This screenshot's hardly doing it justice, but seeing a pop film (by the likes of Saturday Night Live, Grease, etc.) shot in anamorphic and shot well, particularly for the hoedown and bull riding sequences, was a very welcome change of pace. Unfortunately this is the best screen grab I could find, as most others were cropped to all hell.
Director: James Bridges
Writer: James Bridges, Aaron Latham; Story by Aaron Latham
Cinematographer: Reynaldo Villalobos
by Jon Cvack
Riding off the coattails of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta decided to head south and limit the dancing to a few hoedowns and trade up for a bull ride machine. It’s an interesting, fish-out-of-water story, except instead of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles it’s Houston, Texas, taking place at the famous Gilley's Club; famous according to WikiPedia, that is (not that I would doubt it).
I think it’s safe to assume that this film is most appealing to conservative crowds, particularly the type of redneck-wannabes that I knew in my middle class suburban town, who would buy pick up trucks and blast country, attempting to bring the Southern Style to us, which by it's very name was impossible. Bud Davis (John Travolta) leaves his nowhere town and heads to the big city, where he stays at his Aunt and Uncle, Bob and Corene Davis's house (Barry Corbin; Brooke Alderson) who get him a job at a local manufacturing plant. He heads to the nearest Honky Tonk and then meets Sissy (Debra Winger) who quickly becomes the love of his life. In Classic Cinema-style the relationship goes from Zero to Married within about five minutes, though not after an incredibly awkward moment, when after Sissy gets some eyeballs from an ex-con and ultra-badass, ultra-ripped Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn) who is an expert mechanical bull rider, Bud storms out with Sissy and slaps her across the face and she falls into the puddle.
I kept recalling an old modern western love story - possibly Coal Miner’s Daughter (coincidentally, with Sissy Spacek), where the domestic abuse was frighteningly frequent - and figured Urban Cowboy was either a) that film, or b) the rest of the movie is going to be about an abusive spouse, and therefore like that film. I was very mistaken. Although the initial incident between Bud and Sissy was jarring, it pales compared to what occurs later when Sissy and Bud break up and she shacks up with Wes Henderson who pretty much beats her anytime there’s the slightest disagreement (i.e., ‘Hand me the cigarette case’ and she fails to respond). As usual in situations of abuse toward women, you can’t help wondering why she stays with the man, except that maybe in Houston there aren’t many jobs at all and she is attracted to tough, strong men, with or without veins, and that she’s willing to overlook these shortcomings because bull riding fame and these relationships provide purpose to her life. It's a great insight into alienation, as Sissy clearly has nothing for herself, getting stuck into an endless loop, finding her only fulfillment in abusive mates. How great of an ending it could've been if she ditched both Wes and Bud, and went off on her own, discovering something for herself? Instead none of it is ever really resolved.
I’m not sure if this is one of the more extreme moments like I discussed in Can’t Buy Me Love or License to Drive ('88), where once upon a time in the 1980s this was fine, acceptable, and I would assume, more or less, normal. These scenes really jolted me awake - making me realize that for all we can complain about how far we have to go, the women’s movement has made progress. This movie could never come out today with the current conclusion. It's that rare film that provides a snapshot of the era's politics, without at all being about the era's politics; portraying how things once were, rather than how things could be.
And at the center of all this is a bull riding machine. This is where I have to hand it to director James Bridges, since for something so ridiculous and insignificant as bar room bull riding, he really makes us feel like it’s the most important event in the world. I craved a BluRay so I could best taste the anamorphic photography, complete with elaborate set ups that, in a single take, would take you all around the bar, creating a feel that, for most of these people, this truly is their entire world, this is the most exciting thing they do, where beyond work and family and barbecues, this is where life begins and ends.
BELOW: Watch at 1080 and enjoy (keeping in mind it's a pop movie, so it's not perfect, but it's far far better than you expect)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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