Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part IV: They were all in love with dying; they were doing it in Texas


Spielberg dances cautiously around the style and content of the New Hollywood in his first theatrical feature, and the results are very much a mixed bag.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Steven Spielberg
With Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean Sparrow Poplin), William Atherton (Clovis Poplin), Michael Sacks (Officer Maxwell Slide), and Ben Johnson (Capt. Harlan Tanner)

Spoiler alert: N/A, sort of, but let's say high

It's probably not totally unfair to say that The Sugarland Express is less interesting in its own right, than because of where it fits into the filmography of its director.  In any event, that's exactly where anybody watching it today is most likely to begin, for it quite clearly foreshadows what the Speilberg of the future would be like, every bit as much as Duel had three years prior—maybe even moreso, considering that the Spielberg of Sugarland, albeit in much more a highly evolved form (or devolved, depending on your temperament) is also the Spielberg of today, that is, the Spielberg who seems to have triumphed over the Spielberg of Indy and Jaws.  Sugarland, you see, is not just Spielberg's first experiment in full-bore emotional manipulation—it's full-bore emotional manipulation married to what would in later years become his default mode, that of the chronicler of true stories.  Sugarland might be a smaller-scale effort—in terms of its ambition, and quite obviously in terms of its scope—but the seed planted here would, twenty and thirty years on, grow into Schindler's List and Amistad and Munich.  (And Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, alas.)  Well, the better of these, anyway, find me far more forgiving of this film's foibles than I might otherwise be.  The irony of the Sugarland experiment is that Spielberg didn't know that he was running any experiment; but there's a synopsis to run through first, so we'll get back to that discussion later.

Sugarland tells the tale of Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin, a married couple based upon the real-life Texas fugitives, Bobby and Ila Fae Dent, a pair of miscreants who kidnapped a Texas Highway Patrol officer in what amounted to a fit of pique, and subsequently became instant celebrities when their terrible plan went immediately awry, whereupon they seized upon their last hours of freedom in a vain attempt to reach their children.

Outside of these broad strokes, Spielberg's story for Sugarland reinvents the Dents out of whole cloth, starting with its very first scene, an unimpressive prison break masterminded by Lou Jean—in fact, it's so stupid (literally nothing more complicated than Clovis walking out the damned front gate) that it cannot be read as anything but intentionally farcical, and "farcical" serves as a fairly accurate one-word description of Sugarland's tone.

The exigence for Lou Jean's return to the criminal life is her Baby Langston (as he is almost invariably called), who's been taken from her, by the almighty State.  Of course, the reasons for this become so obvious, and are frankly so sound, that Spielberg cannot quite bring himself to actively contradict them, at least for any longer than it takes the infant to wail for his mother, or for a featured extra to utter a line like "Hon, it's your baby," and it's incredibly, unmistakably clear what Spielberg himself thinks of Lou Jean's intentions, even though Sugarland is deeply dependent upon us believing in the righteousness, if perhaps not the wisdom, of its antiheroes' goals.  But our skepticism wouldn't matter much to Lou Jean, anyway, for she's not about to listen to anybody else, and is hellbent upon reaching Langston in Sugar Land, TX (the mistake in the title is a real curioisity, presumably purposely introduced, purely because "Sugarland" just reads better), where she intends to repatriate her child from the wealthy foster family now raising him as their own.

Their plan mutates instantly once they kidnap Officer Maxwell Slide and steal his vehicle—a crime presented in the film as practically accidental, rather than actively evil.  (The real-life Dents, you should perhaps know, plotted their crime with a great deal more malice aforethought than the Poplins—if, obviously, with no greater genius.)  Inevitably, the patrol car is soon noticed by Slide's compatriots, and the long chase begins, heading in the general direction of Sugar Land as the Poplins attract the attention of what looks like every cop in Texas—and even a few wildcatting officers from Louisiana—as well as the media, the people of the towns they pass through, and a family of heavily-armed redneck vigilantes, to boot.  The harried ringleader of this circus is Captain Tanner, striding into the frame with a pure heart and an honorable mien—much of it provided by the indefatigable gravitas of Ben Johnson's performance.  Tanner is willing to make promises, and he keeps most of them.  But it probably shouldn't shock anybody that this story ends with blood and tears.

Sugarland should be both more successful than it is, and less, and it's down to Spielberg's confused engagement with the material that it winds up such a paradox.  Spielberg very obviously doesn't like his protagonists—and honestly, it's just "the protagonist," Lou Gene, for Clovis is barely ever anything more than just an extension of her will, and whenever he does rise to the level of an individual, it's mainly to bicker at her.  In Spielberg's conception, both in terms of story (somewhat uniquely, Spielberg wrote the original treatment for Sugarland) and in his direction of the performances, there's an abiding contempt for the Poplins, and it bleeds through everything, even as he tries his best to evoke our tenderness.  You also realize quickly that the director did not stand so far apart from his New Hollywood brethren as you might have expected or hoped.  While naturalism would soon become more alien to Spielberg than, well, actual aliens, he could still render a fair simulation of it, and, in this case, it's inevitably obnoxious.  On one hand, Clovis is stupid.  On the other, Lou Jean is crazy and stupid.

