January 06, 2006
The Last Detail
A product of Hal Ashby’s early ‘70s output – and still my favorite of his films – I go to The Last Detail (1973) a lot, maybe once a year, to recharge the batteries. It features one of Jack Nicholson’s definitive performances, coming three years after Five Easy Pieces and one year before Chinatown: here, he’s whippet mean and full of snarls, just one step removed from pathetic, and seething with the misplaced, desperate braggadocio of the end of the ‘60s as all the seeds of governmental corruption (and an unpopular war against an invisible, and resolute, foe) took root in our collective as feral Baudelarian flowers. With Nicholson’s personal life a tumult of hidden identities and sordid abandonments and Ashby’s similar (his father committed suicide when Hal was just a kid), the two found a project in The Last Detail that is, in essence, about the inadequacy of surrogate father figures especially when they take the form of traditional institutions of authority.
There’s no comfort in The Last Detail, just the rough-hewn edges of how men are hamstrung by social conventions into roles of aggressor and victim (and, indeed, father and son). It’s one of the saddest, most hopeless pictures about relationships between men to emerge in the fulsome American ‘70s (another: John Huston's Fat City), a classic of observation (listen to the way the characters talk to one another), and a marvel of satire in its ability to skewer race, class, and that most primary of ‘70s concerns, social law and order, with gratifying understatement and the unbearable weight of dread and melancholy.
The story details the last trip of poor kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid), being escorted to a military prison to serve a bloated (8 yr.) sentence at Portsmouth Naval Prison by career Navy men Bud (Nicholson) and Mule (Otis Young). They’re sidetracked, of course, and spend their travel money showing Meadows what he’s going to miss while he’s locked away. A scene of the three cooking hotdogs in Central Park in the winter speaks to how the film works as an examination and undermining of basic images of Americana as well as, tonally, how The Last Detail is both warm with bonhomie and chilling in its implications. The looming threat of unjust imprisonment colors the piece with melancholy – and just as Meadows is finding his spiritual footing and invited, in essence, into the adult world by men he takes (to his peril) as role models, he’s spirited away - eternally the stunted child - without a look behind. An elegy too, then, as so many films were in this period, to the grand hopes and unfettered idealism of the ‘60s, The Last Detail, on a personal level, represents to me the possibility for a small, dialogue-driven film to mark the line between what we’ve lost and what we’ve become in the losing of it. It's about how men are incapable of being other than what they're programmed to be, and a suggestion that all of our rebellions are just insignificant skylarks doomed to be corrected by our failures as dreamers: aspirants to the promise of our better selves.
The Last Detail is Malick in microcosm: written by Robert Towne and shot by Matthew Chapman, and to our horror, as topical now as it ever was.
This may be old news, but I just learned that Cache will not be eligible for the foreign language Oscar because it's an Austrian film, but shot in French - not German - leading me to want to break shit.
Also, check out the fair and balanced Fox News' rabble-rousing declaration that the Silver Screen is subversive. Yeah, I wish.
Aaaaaand, a theater in Utah declines to show Brokeback Mountain.