14 February 2011
I can see why this is an American classic, because it's got so much to say about class warfare, ivory-tower intellectuals, the nature of roots and the allure of rootlessness (and what is more American than denying one's roots and stomping boldly across untrodden soil?), and it has scenes devoted to workaday traffic jams, senseless inhuman bureaucracy, environmentalism, smug liberalism, art vs. work, the fear of death, the fear of new life, and every kind of existential angst a human adult was capable of feeling in 1970. Bobby is a seething, raging hypocrite, but like all good anti-heroes, he's someone who's darkness comes across as a defense mechanism against a time and place when things seem too crazy for anything else.
But for my money, the movie is a little too meandery and episodic, and the characters that populate the world drawn a little too broadly and simplistically. I like a little more ambiguity in my moral soapboxing, and a little more dimension to my characters and their relationships. Though the story does a good job of showing the good and the bad sides of almost every one of its main characters, the people themselves are still cartoonishly one-sided, more spokesmen for various perspectives and ideologies than rounded-out human beings. To be fair, I am almost positive this was deliberately done, and the number of ideologies that parade in front of Bobby's crosshairs is impressive and wide ranging. Still, I like characters over symbols, so I was left a little wanting in that regard.
On the other hand, I enjoy the end a lot. It's messy and it's preposterous (I mean, it's a perfectly fine ending; it's a preposterous choice Bobby makes) and it's obvious without being telegraphed.
So I didn't love it, but I admire and respect it. Years ago I'd started it once and gave up before the bowling alley sequence was over, and I'm glad I finally returned and gave it more due this time (I should thank Jen, who needed to watch this for class... and because it was late when we started it, still needs to). It's a solid piece of Americana, and many different angles and collisions are explored properly. A lot of different worthwhile papers could be crafted out of this film... or so it seems to me, on a single viewing.