Thursday, January 13, 2011
The First Liebowski: CUTTER'S WAY (1981)
Every once in awhile a man has to pause. Every once in awhile a man has peer into the decades behind him, take a cursory flip through Leonard Maltin and wonder... is John Heard really a good actor? I mean, is he awesome? Or is he too much too late?
The question is answered the same time as you ask: do all 1970s movies involve grizzled vet loners going after corrupt power father figures like they're lone wolves growling valiantly but for naught against the machine?
As Robert Evans would say, you bet all 1970's movies involved grizzled loners growling for naught against the machine. And they all must have a big crowd scene parade, or a wedding, or a political rally, or some place where they can see some figure in a white dress representing old world innocence now reduced to a symbolic lamb sacrifice against the coming storm of dread and draconian soul-eating.
Perhaps a bit shaggy, CUTTER'S WAY can't make up its mind about itself: is it called CUTTER'S WAY or CUTTER AND BONE? Is it a Elmore Leonard-ish beach bum crime drama, a Vietnam vet character study; a buddy-buddy California corruption tale, or an elegy to the American dream in a small California town where everybody knows your name and you can drink right out in the open and not be arrested? ("Hey man! I have a beverage here!") Is it Elmore Leonard meets TAXI DRIVER meets MIDNIGHT COWBOY? BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA meets NIGHT MOVES? CHINATOWN divided by THE DEER HUNTER? It's got a little of a lot and it's brilliant but by 181 these tropes read like quirk by the numbers. Why shoehorn the whole evil murder plot in there at all? And Heard overplays so much, is so drunk, that a murder case seems way too much for him to handle. He should be using some of that voracious animal intellect to not piss his pants, like the rest of us!
Those pants really tied the room together.
In short, this movie could have been a prequel to THE BIG LIEBOWSKI, wherein the very same Jeff Bridges deals with a massive conspiracy by the much saner approach of going bowling, and this time his Vietnam vet wreck of a buddy isn't a little scrawny fucker with only one leg and an eye patch. He's John Fucking Goodman! Goodman would have shaken the shit up in CUTTER'S WAY, but Heard can't do much more than ride a horse. As Sam Eliot once said: "Take her easy, dude...I know you will, too."
CUTTER took a long time to be released and completed due to studio regime changes as well as trend shifts. It started as a project back in 1971 and if it had been released in 1972 instead of 1981 it would probably have been a hit and a modern classic like your DEER HUNTER and your CHINATOWN, but by 1981 people had grown a little weary of the traumatized vet loner solving a rich man's crime thing. I remember reading some good reviews in the local newspaper when CUTTER finally did come out, but I knew even then, at 14, that the 1970s were over. We'd all had a good laugh at the HEAVEN'S GATE debacle, and grown tired of the undignified posturing--chronicled in PEOPLE magazine--between the stars of DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME over the 1978 Oscars, and Jane Fonda bashing the former over its 'demonic' portrayal of the Viet Cong. One more film about a Vietnam vet disillusioned and seeking to overturn the immobile turtle of American politics wasn't going to make us care. We craved fantasy, escape, ET!! And lo, ET he was on his way, to trade us our innocence for some magic candy--like a safety class stranger--just one year after this last gasp of 1970s corruption-venting.
For some of us, John Heard was just too... Kevin Bacon-ish? No denying he's ferocious and gives it 111%, but seeing the film now, long past any due date, I honestly don't know how I feel about him, or the film. All the ingredients are there and maybe that's the problem. It's like the film was given an unlimited shopping spree at the seventies' paranoia cliche' store and just had to clean the place out.
But hey, it's worth seeing for sure, some time when you're high on 1970s 'Nam-gate cinema, and what a double bill it would make with LIEBOWSKI! May I recommend an angle on which to view them, for political meta-purposes? Just have Bridges = Blue States / right brain (blue for Bridges, peace, man!) and the vets (Goodman and Heard) = Red states / left brain (guns break class barriers!) The corrupt power elite figure equals the 'real' corporate shadow puppet (Halliburton) figures that capitalize on the dissonance between the colors/hemispheres to steal everyone's IRA and soul. Keep this in mind and let the bowling balls and cocktails fall where they may.
The fine and trenchant blog OUT 1 reviews CUTTER here, and draws a similar Liebowski conclusion while dealing more with the plot and production of the film itself. It makes a fine double bill with this post! Tell them the Dude sentchye.