Sunday, January 31, 2016
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
We all are familiar with The Hunger Games. A futuristic deadly reality show with competing individuals displayed for the amusement of society’s spectators, offering the audience an escape from their daily situation and a taste of hope for the vast majority of suffering citizens. Well, this 1969 film from director Sidney Pollack pretty much follows that basic narrative, without the element of fantasy, which makes it even more chilling.The movie opens with the credits displayed as we see a horse running freely in a field, and a youth watching in happy observation. The music playing is serene, comforting. We then hear the crashing sound of waves on a beach, which resembles the noise made by a gunshot. We have an early foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. Robert (Michael Sarrazin) is the boy in the field who has grown up, and who, as we learn, drifts like those ocean waves through life. We have a voice-over from Rocky (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning supporting actor performance), the master-of-ceremonies, saying they will fix a broken leg (which indicates that something dangerous is about to happen) or provide aspirin, but that there will be no liability on the management’s part. We immediately know that those in charge care little for the people involved. We cut back to the field and a man with a gun appears. We then go back to the beach and we see a sign that indicates that a dance marathon will be held. These forms of “entertainment” occurred in the 1930’s after the stock market crash in 1929 and during The Great Depression years. Rocky says that the contest will run around the clock, implying that this contest, which is presented as a metaphor for life, is a never-ending endurance test, with no escape. We then see the horse again, who falls and is injured, as we hear Rocky say, “When you’re out, you’re out,” connecting the fate of the horse to those of the losing contestants. There is a cut back to the man with a gun shooting the horse, and the viewers are again provided with another omen of the inevitability of the narrative. The film returns to Robert entering the dance arena, crashing into signs, the resultant noise again discordant, and connecting him to the sound resembling the discharge of a gun.
Among the dance contestants is Gloria (Jane Fonda), a bitter, cynical woman, who has had bad relationships with men. After someone says that they are like cattle led to the slaughter (a connection to the fate of humans to another animal other than a horse), Gloria says that the cattle are one up on humans since they are blissfully unaware of their imminent demise. Her inability to see anything positive in life is reflected in other statements. She says after Robert asks her what she would do if she wins, “Maybe I’d buy some good rat poison.” When a nurse asks if she can get Gloria something for her sore feet after many hours on the dance floor, she responds by saying, “How about a saw.” When she hears about someone being sixty-five years old, she says she hopes she never lives that long, indicating that to her life is just suffering. These lines show a desire to do harm to herself. She even sees the act of birth not as a blessed event, but a cruel act, as she tells the pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), who has the name of an expensive gem but who is dirt poor, “Yeah, why not drop another sucker into this mess.”
Gloria’s initial coughing partner is disqualified by Rocky, not out of concern for the man’s health, but because he does not want any infection spreading to the other dancers, thus limiting the success of the “show,” which is what he calls the proceedings. The outward appearance of the spectacle is all that matters to this businessman. He allows Ruby into the marathon, even though she is well into her pregnancy, because he says it gives the audience someone to root for. His repetition of “Yowza, yowza, yowza,” is an attempt to stir the dancers and the audience into a frenzy of mob emotion and participation. He echoes President Herbert Hoover’s line of “Prosperity is just around the corner,” and says that one couple will triumph ‘over the broken bodies” of the others. These lines are meant to offer a sliver of hope to the downtrodden, but which also epitomize the worst aspects of capitalism, where many must be defeated for a very few to succeed. Lies are necessary to maintain the sham show, so Rocky spins a tale about the Sailor (Red Buttons) having been a war hero who carries 32 shrapnel pieces in his body. Again, the idea is to give the audience someone to cheer on. It conjures up a person of heroism and patriotism, who continues to fight even in civilian life. He talks about how he feels” sincerely’ about the Navy man, an ironic statement, since there is nothing sincere about the man, but he knows that is what the audience wants to hear. As he says, there must be a battle to win, because “isn’t that the American way?” Which means true Americans selfishly try to win no matter the cost to themselves or others.
