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Author Topic: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  (Read 459 times)

Eric/E.T.

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« on: August 27, 2020, 01:56:32 AM »
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Sydney Pollack, 1969


Yowza!

I had to do it once.

Bondo and I synchronized viewings; for Bondo of course a rewatch, and for me, this is first contact with Syndey Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I was warned that the content would be a bit of a downer, but my intellectual engagement with the concept was able to just outpace the overall desolation on hand. I'm going to kick off the conversation discussing the primary concept involved, which is of course a dance marathon during the Great Depression (1933! I did math!...I think) that is meant to represent the self-perpetuating and doomed cycle of poverty. I'm going to avoid writing too much because I don't want entry into the conversation to be overly prohibitive. Basically, I don't want to make you work through too much more of a ramble.

What's wonderful about this film is the many angles of attack it takes to expose the ills of a greatly imbalanced society, the fallout from capitalism run amok. Not looking for a new debate on that, it's simply what I see on display, people desperate for money dancing for the entertainment of others who don't have to worry about such things. It made me think of the imbalance in a great many aspects of life. While watching the charade on hand, I thought of:
1. The enlistees in our mighty military, many who go the route of the armed forces because it's the only way they can see to get out of their impoverished situation. Their family risks everything to fight wars that far wealthier and privileged people get us into. The dancers are in boot camp, and the rich who will inevitably send them into the war zone throw them their pittance. The winner becomes an officer, but maybe just for a day.
2. The nature of a past Gilded Age that feasted on the cheap labor provided by men and children alike with no thoughts to benefits or a decent wage. Wage slaves, a sort of neo-indentured servitude at the time before unionization took hold in our country; and now, how it's been beaten back. I think of modern day Amazon and Walmart employees. Their days are routine, predictable, except for, of course, how many hours they'll get, plus where to find the best doctors Medicaid can buy them, if they're even working, what job will they get? Inevitably, there's no getting ahead, there's hardly even getting along, for so many, it's a death dance. Which was driven home by the tap dancing sailor played by Red Buttons, whose (I'm assuming) corpse is scraped off the ground during one of the regular races these contestants - who'd been dance for over 1,000 straight - have to get their sponsors and crowd all going.
3. Speaking of sponsors, we tackle the literal patronization of the poor by the rich. They sponsor these people so that they may continue torturing themselves for...something. I can't figure out if its a commentary that's being made on the nature of private charity, but just watching the crowds, which become bigger and nicer the longer these people go through this torment and humiliation, makes me a little nauseous. I wonder if this was big enough, prominent enough to get people crying "class warfare" at the time.

It's funny I came to this just after bowing out on a conversation I no longer wanted to have about capitalism. Because it is this very scenario, the total exploitation of people who are desperate enough to be willingly and dangerous exploited, the figurative bottom in the race to the bottom that occurs when the oligarchs take control and redistribute the money into their pockets, leaving no hope for a better way of life, until we just start asking to be put down like sick animals.

I do wonder if there's a mental health aspect regarding Gloria that made her assisted suicide seem a bit more problematic than at first blush. Then again, I don't think this film overtly suggests that Robert, who pulled the trigger for her, was painted as innocent, either. She seemed like she needed a lot of help, but I'm sure she was just so CINECAST!ing trapped, and when it's totally hopeless, truly and completely, who makes that call? Should be you, right? Maybe after a bit more deliberation, but went into this competition sad, humiliated, and alone, and that's how she went out.

There are other touches, moments, and scenarios to work out, but this is my first time, and I'd like people who know and understand this film even better to have a chance to give their thoughts, especially on the analytic vs. the evaluative side of things. I'll put more of my Did you like/love/hate it? in the Respond thread.

Bring it, everyone. I engineered my whole day around being rested and in a good state of mind to see this.
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Bondo

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #1 on: August 27, 2020, 06:35:45 AM »
In terms of the timeframe, there is a (positive) reference to Hoover that implies this is sometime before November 1932. In my recent reworking of my top-100, this came in fourth, yet on this my third viewing I still had moments where I felt surprised by how well something struck me.

One overwhelming sense I got this time was that this was a real-world hunger games. It isn't literally a fight to the death (though death is certainly a very real risk), and it isn't technically forced upon people, and the glamor of the haves isn't as overstated, but it is still an exploitative voyeurism at the expense of the desperate. And unlike The Hunger Games, this is essentially 100% real.

The prize for the winner here is $1500, which in today's money is something like $24000. If you calculate that as an hourly rate over two months of 24hr/day work, that is $16/hr. But this prize is split among two workers so $8/hr. That's basically the current minimum wage and these people aren't getting paid OT. Also only the winners get it. Also as we find out, that pay is illusory because Rocky, the guy running it is keeping a register of their costs so he can ultimately pay them essentially nothing. It is the true definition of a rigged game. If any of the contestants win, it is the one guy who originally partnered the aspiring starlet (Alice) who books a short film role and leaves mid-way. This notion of docking wages for costs sounds archaic but there was a Planet Money story about long-haul trucking recently where a woman essentially has this done to her such that as many months or not of working long hours she gets no net paycheck.

