Monday, March 29, 2021

What a disaster: I don't like Sundays


Directed by Larry Peerce
Written by Edward Hume (based on the novel by George LaFountaine)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I don't know if this could be answered by reference to releasing patterns in the 1970s in general, or if it has something to do with The Poseidon Adventure doing so well in that slot, but throughout its peak years (and even into its waning years) the 70s disaster movie was almost exclusively a wintry phenomenon.  Almost every single major American disaster film of the decade after Airport (and not counting Jaws and Jaws knock-offs, that is), including today's subject, was released in October, November, or especially Decemberor held back until Februaryall the way until 1977, when Airport '77 and Rollercoaster came out in spring and summer, respectively.  (Presumably, it would've felt wrong to have Rollercoaster come out any other time.)  Maybe it was something about the dour complexion of the disaster picture, which is always about innocent life being put in peril and, moreover, being meaninglessly snuffed out, suggesting that these were, for all their bombast and flamboyance and resort to caricature, still at least perceived as the proverbial movies for adults, and "movies for adults" come out in winter due to some manner of strained psychic metaphor.  Or maybe it's just because that's when movies can get Oscarsfor disaster movies had received their share of Academy attention during the first half of the decade, not-infrequently picking up Best Supporting Actor nominations, which even a fan of the movement can admit they never deserved, as well as being routinely nominated in the technical categories, which even a detractor should be able to concede they did.

There might not be any 70s disaster movie more "for adults" than '76's Two-Minute Warningwhich is not to imply that it is profoundly adult in any philosophical sense, but it eagerly courted its R rating, and while I doubt you could ever get any of them to admit it, you half-wonder if maybe, just maybe, its producer, Edward S. Feldman, and its director, Larry Peerce, thought it could be recognized as a serious work for serious people, probably not in the form of any Oscars, but recognized nonetheless.  That didn't pan out, but this suspicion is bolstered by looking over Peerce's career: though a journeyman, his specialty seemed to be in sober fare with a foot in social issues.  It makes sense that this is the attitude he brings to Two-Minute Warning, the disaster picture that takes on that most uniquely American of disasters: professional football.

I'm kidding.  Two-Minute Warning plainly isn't much interested in football qua football, and any public gathering of sufficient size would've donethough it's not exactly an accident, either, and the George LaFountaine novel from which Edward Hume adapted the screenplay almost certainly chose to center itself on football in order to turn the cultural associations of the sport towards symbolic, ironic ends.  Of course, what Two-Minute Warning is actually about is a mass shooting, single-mindedly so.  This is expressly why so many critics found it gauche in 1976, and it's a salutary thing, to be reminded that grading movies on flimsy moral grounds is not by any stretch a new phenomenon, and it's always been arbitrary, frequently chosen as nothing but a convenient angle of attack when one simply didn't like the film in the first place.  This is why Siskel and Ebertnot to pick on them, but because I know their work and you recognize their namescould act aghast at this piece of New Hollywood-era provocation but, you know, Bonnie and Clyde was fine.

I think it's aged well: Two-Minute Warning, needless to say, is a little prescient.  As violent as the decade was, there were not daily mass shootings in 1976, and to the extent there had been mass shootings beforehand, this probably just made the movie feel more like exploitation than it is.  Now, it doesn't not come off as exploitation, but neither the goal nor the execution are totally unworthy of its subject matterthat goal being to reflect the violent unraveling of society that the 1970s plainly felt like to the folks who lived through it, by splattering blood over an all-American pastime (and on the sabbath, no less!), while the execution winds up being a long exercise in queasy suspense channeled through the disaster genre's formula, ending in experiential slaughter and panic.  There are enough flaws here that, honestly, it's barely even a good movie; but the attempt to use the Airport model to capture the scope of a mass shooting and the sheer randomness of its toll, even if it isn't the only approach one could take, doesn't strike me as an obviously wrong one.

So: like AirportTwo-Minute Warning assumes you know what movie you're watching, and this permits it to meander around quite a bit, but, appropriately, it opens with the sun rising on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, shifting from an aerial shot to a series of portentous geometric impressions of the empty stadium while the plaintive major theme of Charles Fox's score (plausibly the single best thing about the movie, and definitely the most consistently competent) preemptively mourns the dead.  We also already get a sense of how Peerce might not be fully in command of the feelings and tones he wants to convey, when much of the unsettling power of the sequence depends on how eerily devoid of human life the stadium is, which is of course also how the movie will endand then he and editors Walter Hannemann and Eve Newman drop in a shot of some guy painting the lines onto the field, and you realize it's not necessarily a fully-intentional statement of purpose, as opposed to a lumpy bag of footage that could unobtrusively play out under the opening credits.