But, Rocky, just like President Snow in The Hunger Games, knows that there must be a bit of hope to keep people playing the game. (These contestants, just like the ones in The Hunger Games, need sponsors who use them as dancing advertisements as the contestants wear sweatshirts plugging businesses). So, when the Sailor’s partner is having a psychotic break, thinking she is covered in bugs, Rocky uses his smooth manipulation to buy into the fantasy, and pretends to rid her of the insects. When Gloria shows surprise that he didn’t include the scene into the act on the floor, he responds by saying no, “It’s too real.” As Rocky tells Robert, the people “want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better” about their plight. If the reality show becomes “too real” it becomes scary, and instead of the audience being entertained, they will leave their seats, trying to escape the realization of how dire the situation truly is. Rocky learned the tricks of his phony trade from his father, a fake faith healer, who employed his son as a shill. As a child, Rocky pretended to be a cripple who the healer made walk again. Hope, even if unfounded, in the presence of misery, closes the deal. That is why he lets Ruby sing the song, ironic given the desperate times, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
The movie also associates the tiny hope for Hollywood stardom with the minuscule possibility of winning in the staged marathon dance, and in American society as a whole. Rocky introduces a couple of movie types in the audience, offering up the possibility that some of the dancers will be “discovered.” Gloria is a woman who came to Los Angeles wishing to become a successful actress, but as was the case for most hopefuls, her dreams were dashed, and she later says life is like “central casting: They got it all rigged before you ever show up.” She hooks up with the just-passing-through Robert since Gloria’s partner was eliminated. When Robert says to Gloria that another contestant doesn’t appear to have a brain tumor because the symptoms aren’t the way it was depicted in a film, Gloria comments that if there was no pain depicted, then it wasn’t real. For Gloria, life is equated with pain, and the movies are a lie. The audience on the surface sees Robert’s liking of the beach, his enjoying sunsets and the light shining through the window on his head raised toward the heavens, as someone whose optimism and innocence may redeem Gloria, maybe causing her to live up to her worshipful name. But, he says he, too, dabbled in show business, playing the part of a dead French villager in a movie entitled Fallen Angels. So, in effect, Gloria has come to the City of Angels, and encountered Robert who is an Angel of Death. He is the one who finds the ripped dress which Rocky took from another actress down on her luck, Alice (Susannah York) because he wanted to bring her down a peg to make her someone the audience might empathize with. Robert later rips Gloria’s stockings. Perhaps he is associated with torn dreams. He is almost seduced by Alice who is looking for a connection and acceptance. However, when Gloria sees him coming out of an alcove with Alice, Robert becomes the instrument for Gloria losing all hope for a redeeming relationship, and she gives into sex with Rocky, basically selling her soul to the devil. The stylized flash-forwards showing Robert arrested, incarcerated, and sentenced prepare the audience for the violence at the end of the film. There is a cut between one of these scenes and Rocky firing a gun for one of the marathon’s events, solidifying pictorially the connection between Robert (the “robber” of life?) and the killing at the end.
One of the eliminating events performed at the marathon is “The Derby.” The seasoned contestants know how devastating this part of the tournament is because it forces the dancers to walk quickly, heel-to-toe, after many hours of being on their feet, around a track to a finish line after a ten-minute period. The last three couples are eliminated. This competition occurs twice in the marathon. In the second one, the Sailor has a heart attack and dies. But, of course, that would be too real, so Rocky just says he has heat prostration, and can’t continue. The title of the event sounds like a horse race, as in The Kentucky Derby, and connects the competition to the horse seen at the beginning. It also shows how people are treated the way animals are in a race, for the amusement of paying customers. The dance marathon is also a race, and if horses that are losers are injured, and are put out of their misery, so why not people, too. The film satirizes the fact that the capitalist system failed people in the early part of the 20th Century, and then tried to make money off of the misery of those that were left with nothing. The contest diverts anger away from the ruling class by putting on a show. By seeing others suffer, it makes the masses feel better about their lot. The marathon is used as a carrot for a couple to regain some of their wealth, and the spectators participate vicariously. The contestants compete against each other instead of fighting against the privileged.
At the end of the film, when Gloria learns from Rocky that the winners have their share drastically reduced by expenses charged by management, she wants to leave. But, not just leave this contest, but the game of life itself. She says to Robert “I’m gonna get off this merry-go-around.” An interesting comparison, and an ironic one, since she refers to an amusement ride, featuring fake horses. As a child’s ride it is fun for a time. But, if all of life is this way, with just an eternal return to the same misery, where we are “right back where we stared from,” as the words form “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” says earlier in the film, then life is depressing. Gloria pulls out a gun and asks Robert to end her suffering. Robert learned from his father, as did Rocky. He shoots Gloria, and we see an image of her falling in the pasture as she now takes the place of the horse at the beginning of the film. When asked why he did it, Robert tells the policeman, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”
The next movie will be The Godfather.