Saturday, February 6, 2010

Steven Spielberg: The Sugarland Express

What is it with New Hollywood and the romanticism of American outlaw couples? The movement unofficially "began" with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, Terrence Malick debuted with Badlands and here Steven Spielberg, for his proper theatrical debut after Duel transitioned from small to silver screens, tells the story of Ila Fae and Robert Dent. The Sugarland Express details and, of course, exaggerates the Dents' prison escape and subsequent chase through Texas as they attempted to grab their son and head for freedom. He changes the Dents to the Poplins, Clovis and Lou Jean, but Spielberg clearly sees something in these impulsive criminals, something that other New Hollywood filmmakers saw in their rebellious subjects.

Perhaps the return to the outlaws of old can be tied to the influence of the French New Wave on the American movement. After all, Godard openly admired John Dillinger, and what is Breathless if not his take on the "lovers on the lam" picture? A more substantive explanation might touch upon the rise of more insidious crime. With LBJ and Nixon identified in the public consciousness as outright criminals, in the midst of a war without a clearly defined enemy force, maybe people, even the college-educated, supposed coastal elites who brought Hollywood to its artistic zenith with decidedly cynical pictures, needed to return to an era where the outlaws were easily identifiable and in a position where they didn't have actual power. You need to know who the villain is to have a hero -- without his Rogues Gallery, Batman is just a traumatized billionaire pummeling urban poor in some Randian masturbatory fantasy -- yet, ironically, these outlaws become heroic simply because they represent a romanticism that we lost in our modernization. As much as John Dillinger, Charles Starkweather, Bonnie and Clyde were ruthless killers who do not deserve their deification, they're as American as apple pie, and it's easy to root for them.

In the hands of an unabashed softie like Spielberg, this only becomes more evident. Compared to the largely soulless Duel, which completely dispensed with character development and insight, The Sugarland Express reveals the sentimentality we've come to expect from the director at the outset: Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) visits Clovis (William Atherton) in prison, where Spielberg places Hawn in close-up as she cries about their son being taken away by child services for placement in a foster home. She manages to sneak Clovis out of the low-security penitentiary by dressing him in civilian clothes and conning an old couple into giving them a ride, and already you want them to reclaim their child: they're two ignorant hicks who wouldn't have a future even if they didn't just commit a felony, but they broke out without harming a soul and established a believable reason for the escape without harping on it (they're out of that prison well before the 10-minute mark).

What follows is a 90-minute chase that in some ways points to the sensationalization of police chases such as the infamous O.J. Simpson ride to freedom. It moves just as fitfully as the couple's first getaway car, a smoking old piece of junk to match its driver (hilariously, the old man's wife grips the dash as if holding on for dear life). When a cop pulls the slow-moving vehicle over, the Poplins panic and drive off leading the patrolman on a chase before managing to take the poor greenhorn hostage and commandeering his police cruiser to get themselves to "Baby Langston."

For an escaped convict and his accomplice wife, the Poplins sure don't feel the need to do anything in a hurry, even though they never plan a single action with any forethought. The running joke of the film pulls back the camera from their increasingly cozy life in the police car with their unwitting tag-along to an ever-growing line of police from various counties and states behind them. Eventually, the press joins in, then just your standard-issue rubberneckers, until it seems as if the whole of Texas is behind them. Yet Lou Jean still makes the entire convoy stop so she can pee, or Clovis will pull into a drive-thru for fried chicken. Much of the film builds comedy, not tension.

Ergo, it's too long at 110 minutes, cutting too harshly from the absurdist tone of the rest of the film in the final 20 minutes and undoing some of the hijinks with its gear-shift into severity. Yet The Sugarland Express is a more than passable piece of entertainment due to two important aspects. The first is the acting: Hawn and Atherton handle their parts with care, playing into some redneck tropes without fully slipping into a stereotype. The Poplins may have shit on their heels, but they're good people who just want their baby back and employ a relatively nonviolent scheme to do so. Yet Michael Sacks nearly steals the show as Maxwell Slide, the patrolman taken hostage by the couple. He plays straight man to their more manic personalities, a rookie who's nevertheless clever enough to see that the Poplins are good people with no real intention of hurting him, and he even forms a slight friendship with the two. After a time, he stops attempting to escape, sticking it out with the Poplins to try to knock some sense into them. He knows, and deep down so does the couple (or at least Clovis), that they will never get baby Langston. And even if they did, would they just go live a quiet life after being pursued by a miles-long police convoy, as Lou Jean thinks possible? He just doesn't want to see them get hurt and to reduce their inevitable sentence as much as they can, but reason flies out the window when you think you'll never see your child again.

