Setter’s ‘Spectives: Driving Along With Spielberg’s ‘Duel’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Would you believe I’d never seen the Steven Spielberg movie Duel until last night?

A real shame, huh? Especially considering the fact that I’ve seen a host of other films helmed by the master director.

Duel, the story of an average businessman’s encounter with a homicidal, unseen truck driver on the lonely roads of California, was very tense and suspenseful. Great editing and cinematography, making the most of a tight script that was only hindered by a few bursts of internal monologues here and there … which it didn’t need.

I liked this movie a lot, and it was interesting to see such a strong picture so early in Spielberg’s career (the movie debuted in 1971). I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again; it’s not clear how the suspense and thrills will hold up. But it remains a well-crafted movie.

What film will come next for me? Only the screen has the answer.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sympathy for the Movies’ Devils

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.

On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious,  whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.

Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.

There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.

Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.

Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.

That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: ‘Psycho’ Viewers, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s inimitable scare-fest Psycho last night on TV thrilled me more than it ever has in the past.

Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t like it.

Yes, that’s thrilling. Really. Because last night, the reason became apparent.

It’s a negative movie. It’s oddly structured. The dialogue is bizarre. And Hitch spends a heckuva lot of time showing you these seemingly “mundane” details, like Janet Leigh packing and unpacking her suitcase and Anthony Perkins cleaning up the bathroom after he has dispatched her.

All of this is deliberate. I’m not saying Hitchcock wasn’t in command. But it’s almost as if the great director was trying to call attention to ordinary activities that aren’t normally seen in the movies.

That helps develop character…and I think that’s why the film’s so effective. Perkins’ obsessive mopping and post-murder preparations reveal how deeply disturbed he is, while Leigh’s behavior suggests an interior schism over the money she’s stolen. It’s all brilliantly done, and it’s an incredibly watchable movie, despite all of the minutiae.

Yet I still don’t like it. It seems more experimental to me than many of the master’s other pictures, a grim, stark-looking study rather than a finished product. Again: I don’t think anything is loose, here; Hitch was in control through and through. But for me, it’s hard to watch. I’d rather sit down to a viewing of The 39 Steps, you know?

Something where you don’t feel like you have to take a shower afterward.