GFT Heartworn Highways season screens 1970s Americana
- Pasquale Iannone
- 12 January 2011
Fat City, Wise Blood, The Last Picture Show and documentary Heartworn Highways
Featuring small-time boxers, bible-thumping preachers, teenagers stumbling toward adulthood and outlaw country singers, this short season offers a rare opportunity to savour four idiosyncratic snapshots of 1970s Americana. From the filmography of John Huston come two lesser-known works, made in the twilight of his career. Fat City (1972) (pictured) ranks with Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull as one of the seminal boxing pictures. Shot by the great Conrad Hall in grubby, murky colour, the film’s based on the 1969 novel by Leonard Gardner and set in Stockton, California. It’s about a washed-up fighter Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) who strikes up a friendship with fresh-faced hopeful Ernie (Jeff Bridges) as he mulls over a return to the ring.
Described as one of the most eccentric American films of its time, Wise Blood (1979) is Huston’s adaptation of the Southern Gothic classic by Flannery O’Connor. Brad Dourif gives a career-best performance as Hazel Motes, a young preacher attempting to establish a new religion as he travels round a depressed southern town. Huston always frustrated auteurist critics searching for common formal and thematic threads in his work but there’s no doubt that in his flawed, obsessive drive, Motes is unmistakably Hustonian.
Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry, director Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) is certainly the most well known of the four pictures in the season. It’s a coming of age tale set in a dusty Texan town in the 1950s, lovingly shot in black and white by Robert Surtees and starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. Although European in sensibility (the humanism of Renoir blended with the small-town ennui of Fellini’s I Vitelloni), it is very much in keeping with mournful American studies of changing times such as Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Music plays a hugely important part in the four films. From Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ in the unforgettable opening scenes of Fat City to the use of Hank Williams in The Last Picture Show. It’s fitting therefore, to round off the season with one of the great music documentaries. Centring on the outlaw country movement of the mid-1970s, James Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways has an organic, home-movie feel, capturing moments of energy, fun and camaraderie but also moments of great tenderness and poignancy. Several of the great names in country music such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and a fresh-faced Steve Earle all feature but for many the real discovery will be Larry Jon Wilson, the hugely underrated country-soul singer whose rumbling, earthy baritone is perfect for warming a chilly January night.
Heartworn Highways, GFT, Glasgow, Sun 9–Sun 30 Jan.