The other boon is, of course, Spielberg's direction, which manages to leap so far ahead of the impressive work on Duel that it becomes readily apparent that the only limit to Spielberg's skill is the physical capital given to him for each film. His tracking shots are fluid and actually add to the comedy, such as the scene where the police bring in Clovis' father to attempt to talk his son into surrendering and the old man walks with the captain past such a long line of assembled officers that I began to wonder if Spielberg didn't slyly duplicate the original shot at edit them together like cartoons that recycle backgrounds for the ease of the artists. When Lou Jean and Clovis pull into a gas station and drive off without paying, the attendant yells after them and the police tail until news reporters arrive and ask him questions, and the man suddenly looks into the camera, as if it had been one of the news reporters the whole time. And while Spielberg does not handle the shift from comedy to drama smoothly at the end, his more suspenseful direction lets the skills he displayed on Duel to creep into the frame. As police snipers set up a trap for the Poplins, Spielberg uses a remarkable zoom shot as one shooter takes aim and the camera manages to zoom in on the approaching car through the window while barely changing the foreground.

The Sugarland Express showed off the director's penchant for sentimentality at the start, and the ending points a bit to the more cloying side of that emotionality that pops up here and there, particularly a shot of Lou Jean throwing a teddy bear out of the window as they speed to their doom that lingers on the bear being trampled by chasing cars in a shamelessly "INSERT METAPHOR HERE" moment. Yet Spielberg also displays that childlike wonder that guards himself from his own weaknesses: he knows that the Poplins will never win, but he does not look down on them. He does not exalt vicious criminals the way that Penn fed into the Bonnie and Clyde mythos: he presents two simple, earnest, desperate people who will not harm anyone. He also doesn't present the police as demons, showing a police captain who recognizes the Poplins' good nature and presenting only a few corn-pone, trigger-happy idiots who jump the gun. The only real political statement of the film concerns its depiction of the press as soulless hounds who just want a good scoop. Reporters find baby Langston in a foster home and ask if they can interview the child, who is but 2 years old; the foster mom brings him out, and the incessant snapping of flashbulbs causes the child to cry. Maybe that moment where Spielberg's camera suddenly serves as one of the newscasters', when that attendant looks into it and suddenly begins to feed the hype by embellishing his non-story, Spielberg also criticizes the contemporary tendency to romanticize criminals.

The Sugarland Express marks an important moment in the director's career, not simply because it's his theatrical debut. He consolidates his technique and introduces several of his auteurial concerns, and the ending almost sets up a sequel for a purely Spielbergian flick about Langston growing up in the aftermath of his parents' trek. The screenplay won a prize at Cannes, and Pauline Kael heralded the director as a young Howard Hawks. Most notably, The Sugarland Express began the long-running collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams, whose blues-tinged instrumentation stands in sharp contrast to the more boisterous orchestration that was waiting in the winds. The Sugarland Express is flawed, yes, and it introduces themes that it does not explore in favor of adding more comedy, but taken with Duel, it points to a must-see career even without prior knowledge of what he would go on to do. For the thematic shortcomings, Spielberg has a visual style that's too in love with what's on the screen to praise itself, and the director gets great performances from his young actors. Still, it's damn near impossible to look at this and predict what was just around the corner for our auteur...but that's a story for the next post.


  1. You're right that New Hollywood's interest in lovers on the lam pictures really stems from the French New Wave. Godard and Truffaut really loved Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once and Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy (one of the greatest films ever made) and Nick Ray's They Live By Night, and so those pictures influenced Breathless and Pierrot le fou, which of course influenced Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands and Thieves Like Us and a lot of others.

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