Car Wash, directed by Michael Schultz
The black American Graffiti. Or, a Robert Altman film that everyday people can appreciate. When this movie came out in 1976, I was working as a stereo and small appliance salesman at Landover Mall in Prince George’s County. One day, my fellow employees and I wrote a song to the tune of the title track, talking about that proletariat revolution, substituting the names of our bosses into the lyrics. At the time, I bet working stiffs were doing this same thing all over the country, as Car Wash had hit some kind of collective nerve. Great characters, a hot, Norman Whitfield-produced soundtrack (performed by Rose Royce), and a subtle comment on race and class relations that is still relevant today. Don’t let the video box fool you—this is not a starring vehicle for Richard Pryor, who appears only in cameo (as do George Carlin, Professor Irwin Corey, and the Pointer Sisters). Instead, an ensemble cast of fine actors (Ivan Dixon, Antonio Fargas, Bill Duke, and many others) enrich this tale of a day in the life of a group of car wash employees. Best of all is the brilliant Franklyn Ajaye as T.C. (sporting a huge Afro), who imagines himself to be a comic-book character called The Fly. The scene where he enters a diner and mouths the words to “I Wanna Get Next to You” as he makes eye-love to Mona, the waitress of his dreams, is among the most romantic ever committed to film. And I have yet to see a film that so perfectly captures the 70s in all its street-level glory—the music, the style, the dress, and those badass cars. To quote the Isley Brothers, from 3+3, “If you were there, you’d know.” If you were not, this will give you a pretty good idea of what the party was all about. Put this in the time capsule. Snobs need not apply.
Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean
The film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s acclaimed short story collection is smart, funny, inventive, and respectful of the source material. Plus, it gets better with each viewing. Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton (both superb) head the cast, with great extended cameos from Denis Leary, Will Patton, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunter (Holly, you dish…who knew?). A movie about addicts and addiction was destined to fail at the box office, and it did. But so what? They made art.
High and Low, directed by Akira Kurosawa
I saw this in widescreen at the AFI in Silver Spring, Maryland, but it is available in a restored Criterion DVD edition, and well worth the price. Kurosawa’s 1963 kidnapping yarn, morality tale, and police procedural hits all the visual, thematic, narrative, and emotional marks. Toshiro Mifune plays an executive in a shoe manufacturing business who throws away his fortune to ransom the abducted son of his driver but finds a curious kind of peace and self-respect in the process. There are actually three films here: the first takes place on a single set and is composed in the manner of a stage play; the second, shot on a bullet train, moves like a thriller and is a virtual textbook of visceral cinema; the third puts the audience into the heads of the cops as they close in on the perp. Both the capture of the kidnapper and the final scene, set on death row, pay homage to Psycho. On the flip side, Spielberg has been referencing High and Low his entire career. Scorcese wants to remake it. Many consider this to be Mifune’s most intense performance and some go so far as to proclaim this Kurosawa’s greatest film. See it. Based on the novel, King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain.