Regaining a lost element of film
New York — Chalk up another point for the old-fashioned values. Talking about his new hit movie, "The Electric Horseman," director Sydney Pollack says he tried "to capture the spirit, the optimism, and even the patriotism of films in the '30s and '40s. We wanted to make it like a fable, or a morality play. The good and the evil are clear-cut, and virtue triumphs."
The hero of "The Electric Horseman" is a famous rodeo rider named Sonny, played by Robert Redford. At the beginning of the picture he leaves the bronco-busting circuit and becomes the pitchman for a cereal called Ranch Breakfast. In no time flat he becomes a wreck -- drunken, irresponsible, and fed up with his meaningless life as a human advertising gimmick.
Then one day the cereal people push him too far. Their "corporate image" is a $12 million racehorse named Rising Star, and Sonny discovers the poor animal is being drugged and abused for the sake of "public appearance." He sobers up for good, his nobler instincts rise to the surface, and he resolves to "rescue" the beast -- by stealing it, with all the forces of law and capitalism hot on his trail. Also on his trail is Jane Fonda, as a TV reporter who starts as his adversary but becomes his accomplice.
When Pollack first began working on "The Electric Horseman," he found a lot of things in the screenplay he didn't like. "It was dated," he recalled during a recent interview. "It had the attitudes of the 1960s -- serious, psychedelic, and very anticorporation. The hero was hallucinating, and people were chasing him with real guns and real bullets. It was the story of a man getting even with his employers, not saving a horse."
Pollack decided to approach the yarn from an entirely different angle. "Redford and I had been looking at a lot of old movies -- Frank Capra, 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'It Happened One Night,' and things like that. From talking to our kids about this, and from listening to our own sensibilities, we realized that something innocent and marvelous has been lost from the movies. We wondered why not make a picture like that now, full of fantasy and optimism and good feelings."
So Pollack and his colleagues set to work -- not to re- create the movies of the past, but to bring the spirit of those films into an updated framework. "We didn't want adults to feel stupid for liking our film," says the director, "and we didn't want to seem naive, as many of the old pictures are. We didm want to tell a story without resorting to the movie vocabulary of the past two decades. We avoided traditional melodramatic elements and stayed away from bullets and things like that. We tried to make a fairy tale where you root for virtue, and evil gets it comeuppance."
To achieve this "fairy tale" quality, Pollack and company did a lot of "playing with reality." The director admits that much of the plot just couldn't happen in real life -- the hero, for example, would be captured immediately. But that's the nature of movies. Says Pollack, "It's my job to motivate the audience to believe. I have to get them to suspend their judgment in favor of involvement."
The key ingredient in this process is "genuine, 14-karat movie stars," Thus the film would never have worked without performers of Redford/Fonda caliber. "Good actors aren't enough," says Pollack. "You need charisma. Can you imagine 'Casablanca' without Bogart and Bergman?"
Both Redford and Fonda are associated with liberal viewpoints, in social and political matters, and their films often reflect this involvement. Yet Pollack insists that their concern for ecology -- a subtheme of the movie -- was a secondary consideration when they joined the project. "Jane joined us quite late," he recalls. "And her main concern was with the part she was going to play. She wanted to make sure it presented her with an arc of change, growth, and development. Once she was assured of this, she accepted the role. And thenm she thought about the rest of it."
Redford, too, was primarily interested in his role from an acting point of view. Says Pollack, "The main character is a man who has lost control of his destiny. He's a nobody who has become the property of a corporation.
"And I think Redford identified with this. After all, he must occasionally feel that his own sovereignty is abused by the size of his public image, and this could be getting worse as he gets older and more popular. This could explain why he has stayed away from the screen for almost four years. In a way, he's perceived by everyone as a conglomerate of Gatsby and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson! Everybody wants a piece of him -- and it's hard for people to feel sorry for a man who gets $3 1/2 million per picture."
In a sense, "The Electric Horseman" itself rests on a fundamental irony. Its story makes fun of advertising. Yet movies -- including this one -- must be advertised!
Pollack is wryly aware of this contradiction. "It was actually proposed to me," he reports, "that we send the horse on a publicity tour for the film! I said, 'Gentlemen, you don't know what you're saying! This is exactly what the movie condemns!'"
Pollack resolves the contradiction by insisting that "the issue is in two parts. First is the making of the film. In this, there was a genuine virtuous passion. We all believe in what the film says, and none of us has a guilty conscience about making money from views we don't hold.
But sellingm the film is another matter, and it's something I'm not involved in. As a matter of fact, I don't like the newspaper ads that show Redford and Fonda and the word 'electric.' It's not dirty or anything, but it seems cheap to me. And the TV ads also seem cheap and corny. They embarrass me.
"The marketing of anythingm is full of exploitation and lies and hype. On the other hand, am I to forego filmmaking because I don't like the promotion? That pure, I'm not. I'm corrupt enough to want my pictures to be successful."
And successful they have been. Pollack's hits include "The Way We Were" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" as well as "Three Days of the Condor," "Jeremiah Johnson," and the less fortunate "Bobby Deerfield." He took on "The Electric Horseman" after abandoning an ambitious project based on "A Place to Come To" by Robert Penn Warren -- a "commercially questionable" film in which Robert Redford would have aged (on-screen) from 16 to 70.
"When I work," Pollack says, "I think mainly in terms of dramatic choices. The rules of drama dictate certain 'islands' within the film: For instance, if a man steals a racehorse, there must be a horse race at some point. Then I invent the circumstances under which this can happen. As I do this, I accept and reject ideas, according to instinct.
"It's only afterward that I begin to think about what I'm really doingm in the movie. Of course, this is cooking around in my head as soon as I pick the elements of the movie. But it stays unconscious for a long time before I begin to work it out."
One of Pollack's favorite words is "ambiguity." He treasures this quality in his films and tries not to "analyze" so much that ambiguity gets smothered. "Ambiguity comes from the unconscious," he says. "If it gets too clear, it loses its resonance -- and resonance is what you're after in any art. I try to protect ambiguity even though there's great pressure to overclarify. With ambiguity, your ideas have life -- they're not at rest, which happens whenever things become clearlym one thing or another."
Pollack is pleased that his philosophy has not conflicted with filmmaking success -- particularly in Europe, where his films are very popular with mass audiences and have prompted a number of book-length studies by scholars who study and analyze them at great and painstaking length.
Pollack acknowledges that he is not considered a "chic" director in the United States, possibly because he works with big stars in big studio productions. He admits that he must therefore work with comparatively popular subjects that will reach broad audiences. But he doesn't see this as a disadvantage.
"How high a level of art can you reach within this framework?" he asks rhetorically. "I won't presume to answer that question. In fact, I don't think it can be answered for another 20 or 30 years, just as the films of the '30s and '40s were once considered 'standard film fare,' and weren't properly evaluated until time had passed. Still, I think there's more art in my work than people want to admit, and this will be felt later."
As for the present, Pollack works on two levels. "First, I have to satisfy the needs of popular art. Second, I don't want to be intellectually insulting. I want to raise issues and questions that are sufficiently intriguing -- so people I care about will like them, too."
The trick is to be provocative without being esoteric. "A metaphor that's justm a symbol is self-indulgent and pretentious. First, it has to be real.m In 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' Blanche says, 'Make it dark in here.' She may mean she wants to get out of reality.But when she says it, there better be a light on somewhere!"