer" white folks, he was suffering inside for every person he killed.) It would be interesting to know what became of those Veterans… most likely, those who regretted what happened are also the ones that didn't move up in life. Vietnam may be a long time past, but the documentary is still a strong piece of film making, equally valid now in this age of crazed American aggression as it was back when the public was just beginning to realize that the US doesn't fight clean either… something we have seemingly forgotten in the meantime.

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