This would have gotten old fast, and at first it does, for it's frankly aggravating that Spielberg and his co-writers saw fit to modify most of the details of the Dent Saga in order to make their fictional stand-ins more morally palatable, but didn't deign to tone the hillbilliness down to a manageable level, too.  (When Spielberg has the supreme gall to rename a man called Bobby Dent "Clovis," it becomes quite abundantly clear the kind of dire hicksploitation he must've been shooting for.)

No disrespect intended to the Frankish warlord of legend, of course.

It turns out, however, that since they are so obnoxious, you tend to align yourself with Spielberg's distance; and thus the single strongest choice he ever makes in Sugarland is to keep Lou Jean and Clovis' relationship mostly out-of-focus once the plot gets going.  Sugarland cleaves instead to the relationship between the unappealing duo and their hostage.  That's Michael Sacks' Officer William Slide, who's doing the best fake accent in the film, and who isn't stupid, only deeply empathetic.  So, when Slide slowly comes around to trusting and caring about his captors, we do too, for he stands in for the better angels of our own natures, ready to listen to their side of things—without ever quite forcing us to make any real decision of our own about the Poplins' value as human beings.

The problem with that, of course, is that this is still the Poplins' story, and there's something just terribly misplaced about how Sugarland renders its chief symbols of oppressive authority as actual flesh-and-blood people—Captain Tanner spends the whole film reflecting Officer Slide's gentleness from afar—while its putative emotional center, those rebellious Poplins, are naught but caricatures, whose humanity is derived almost entirely from their enemies.  (But should we be at all surprised that Spielberg finds himself uncomfortable with antiheroes, when the most antiheroic figure in Spielberg's whole canon otherwise is Indiana Jones?)

Later, Spielberg would remark that if he could make Sugarland again, he'd have done it as a piece of cinema verite grit, from the perspective of Captain Tanner.  Indeed, you can see him straining to do just that within the script he already has.  It's not even a bad choice, but it is a strange one, considering that Sugarland is so transparently Spielberg's attempt to make his own kinder, gentler version of Bonnie and Clyde.  (And if I estimate that he easily surpasses Bonnie, that's only because I think Arthur Penn's picture is amongst of the worst of the many outlaw romances it bred, which are all about taking a man and a woman, and making them antisocial and violent and very nearly mentally retarded.)

Now, I want to reassure you: I deployed that nasty word above in the strictest possible medical sense, for the Poplins are, indeed, quite upsettingly dim.  Above all, they don't ever seem to realize that the adventure they've embarked upon is their death ride.  It's hard to make martyrs out of characters who cannot themselves prevision their fate; and there's only one scene in the whole picture where you can even impose that kind of tragic foreknowledge upon the poor Poplins.

And yet that scene is pure vintage Spielberg nonetheless, an early example of him doing one of the things he does best: forcing us to feel exactly what he wants us to feel.  Specifically, Spielberg juxtaposes the slackjawed yokel expression which William Atherton has decided best represents his character against the Sisyphus of the Looney Tunes, Wile E. Coyote himself.  It's almost annoying in how effective it is.  After all, we laugh at the Road Runner cartoons not because we regard the Coyote with contempt, but sympathy; can we not grant the same for Clovis?  We can, and must.  But this is a lonely island of real emotional insight amidst a film that can be readily examined through the dual lenses of class disparity and bureaucratic oppression—but which, at the same time, does not clearly want to be.  Being way too into America would sometimes serve Spielberg as a strength; but it serves him rather inconsistently here.

You can see Spielberg learning the emotional side of his craft in Sugarland: how to collate (or invent) all the right details to make a myth out of history, and, even more importantly, how to place the audience in his heroes' corner, by convincing them that their own hopes and fears are all made of the same stuff.  But it is a learning experience: this film never finds an approach that consistently works till the very last moments of its cloying ending—although bear in mind that when I'm talking Spielberg and I say "cloying," I mean it in the best possible way—for here it decides, at the last opportunity but with what seems like its whole heart, to finally accept the Poplins as its own.  And it only takes one of them being shot down to get there.

But big feelings are what melodrama is all about, and Spielberg knew his melodrama, even then—though he also apparently never knew when to quit while he was ahead, since just like in Bridge of Spies forty-one years later, he slaps some text onto the last frames, to let you know what a happy ending this actually was.

There are other elements of Sugarland worth discussing.  There's the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, an enormous coup for Spielberg, given that Zsigmond is probably more responsible for the film working than he is, most powerfully in the very final shots, featuring the goldest fucking sunset sequence in recorded history.  Sugarland was also Spielberg's first collaboration with composer John Williams, something absolutely worth mentioning (even if, sadly, the score itself is merely okay).  And plenty of credit needs to be thrown Spielberg's way for managing to film as much of Sugarland as he did on the move—hell, half the conversations in this movie seem to take place on the radio, with both subjects in different cars but often in the same shot—and whatever other problems Sugarland possesses, lacking an immersive, compelling style isn't one of them.  Nor can it be accused of lacking thriller setpieces, even when they're ginned up purely for their own sake.  (Indeed, although Sugarland may compare poorly against Bonnie and Clyde in one minor respect, namely the number of blood squibs deployed, it probably does equal or exceed the number of gunshots actually expended on camera.)

But if we really want to talk about Steven Spielberg, the master cinematic craftsman—well, shouldn't that discussion really wait till next time?

Score:  6/10 

You'll notice, I'm sure, that we've skipped from Part II of this retrospective to Part IV.  This is thanks to the unavailability of Steven Spielberg's third made-for-TV movie, Savage.

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