Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Scheider Way

Lately, I keep coming across Roy Scheider in my recent movie-watching.  A few weeks ago, I picked up a cheap DVD copy of All That Jazz, wherein he burns down the house in Bob Fosse’s loosely autobiographical take on his crazy, sordid and sometimes brilliant life as choreographer and film director.  Jaws is right around the bend as I watch it every May to grasp onto that summer beach town vibe the movie imparts so well.

And I’m sitting here watching the long out-of-print 70s flick, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York on Vudu.  I wasn’t signed on for Vudu, but caught wind that they were showing this.  It’s one of those crazy, faded “HBO in the 70s” touchstones, a mediocre movie the channel showed about 15 times a day back then that got burned into my mind, but never made the jump from VHS to DVD.  (I suspect it may not even have jumped from Betamax to VHS, otherwise I would have found it in the shit bins of all those cheap CD/DVD warehouses that liberally dotted Manhattan in the 90s.)

I love 70s movies set in New York.  Something about that time and place, the extremely rough-edged vibe the city bore as it nearly went bankrupt mid-decade then went through nonsense like the Son of Sam murders and street gangs … but underneath the negative hype, that sort of endearing gruffness and no-frills way of seeing the world.  I think that’s what I’ve always loved about New York, and didn’t really understand this is what beckoned to me years ago, because I felt the same way, too.  A lot of people in small towns do, but they just can’t make the logical connection with cities.  It’s the only real thing I respect about living here, as a lot of the other shit (crime, gentrification, bad manners) drives me crazy.

Roy Scheider may not have ruled the 70s as an actor, but he was a solid leading man who could convey a vast range of emotions in whatever role he played.  His best acting trait was how he brought out his characters’ self-awareness; he somehow demonstrated that the people he played could step back in any given situation and laugh at themselves, or acknowledge they were full of shit, or just admit that they were afraid.  “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat,” he mutters to Captain Quint the first time he sees how big the shark is in Jaws.  In a normal situation, a snappy one liner.  In the reality of the movie, a guy who can’t swim, on a small boat with two maniacs, who sees a massive shark rise up out of the waters he’s chumming, and his real thought is, “We’re fucked!”

I often use that phrase about the bigger boat when faced with a rough situation, knowing that a bigger boat is not in the offing, and it’s just going to take whatever I can muster to get through.  “Bigger boat” could mean anything from faith to untapped reserves of sheer will power.  That’s what I think when I think Roy Scheider.  Not an average man, but a slightly above average man willing to face the unknown.  That’s pretty much how I feel about my life.

Scheider at his best conveys that sense of having made it halfway through life and feeling bewildered.  Smart enough to hold down his fort, but smarter in that he knows many things in the world are far beyond his understanding, and always will be.  Kurt Vonnegut did much the same with his books around the same time, save he completely dropped his guard and let his readers know, I don’t have a fucking clue as to what’s going on, but allow me to let you laugh with and at me, and all this other stuff.

That’s what strikes me most about making it through my 40s: understanding how small you are, and that understanding setting you free, if you let it.  Some people go in the exact opposite direction, cementing themselves into whatever image they’ve constructed through their adulthood, and trying to use it to hold power over others.  I gather that mentality feeds on itself when someone gets placed in a position of authority, and I wouldn’t call it a lie so much as a trick of the mind.  A trick of the mind that very well might land you in a mansion or corner office, but also bearing the heavy load those ways of life entail.  Yours if you want it, but from what I’ve seen it’s not like winning the lottery – it’s more like being chased by wolves.

It’s always good to relate to age-specific role models throughout your life, whether they’re literally in your life, or screen archetypes like Roy Scheider presented in his 70s movies.  That’s what I’ve found over the years, the sense of change in yourself, constant, but nearly impossible to see in real time.  What made sense to me in my 20s doesn’t make as much sense to me now.  Or my 30s.  I imagine I’ll ease into another set of values in my 50s, and onwards hopefully.  I’d say if you find yourself constantly relating to people decades younger than you, you’re either making a mistake or bullshitting yourself.  The same for much older, too: a lot of people are nowhere near as wise as they think they are.

Lately, I’ve also caught the minor bug to watch these “portable camera” horror movies that have come into vogue over the past few years: The Paranormal Activity series and V/H/S.  There’s a rank stupidity to these movies that I find endearing, quaint in the context of the real fears you will feel as you get on in life and watch death and destruction take various people you know.  I guess kids see themselves as so fearless that they need to create these bullshit fears to bear some sense of gravitas they know they don’t have.  Or they’re positioned so far from the real, every-day proposition of death that they create these grisly scenarios to underline the horror of life ending that they understand virtually nothing about.  In a way, it might be grasping onto childhood, an odd nostalgia for that fear of the dark so many kids have, and creating these violent/high-octane horror movies to make those irrational fears lurking in the dark seem that much more grotesque and frightening.

Oddly enough, Jaws was just as guilty of this, but the way that movie was made, the extra attention to character development, setting a tone, capturing a season, imbuing the characters with real depth … it just leaves modern-day horror movies in the dust.  And this is because of actors like Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, taking control of their roles in ways that a bunch of cardboard cutouts in their 20s screwing around with video-cams just can’t approach on any level.  I don’t know if this is a generational thing, or indicative of how much things have changed since the 70s?  All I know is I could feel and relate to characters in horror movies from that time, while I can’t take a bunch of kids seriously waiting to be victimized by some goofball villain or invisible force.  Why is this?  Why can’t horror movies be made now with characters this real and human? 

(I write this knowing that two 70s horror movies, Halloween and Friday the 13th, birthed this whole horrible genre.  Technically, Friday the 13th was 1980, but surely felt of the 70s.  It’s only the way of the world that these movies, which were considered overly violent, somewhat goofy and exploitative at the time, would be harbingers of the future.  Halloween is obviously the better movie with techniques any horror fan will go on all day about … but I remember thinking it was cheap at the time.  It just felt cheap.  And I like John Carpenter movies!)

But I digress.  I watch movies mostly to be entertained, and I gather it’s just different strokes for different folks these days.  But I always find it more gratifying when a character in a movie shows me something about myself, even in a summer blockbuster like Jaws.  I’m now watching the bonus material with the Jaws DVD, and I think Steven Spielberg (who was in his 20s while making the movie), nails it all: “When I first hear the word Jaws, I just think of a period in my life when I was much younger than I am right now, and I think because I was younger I was more courageous.  Or I was more stupid.  I’m not sure which.  So when I think of Jaws I think about courage and stupidity.  And I think of both of those things existing underwater.”

Roy Scheider in Jaws was the embodiment of those senses of courage and stupidity, and not knowing the difference.  The sort of hero who smacks of reality: a guy doing his job, who gets thrown into an impossible situation, and survives it more out of shit luck and rolling with whatever comes his way.  That may not sound like a good guide on how to live your life, but I can see that’s how it often works.

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