Monday, September 3, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Bobby Deerfield

We last left this retrospective with one of Pollack’s best and most popular films, Three Days of the Condor, and we now come to one of his least popular and most maligned: Bobby Deerfield. Oh, there is so much to say here, but I suppose I should just get this out of the way right now: I don’t hate this movie. It’s nothing special, contains no memorable moment, has little of Pollack in it other than his languid pacing – and yet I can’t help but admire the film at arm’s length for its earnestness. This is one of the ones that Sydney Pollack loved the most, and it actually shows through quite plainly: Here, behind the camera, is a man that genuinely loves the film he’s making.  It left me with a feeling that is something akin to Jeremiah Johnson, another film I didn’t care all that much for but also appreciated for Pollack’s earnestness behind the camera.

Essentially Love Story without the sentimentality, Bobby Deerfield concerns itself with its title character (a nice, subdued performance from Al Pacino…when he could do such things) a racecar driver that is leaving behind his celebrity in New Jersey for anonymity in France. He shacks up with a girl there and races on the European circuit. Deerfield is your classic tortured soul who is just moping around trying to “figure things out.” When a fellow driver is killed in a crash, Deerfield obsesses over the details of the crash and whether or not it was driver error or some kind of malfunction in the equipment. During his investigation and brief sabbatical from racing, Deerfield travels to visit a fellow racer in the hospital who misunderstands Deerfield’s visit. What he thinks is a visit of genuine concern is actually Deerfield trying to ease his latent fear of the unknown that comes with such a volatile sport. Deerfield is obsessed with knowing everything that goes on underneath the hood of his car, so, by visiting the injured driver, he hopes to glean as much information as he can about just what went wrong.

While exiting the hospital he meets another patient named Lillian (Marthe Keller). Somewhat of a free spirit (at least when juxtaposed to the women Deerfield is staying with in France), Deerfield takes notice of this woman enough that when he sees her the next day as he travels to Milan to check out the factory that manufactures the racecar, Lillian is need of a ride and Deerfield is happy to oblige. This mini-road trip is the catalyst for the two getting to know each other which leads to all of the standard melodramatic plot points: Deerfield is in awe of this woman’s spirit (there is a scene that takes place in a tunnel where she lets out a primal scream and all Deerfield can do is stare at her, unsure of how to ever do something that “out there”); he is transfixed by her carpe diem attitude to the point that he can’t stop thinking about her. Thus, when he returns to Paris, things are not the same.

The plot of Bobby Deerfield is ho-hum, especially when you consider it next to Pollack’s previous films like Condor and The Yakuza. It’s got all of your generic Love Story-esque moments where nothing comes as a surprise: the catharsis – when it happens – doesn’t come close to being the well played melodrama Pollack thinks it is and that he was able to pull off in The Way We Were. Instead, when Deerfield returns to Paris and crashes in his first race back, we get a rushed ending where the woman Deerfield is staying with lets him know that she knows about his little tryst in Milan and informs him that Lillian is dying. Deerfield rushes back to be with Lillian for her final days. It’s all very frustrating because it’s not like Pollack didn’t have the time to tell this story proper. Pollack’s intent was indeed to remove the sentimentality from the story (in this sense it feels different than his big, classic American romance The Way We Were) and focus more on the spiritual and emotional struggle of Deerfield. The film is very internal in that regard (this is probably why people accused Pollack of making a “European film”), and, again, I can appreciate it at arm’s length – but that’s only because it seems that arm’s length is about as close as Pollack wants us to get to these characters.

This is one of the only films where I really felt Pollack’s pacing was a big problem. Add to that the mopey, bitter protagonist (Pacino does his darndest with the material he's given), and all that there is left to really admire about the film is its very European feel (one of my favorite shots seems like such an outlier: there is a hot air balloon race, and it looks fantastic; I'm not sure what it has to do with anything, but it looked neat). Everything we know about Pollack the filmmaker to this point in this retrospective is that he loves the classical Hollywood style; Bobby Deerfield does not feel like a love story as told by a man who loves classic American cinema. Pollack tried for something different here (perhaps this is why he feels so strongly about it) and really, nearly makes it work with its on-location cinematography (like a lot of Pollack's films, the environment mirrors his characters' feelings) and Euro feel. But when you just don’t care about the protagonist’s journey and the change they have to go through (a modern version of this would have been The Descendants), it’s a steep hill for any filmmaker to climb to try and get the viewer interested in protagonist’s big cathartic moment.

