In this movie's only moment of deadpan black humor, a nurse asks Gloria
Beatty (Jane Fonda) after an exhausting dance session that has lasted
nearly 1,000 hours, "Can I get you something for your feet?" Her
response, as black as night, is, "How about a saw?" Taken out of
context, her retort would inspire at least a barf of nervous laughter
-- comic relief mirroring the temporary relief that particular
something would give Gloria. But knowing the fury that her character
has, this dissatisfaction with life in general, it wouldn't be a far
stretch to see her amputate her feet right off and be done with it as
the band plays on and Gig Young herds his cattle into mindless motion,
for a promise of a little over one grand as a prize. She has nothing,
she expects nothing -- and this is her last exit to a better life.
Such is the heroine of Horace McCoy's novel of the same name, which appeared in 1935 and told a story so lurid it could not possibly be true: that of the horror of dance marathons in which people down on their luck danced for interminable hours with brief "rest periods" no longer than 15 minutes, and all for free food and money. The ultimate price to pay for an era of abundance turned inside out into the belly of the beast the Depression Era was. All the time while Ginger and Fred danced under the stars and brought Hollywood magic to their eyes, all false promises. The greater irony is that its plot is set right at the edge of the world: the West, where dreams have been known to come true, especially for aspiring actors looking for their Big Break. That it was written by someone who was himself in the fringes is only fitting: some of the more effective stories come from people at the edges of society.
In a tone similar to Hubert Selby's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, several characters are caught under the wheels of the American Dream and the need to escape the rampant poverty that had the nation under a vise. Dancing with Gloria are Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who seems to have committed a crime which makes this a story told in extensive flashbacks; Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York), who with partner Joel (Robert Fields) aspired to be a star; Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and James (Bruce Dern), a young married couple expecting their first child; and the Sailor (Red Buttons), a veteran of dance marathons. Rocky (Gig Young), the emcee, holds the ultimate poker card as to who will win this coveted prize and has the morals of a two-dollar bill.
What neither of them begin to suspect is that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Rocky, the emcee, as corrupt as he is, is the only one who knows the final outcome and plays the game and each contestant until many of them literally fall dead... or worse, become raving lunatics moving for the sake of moving. Like the quick fix that the characters of REQUIEM were hooked on, he is just that to these people who soon progress from dancers full of life to zoned-out zombies in one horrific shot where we see their reflections through shards of broken glass, their eyes staring, looking at nothing, as they shuffle about in mock-dancing.
Alice will lose her dreams and turn into a shell of her former self: a scene in which she tries to seduce Robert is painful, especially when it happens right by a picture of an actress she emulates, Jean Harlow. Gloria will become even more bitter, and a sense of Hell on Earth will be the dominant feeling once the stakes become higher. And throughout it all, the dance.
But if the dancing in itself is punishing, nothing can account or compare to the two horrifying sequences where all of the contestants must race around the ballroom and avoid at all costs at being the last three couples, grounds for elimination. The first of them runs for the entire duration of its ten minutes and is a reverse chariot sequence in BEN HUR: instead of chariots, there are desperate people -- one of them, Ruby, is seven months pregnant -- and instead of a whip we have the emcee. It is interminable, and hits home at just how inhuman this contest is. The second one is even more terrible: the unforgettable image of Jane Fonda dragging the Sailor behind her back, a symbolic horse trying to remain in the game.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? comes with a heavy dose of nihilism that would be the tone set throughout the Seventies and in many ways, it can be said that Seventies cinema began in 1969 with this and with MIDNIGHT COWBOY, both films about the underbelly of society. Every performance in the movie is on-target including that of Michael Sarrazin who is looks like a non-entity but is more the chewed-up remains of the dream machine. Sydney Pollack uses a number of flashy techniques appropriate of the time -- flashcuts, stylized sequences that seem out of a narrative structure -- and in doing so has created his own masterpiece. Timeless, the story of human exploitation is even more relevant today with the advent of reality game shows like Fear Factor and its self-degrading contestants. It's an ugly portrayal of us as a society, willing to partake in the spectacle of seeing people worse than we are acting little more than animals destined for carnage.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Gloria is a young woman of the Depression. She has aged beyond her years and feels her life is hopeless, having been cheated and betrayed many times in her past. While recovering from a suicide attempt, she gets the idea from a movie magazine to head for Hollywood to make it as an actress. Robert is a desperate Hollywood citizen trying to become a director, never doubting he'll make it. Robert and Gloria meet and decide to enter a dance marathon, one of the crazes of the 1930's. The grueling dancing takes its toll on Gloria's already weakened spirit, and she tells Robert that she'd be better off dead, that her life is hopeless - all the while acting cruelly and bitterly, alienating those around her, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don't they?
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September 07, 2017 at 06:34 AM