Last week, when writing about Bonnie and Clyde, I spoke on how the film makes a life of crime look exciting and glamorous. Even though we know that the film probably won't end well for the central couple, and even though this knowledge generates a few moments of real pathos, the overall tenor of the film is largely playful: the film invites us to join the Barrow Gang, and succeeds in making that invitation enticing by making the experience of being among the gang one that is, in a word, fun.
This week, we turn to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This film also is made in the late 1960s, and also examines the lives of people struggling through the Great Depression, but it could not be more different from Bonnie and Clyde in terms of its tone or its narrative devices.
The premise is simple: a canny promoter (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning role) orchestrates a dance marathon, in which various couples compete for a cash prize. Essentially, it's an endurance test: the couples get a ten-minute rest period every hour, but beyond that they must remain on the dance floor, in constant motion. (You're welcome to sleep on the dance floor, as long as your partner can keep holding you upright.)
It should go without saying that this isn't going to be as much fun as robbing banks, and, indeed, as the contest wears on, from days into weeks, the contestants slowly transform from dancers into zomboid shells. I've seen Saw, and I've seen Hostel, and I've seen my share of Asian shock cinema, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? still took me aback: its depiction of physical and mental suffering is as sustained and extensive as any that I've ever come across.
Focused as it is on the anguish of the participants, the film mostly keeps its attention on the dance floor and the complex of rooms that immediately surround it. This zone, inhabited by a shifting field of couples, functions interestingly as a kind of networked narrative space, but there is, indeed, a central couple, who function essentially as the film's protagonists. Here they are:
If the Protagonist Factordiscussed here last weekis operational in this film, it should dictate that we identify with this suffering couple, even though the circumstances are more grim, and the process of identification more discomfiting. But director Sidney Pollack, in a series of exquisitely cruel gestures, attempts to deny us whatever cathartic pleasure we might glean from this identification. He does this by emphasizing the presence of the audience that consumes the spectacle of human ruination unfolding before them.
Our protagonist couple has an observer, a little old lady who roots enthusiastically for them:
...and by including her, and the other audience members, Pollack reminds us, repeatedly, that to imagine ourselves as the body that suffers is falsely self-validating. We aren't the dancers there on the floor, exhaustedly jerking; we are the the ones who watch them, the ones who, for some unexamined reason, enjoy witnessing the horror of other humans undergoing something terrible.
Now, one could argue that making a movie that criticizes people for coming to see your movie is kind of a cheap thing for a filmmaker to do (see also: Showgirls (Film Club 42), or the flap that emerged last year around Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake). I'd argue, instead, that it's a variant on the benign masochism that undergirds the bargain that horror films and tragedies make with their audience (see also: The Vanishing (Film Club 40). In either case, I'm impressed with the lengths to which Pollack's critique extends: this film is not only anti-capitalism and anti-spectacle but also explicitly anti-narrative (as anti-narrative as a narrative film can be, anyway).
This emerges from the way Pollack presents the character of Rocky, the promoter, who also serves as the Master of Ceremonies.
In order to engage the audience more, Rocky literally narrates the entire event, verbally adorning the occurrences on the dance floor with little story hooks. And yet, we repeatedly get a sense that these story hooks are simplistic, distortingin a word, false. And Pollack refuses, really, to provide any counternarrative: we're given only the most fragmentary and incomplete backstory for any of these characters. The protagonists are our protagonists not because they're better or more likeable; not because they're more noble than any other couple, but simply because they're the ones put in front of us. (The old lady, our nearest analogue, favors them for chance reasons: the number assigned to them is her favorite number.) What Pollack seems to be saying, ultimately, is that there's no story here, only spectacle, specifically, the spectacle of desperate humans being transformed, by capitalism, into twitching meat-puppets. Extend this logic to the entire world, and it becomes clear that the only real way to retain any kind of dignity is simply to opt out, to take death by a bullet over the agony of continued existence. (Hence the title.)
Next week, though, we'll attempt to see if there aren't other strategies for surviving and navigating a hostile world: we'll be watching "angry young man" Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).