Not that they aren't doing some worthy things with that editing overall, however (it is also a handsomely, grittily shot movie, courtesy cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield, who uses that 70s photographic trick, split-diopters, to carve up Peerce's 'Scope-ratio frame into little shadowboxes with gratifying aptitude; anyway, it beats the shit out of rack focus).  The ambition is displayed soon enough, through a series of fragmented POV shots from our gunman's eyes (eventually, he'll be played by Warren Miller), as he lines up a shot that was, apparently, a technologically-sophisticated in-camera effort to put a real rifle scope into the frame in a single take (instead of the usual, a black matte), whereupon he blows away the utterly random Angeleno suburbanite we'd met a few moments ago as he cycled alongside his wife completely oblivious to the fact he was about to die.  This is where Peerce makes his thesis apparent with a hammer-like cut to the American flag being raised over the Coliseum.  Presumably, you get it, and I prefer to read that as at least evidence of ambition, even if its thudding obviousness would've been more useful if the scene didn't feel jarring in every other way, too, as we follow a groundskeeper (Brock Peters) for no immediately-clear reason for ten or fifteen seconds before circling back to where we were.

Satisfied that his gear works, our killer heads to Championship X.  (That is, Championship Ten, and yes, that's what they decided to call it.  I realize that "the Superbowl" is trademarked, as are club names, but that sucks.  I have no principled objection to Peerce using stock footage of a Stanford/Southern California game to stand in for Important Football in his long shotsI doubt the NFL would've been especially keen on associating itself with this filmbut the fact that they never even came up with their own team names for the "Baltimore" and "Los Angeles" clubs, or logos beyond the barely-stylized "Bs" and "LAs" on their helmets, amounts to some of the most threadbare, absurd-ass laziness I've ever seen in a movie that isn't lazy otherwise, all the weirder considering they did manage to get a very real Coliseum as a shooting location.  It constantly threatens to make it impossible to take the setting seriously.)

Well, we follow the killer and many others to the Coliseum, and if I'm 1400 words in before even attempting to summarize a "plot," it's because there isn't oneat least no plot beyond "a faceless gunman goes to the Superbowl, ensconces himself in an impregnable position from which he can blast away at the crowd, and halfway through Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes, who are cops, discover him, and desperately try to figure out a way to dislodge him without triggering the murder spree he's there to do."  And even Heston's police captain and Cassavetes's SWAT commander feel like bit players, not necessarily even welcome ones, mostly just Movie Cops Who Unaccountably Wear Sunglasses Indoors, and present here solely because this is a narrative film and a narrative film needs some narrative spine.

But there are only subplots in Two-Minute Warning.  They just have the biggest one, and it doesn't even rise to the level of "subplot" for a long time: we visit Heston's captainhis name is Holly, Cassavetes's is Buttonmaybe three times in the first hour, for a grand total of maybe two minutes of screentime, and even once he acquires a function, it's difficult to claim that he's "the star."  Even so, his participation by itself might be one of the ways in which Two-Minute Warning's aged well: there's something productive about the irony of the man most committed to avoiding a bloodbath being played by NRA prez Heston, and to the extent that Holly and Button have any dimensions whatsoever, they're drawn out solely by Holly's self-identification as "a peace officer" and his open, immediate hostility to the SWAT commander's warrior mentality.  There's still not even as much conflict as that promises: Holly won't be around for any scene where Button's a raging bully (and there are some, coming off somewhat as time-filler, though Two-Minute Warning doesn't really approve of it or like it); and, after all, this is the classical "okay, we should have some militarized police" situation.  (Button has a sniveling little line at the end about how the media will ask why the cops had to shoot him, and one's response is "look, I know you hate hippies, but that has never been seriously questioned in any mass casualty event, and, if anythingRobert Dowers, Dylann Roofthe opposite has been the case.")  It's mostly here, I imagine, to allow Heston his customary humane approach to a violent role, though by virtue of playing perfectly to his type, I can't say it doesn't work.

A great deal of Two-Minute Warning works, in fact: Peerce and his editors construct the whole film out of much the same kind of representative snippets of process and, occasionally, "character," that they do with Holly and Button and their gunman, cross-cutting almost arbitrarily from one thing to another, rarely with any narrative link and only sometimes with any emotional continuity besides that imposed by the quasi-real-time nature of the film and our foreknowledge of its tragedy.  The effect is a little electric: that 115 minute runtime feels like it encompasses just one single scene, or an assembly cut of a documentary conducted by invisible filmmakers who happened to be at the game.  This is absolutely Two-Minute Warning's finest quality, its combination of observation and immediacy; and it suggests a genuine attempt to take the disaster formula to a place of fascinating objectivity mixed in with visual abstraction.

