[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
TheSting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over TheSting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Slap Shothas provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shotis extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.
The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joiede vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.