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Film Notes: Bullitt (1968)

Since I don’t have a lot to blog about these days, I think I’m going to write short bits about movies I’ve seen, right after seeing them. Who this could possibly appeal to remains to be seen. I’ve also been feeling overloaded with work lately, and am making the effort to declare some break time on a daily basis, because otherwise my entire day is split between writing and being unable to write. There are no other states between them that I care to consider.

Hopefully I’ll manage a film every day or two.

Tonight I saw Bullitt on DVD (haven’t gotten to the special features yet). This was actually the first time I’ve seen Steve McQueen in a movie, ever. He’s pretty bad-ass and reminds me of Daniel Craig a little, and Robert Redford. The bad guy at the end looks like Clive Owen. They should do a remake… actually, no. It’s got plot holes, yeah, but the rest is a very well-constructed movie that I don’t think modern audiences would pay money to watch for two hours, which is a shame.

I should explain that the archetypical ‘modern viewer’ in my mind is an American teenager with a short attention span, bad grades, and who likes to plays Halo. That’s really the target audience for 99% of the movies that I see coming out anyway. What other reason could there be for the dumbing down of everything? I can’t remember the last time I saw a thriller that made the viewer work to distill its elements; to piece together a chronologically dissected heap of stimuli, or guess at characters’ meanings and motivations before they are formally introduced (or not at all). It’s sad because I go to the theatres most days now only to become irritated at the couple beside me, one member of which will inevitably ask the other at some point, “who is that?”, or “what just happened?” as if they were watching two different movies. And mind you, these aren’t Hitchcockian movies, or foreign imports where thick accents might have caused a crucial line to be missed – I’m really talking about shit like Wanted, or Tokyo Fucking Drift.

Bullitt is two hours long and nowhere as kinetic as I’d expected, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. (However) there’s a car chase in the middle that I hear is the main reason for its cult status: it is one of the earliest examples of modern chase sequence structure, and has some phenomenal stunt driving down the hilly slopes of San Francisco. Very impressive work. But I think the movie’s strongest point is the way it frames and presents its dialogue. Some incidental scenes have characters speaking words that feel like they’re exchanged for purely practical purposes in the film’s world, and not for the benefit of viewers. There is no benefit for us at all, except immersion. I think I’ve just been watching too many bad movies lately, where every line is used for some ham-fisted exposition or foreshadowing of later drama.

And yet there are long stretches where nothing is said, like in the chase scene. McQueen does not quietly curse to himself, and the two antagonists in the other car barely exchange looks, let alone words. It’s a fantastic change. At times the camera just settles on Lieutenant Bullitt (that’s the name of McQueen’s cop), squarely on his face from the shoulders up as his eyes search the room we cannot see, or ponders his next move. It’s far more effective than what M. Night Shymalan has done recently with The Happening, which tries a similar gimmick with Mark Wahlberg as he supposedly struggles to reconcile his science-rooted atheism with growing evidence of intelligent design. The necessary charisma is lacking.

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