Written October 22, 1975
"The Day of the Locust" (John Schlesinger, 1975) I saw "Day of the Locust," after seeing Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (which was such a personal film) was quite a shock. It is an impersonal film, as impersonal as one can get. Where Scorsese cared for his characters so much that he projected their feelings in the way he used his camera, Schlesinger paints his characters as grotesques. Faye Greener (Karen Black) is a pouty-mouthed, viper-tongued bitch. Her father (Burgess Meredith) is a pathetic wheezer, whose laugh that--like an itching powder--can create laughter is "communicated"--not successfully--by a distorted close-up of Harry's sweating, wrinkled face. Homer Simpson* (Donald Sutherland) is beaten mercilessly in this film, not only by the characters in it, but also by Schlesinger, whose failure in this film shows Simpson, not as an innocent, but a dullard, his brow constantly furrowed, but never thinking, his hands bothering him, but how? Schlesinger can't and won't elaborate, but goes on to show him, as he watches and embraces the trivial in his garden, a tear rolling down his cheek.
We ask "why?," but Schlesinger won't tell us.
Finally, there is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), of whom we know that he's a set designer, that he lusts after Faye and who pastes a darker vision on his wall of his Hollywood environs--a vision he experiences as Schlesinger goes mad, seemingly, at the end and destroys Los Angeles in a cinematic orgy of attempted message-building with past-faced human beings on the sidewalks. Somehow, this whole sequence could have been done better. Horrible, yes it is, but obscure, as well. An obscurity that Schlesinger pounds into us. An obscurity that Schlesinger mixes with the obvious. It appeared to me to be the cinematic equivalent of vinegar and water.
I remember this film as being one of the more unpleasant experiences going to the movies. I was expecting some simpatico reactions to it as a recent trip to Hollywood seemed like a vacation to Sodom and Gomorrah on Piko and Sepulveda. Instead what the film achieved was a crass braying that passed as wit and a visual style that hit you over the head with obvious fish-eye lens shot to make Schlesinger's gallery of grotesques even more grotesque. I don't mind being a choir-member being preached to, but I don't think I have to buy all the sermon, do I, especially when it's so poorly done?
Plus, one has to be pretty insulated to think that a glimpse of Hell would be a klieg-lighted riot at a movie premiere. Surely there are other areas of the Earth where the worst in humanity occurs on a daily basis. Maybe it isn't so visually arresting...
Anyway, brownie points for a Hollywood film to point out Hollywood excess, even though it's based on a book that came out in '39, when the idea wasn't so self-evident. Swell. If you're that brave, go make something a bit more contemporary.
And the question comes up: if Paramount could fund and promote this little piece of self-excoriation at the height of their movie-churning glory, why hasn't anyone produced "What Makes Sammy Run?" Too political? Too true? Maybe it still stings a bit too much for contemporary Hollywood.
It was, after all, written in 1941--two years after "The Day of the Locust."