It is also bound up in the worst things about it, because when I describe it that way it sounds like some kind of damned art film.  It may have done better to beto forget borderline abstraction and just go all the waybecause the humans it decides to follow (Jack Klugman's problem gambler, Beau Bridges and Pamela Bellwood's screechy young family, Walter Pidgeon's elderly pickpocket, Gena Rowland and David Jenssen's prickly middle-aged couple who dance a stereotyped dance around whether he will ever marry her, and so on) are, almost to an individual, the dullest cast of "characters" a disaster film's ever had.  It has never been more transparent that the only reason we keep coming back to spend a few annoying seconds with any of them is because they're going to get shotbut at least that would be fair, by our genre's rules.

But then there are figures like Charlie Tyler, LA's quarterback, who's evidently in the movie because they were able to get actual pro-quarterback-turned-actor Joe Kapp to do a couple of pick-ups, getting a pair of early scenes (well, scenelets) where, so far as we can tell, he's being set up as one of the film's protagonists, only, I think, to never be seen again.  (The first of those scenelets pulls double-duty, too, offering itself as an excuse for one of Tyler's sexier fans to walk around his hotel room naked, theoretically justifying Two-Minute Warning as the disaster movie that was not a Saturday matinee for babies.)  In fairness, it's through Tyler that we meet the priest (Mitchell Ryan) who serves as an important prop for Klugman's gambler, and, given that Klugman is the only non-cop who has any actual story attached to his character (he's drowning in debt to dangerous men and praying for the big win today, thus representing a forceful exercise in tragic irony), I wouldn't necessarily want to perturb his story too much if it could mean losing the most affecting single shot in a movie that needs to be sad to function.  But it's hard to see how a friendship with a quarterback was required to set up "priest watches football," and I can't name a scene that's cried out louder to be left on the cutting room floor than those with Kapp here, even if "random" is the point.  In any event, the comic relief (I guess?) subplot is the worst of all, revolving around a couple (Marilyn Hassett and John Corkes) who sit next to a doctor (David Groh) who immediately starts hitting hard (and successfully) on the woman, and whatever's happening with this dynamic, it might as well have taken place at a football game on Mars for all it successfully reflects humans.

But I've said the movie's good, and around the hour mark (I think I timed it to 55 minutes for the first scene with Heston that "matters"), Two-Minute Warning is obliged to take on a significantly more concrete shape, shedding many of the weaknesses without losing any of the strengths of its first hour's looser approach.  It leads into the reason the film exists, the mass shooting itself (there's an unstressed but bleakly amusing bit of supposition as Holly and Button wonder why the gunman hasn't opened fire yet, and Button feebly suggests that this crazed psycho, who after all is still an American, simply wanted to find out who'd win).  The twelve-minute sequence of gunfire, arterial spouts, and the crushing mob that results is worthy of the lead-up, an imposing work of controlled chaos that pays off on the kinetic editing rhythms and God's-eye perspective that's defined the film, with some great moments of extra wrangling as thousands of nameless humans (many of whom we'll recognize by face or costume detail) run through the stadium, across the field, and across each other's battered bodies, in a brainless, terrified swarm.  The gunman is well-handled himself: when we do finally see himhe speaks but one single lineit answers nothing about "why" and barely answers "who," leaving him as an avatar of violence that exists for no other reason than, in America, he could.*  It's a movie that commits many missteps and is too long for what it is (or, at least, for the way it goes about being what it is), but as a prediction, it was grim, and as a thriller, it's compelling as it requires us to itchily wait for the inevitable to occur, like a kettle we know will boil on time, every time, whether we're watching it or not.

Score: 6/10

*This was amongst the most offensive elements of the film to its contemporaries: when Universal went about attempting to sell it to NBC, they took it, but with major caveats, resulting in a TV cut of Two-Minute Warning that is almost a completely different film, resting on a heist plot where a group of art thieves plan on staging a mock mass shooting at the championship as a distraction from their theft of some priceless masterpieces from the Museum of Natural History across the street.  I realize this even sounds coolbuilt from the ground up, I think it'd be a half-decent premise!but besides gutting everything interesting or meaningful out of this film, the new footage used to refashion it is abominably artless, comprised exclusively of a bunch of cramped, rushed, close-up-heavy TV-scale insert shots that are always rejected immediately by the mutilated, agonized cinematic body they've been transplanted into.  On the plus side, the TV cut has bigger laughs than the theatrical version; I mean, I dare you not to laugh at the way an apparently blind editor at NBC decided to intersperse a portentous POV driving sequence with the theatrical cut's faceless killer with a series of reverse-shots of the new guy they'd hired to play him, who pretends, rather poorly, to be operating a motor vehicle, and in an editing pattern that could exist nowhere else except for this misbegotten Frankenstein of a telefilm.  TV cut score: 3/10

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