The film’s central thesis – love and honesty is just as dangerous as racing as well as the theme of a Lillian’s own “race” against time – is pretty sophomoric when you get right down to it, and one wonders what the film would have been like had Paul Newman (who originally bought the rights to the source material, Erich Maria Remarque’s Heaven Has No Favorites) been the one producing/starring in this film. If it weren’t for the success of Condor, Pollack would have never been able to get this film made. And Pollack – as we know he is wont to do – loves to alter scripts so that he can make something that makes sense to him and represents his philosophies (in this sense, and I suppose I should say this now since I haven’t yet, he is an auteur), and Bobby Deerfield was no exception. There’s no way Pollack is allowed to make this material into the film he wanted it to be (the last time he was able to do this was with The Yakuza which was a flop) without “proving” himself with Condor. So we get a film that is nothing like what we think a movie about a racecar driver would be.

Newman, unable to make his schedule work for this film (and being an avid follower and lover of racing of the European ilk), would have no doubt spent more details on the racing itself perhaps making the film more marketable since it seemed that audiences that shunned this film were indeed expecting something more along the lines of Le Mans or Grand Prix since racing films were kind of a “thing” at the time. Instead, Pollack opted for a film about a man’s resurrection not through the triumph of victory or a comeback (as we’re accustomed to in sports films) but through love. Yes, people complained that Pollack was too nonchalant about Lillian’s illness in the film and didn’t spend enough time focusing on her dying – the clinical scenes, as it were – but Pollack stated in an interview that he, “didn’t want to make a movie about a girl dying” he instead, “wanted it to be about a guy who is resurrected.”

And so, Bobby Deerfield is not your typical sports movie (there’s hardly a scene of driving footage in it), and it’s not your typical Hollywood weeper. It stands in stark contrast to those types of genre films and offers nothing to audiences in the way of the kind of satisfying, sentimental endings usually associated with those types of films. There is no cliché upset victory to end the film, and there is no melodramatic moment where the characters rush into each other’s arms at film’s end. These are two things that should be celebrated, but by omitting the two elements audiences would be most attracted to, Pollack put the entire film’s success on the shoulders of Pacino and more crucially on whether or not audiences would care about Bobby’s spiritual and emotional dilemma. Pacino felt strongly about the role (admitting that it was one of his favorites in an era of great roles for him) and was more than up to the task, but the writing of the character – Alvin Sargent helped Pollack completely change the source material – doesn’t give us enough insight into Bobby’s psyche to care about his epiphany.

The film’s ending was originally supposed to introduce the controversial theme of euthanasia as the film was supposed to end with Bobby unplugging Lillian from her machine; however, Pollack didn’t feel the ending was right and thought it introduced something too controversial for his film (again, there’s that whole “keeping the audience at arm’s length” deal), so he re-wrote it on the fly to give it the ending that audiences would see. It seems appropriate: here is a film that could have been a contemplative love story about a man who struggles with celebrity and has to balance two identities while finding out that the one he is neglecting is the one that will ultimately give him the freedom he sees in Lillian. It’s nothing new, but it could have been interesting if weren’t for Pollack’s hesitation in going all the way with the material. For what it is, Bobby Deerfield is an interesting – earnest – exercise that sits somewhere smack in the middle of his oeuvre. I don’t love it by any means and I certainly don’t hate it; it just inspires a whole lot of “meh.” Perhaps he needed to get this uneven, personal project out of his system because with the exception of his very next film, Pollack would go on a great run making some great mainstream Hollywood movies – some of the best his career – during the ‘80s and ‘90s.


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