Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

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Cutter’s Way (1981)

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If you were to put a gun to my head I would have to say that this is my favourite American film. Or my favourite Californian film. Or my favourite film of the Eighties. Or …  my favourite film, period. There is simply nothing wrong with it. And it was one of those curious coincidences that made me see it. I had borrowed the source book from the public library just 10 minutes before seeing the poster at the local fleapit without being remotely aware of the film’s existence. The novel was Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornburg and I saw a poster (not this one) with Jeff Bridges and John Heard and looked closer:  it was indeed an adaptation of the book I was holding in my hand (the name was changed because publicists thought it sounded too surgical). I read the book over the course of two days and saw the film on the Sunday night. It filled my head for years. I loved John Heard, had done since BBC2 had screened Between the Lines on Valentine’s Day 1980. Bridges of course I adored since he accompanied Clint in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Heard is Alex Cutter, the crippled one-eyed Nam vet who is convinced of his friend’s story that an oilman is responsible for a teenage girl’s death after seeing her body disposed of in a trash can in a Santa Barbara street on a rainy night as he’s returning from an assignation. Richard Bone is a boat salesman and gigolo who seems to love Alex’s sad alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) more than her husband and all three live a rackety lower class life in the very upper class town. Cutter pursues the suspicion with the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) and they go after magnate J. J. Cord with devastating results.  (And yes there are those who will see in this an element of Moby Dick, something Alex himself references early on.) The three leads are just astonishing with Eichhorn offering one of the best performances you will ever see. Their complementarity reminds me that the American movie business was still making great films in my lifetime.  Heard was director Ivan Passer’s choice after playing in Othello – the role was originally intended for Dustin Hoffman (whew).  Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s adaptation alters the last section of the novel but it works, however angrily and unhappily. Jack Nitzsche’s music has the aching power of a lullaby and Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography is as indelible as a piece of enamelled jewellery. I still feel privileged to have seen this on the big screen on its first release (they let me in though I was far from 18… well, it was a small town and I was the only regular customer.) Incredible.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

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This is such a disconcerting film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s most famous work:  Bette Davis’ performance as the peroxided, abusive Cockney waitress still startles and her chemistry with Leslie Howard is compelling. It’s shot so oddly – with all those pieces to camera – and the power of their driven love/hatred has twice the erotic power of anything more obvious so that it adds up to a rich and strange viewing experience.  Davis was widely expected to win the Academy Award but she wasn’t even formally nominated;  this, however, made her a star. Howard was a legendary swordsman and late in life Davis regretted that she was the only one of his leading ladies (allegedly) that didn’t succumb to his charms (which are admittedly elusive at this point in time). Lester Cohen adapted the novel and it was directed by John Cromwell (father of actor James) who would later be blacklisted.