Of course, Harvey Weinstein's shadow looms over this film now. This particular contest is in LA and so it is particularly populated with people angling at film stardom. If their general poverty didn't make them marks for sexual exploitation, their film striving does. There is one scene where Rocky, the emcee, asks Alice to come to his office to work on a scene and Gloria (Jane Fonda) lets out a short, mirthless chuckle. She knows what's up and we know what's up. Of course Gloria herself is wrapped up in that. For her it presents a bit more of her using that "power" to try to get ahead, but we know and maybe she knows that it isn't actually power she's wielding.

I don't want to get explicitly into the political discussion, but will note that Universal Basic Income is a Milton Friedman-supported idea that is popular among neoliberals. The devil is in the details, but I certainly think that and a fuller form of universal health care need to be the foundation of the safety net going forward. The safety of knowing nothing can leave you at complete immiseration is a source of bargaining power. One debate is whether you need a minimum wage if you have UBI. My main concern is there would inevitably be a population (non-citizen immigrants) who may be excluded from UBI who would end up even more exploited. And I guess the question is would UBI be more of a bargaining chip than food stamps, medicaid, etc that employers of low-wage workers currently count on to subsidize their wages.

Oh, remembered one final point, the making of featurette on the Blu-ray I got is shockingly fluffy. It plays as if it is marketed toward the wealthier people who would pay to watch these people compete. I don't think you can say that the actual film is catering to an audience that seeks to exploit these fictionalized poor people for their amusement. Obviously even though all of the plot notes here are real, it is still a film making a political argument. It is a sharp contrast to The Florida Project which also is full of authentic moments of poverty, but does so with a much higher level of joy. Both are true in a way. Even people in dire straits can find moments of interpersonal joy, if only as a coping mechanism, but there is also a bigger, rigged system that can make life into a death march.

1SO

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #2 on: August 27, 2020, 12:49:06 PM »

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
"One couple, and only one, will waltz out of here
over broken bodies and broken dreams."


One of the first truly disturbing movies I remember seeing. There's something about the combination of a giddy veneer barely covering the deep and palpable desperation of the characters that really shook me.
Here's what I don't like about They Shoot Horses, Don't They?:
1. The way the title is used in the film. The opening credits and closing minutes are so heavy handed with the metaphor it's laughable.
2. A few brief cutaways to the main character on stylizied sets, implying there's more to him than we think.

That's it. The rest of this film, I Love!

Sydney Pollack has won Oscars with Out of Africa and huge box office with Tootsie, but look up his filmography on IMDB and this film is ranked highest. And with good reason. The film, about a group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic MC who urges them on to victory, is Drama with a capital 'D'. And while it's very heavy, it's not a soul-crushing chore to watch because the film is riveting, the acting is outstanding and the direction is superb. It holds the record for the most Oscar Nominations (9) without one for Best Picture.

I should probably talk about about these dance contests because it's not some fiction created by the writer. These really happened. During the Great Depression, dance halls would hold marathons offering a cash prize to the last couple standing. They would go on for weeks, with the smallest of breaks, and people would pay a small admission to watch. Many of the contestants would sign up just for the meals provided and the brief rests on a cot. They were given a place to stay. Desperate times. Desperate measures. The MC would always be mindful of the show, and gloss over the human misery. At one point a sleep deprived contestant starts to freak out backstage. The MC has her taken away and a contestant remarks, "I thought you would've put it on display. Charge a little extra." The MC replies, "No, it's too real."

I commented on how dated Pollack's Tootsie is. TSHDT was made 13 years earlier and (except for my two complaints) it hasn't aged a day. If I showed it to you and said this was the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, I doubt you would question me. That is not said as hyperbole. This film is great enough to be the follow-up to There Will Be Blood. It's rich in character, hard and cynical with great surprises and startling bits of dialogue.

The centerpiece of TSHDT has to be The Derby Scene. Occurring after about 500 hours of competition, the couples must race around the ballroom for a number of minutes. The last 3 couples are eliminated. The track path is small, the contestants half-delirious and it soon becomes impossible for any of them to tell if they're okay or in fear of elimination. So they all move with every last ounce of strength, round and round. It's the most spellbinding portrait of human misery I've seen in a film, and it's one of the greatest films ever made.

Bondo

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #3 on: August 27, 2020, 01:35:49 PM »
I think you imply it but don't outright say it, but the filmmaking of the two derby scenes, how it creates a sense of delirium in its close whirling movement, is just incredible. I do watch that scene thinking "how do the judges even tell who is in last?" Because the track is small enough that presumably people are getting lapped.

I think I do agree on the film's weak points. I keep forgetting that it isn't Gloria who says "They shoot horses, don't they" to Robert as part of the justification for him to do it, but him after the fact to justify it. It makes Robert doing the dehumanization in that moment rather than Gloria embracing the world's dehumanization of her. And granted, Robert as a character seems very removed from the world throughout. Even when Alice, this beautiful woman, is coming on to him, he is indifferent. Though I suppose one should be indifferent since she is acting out of brokenness at that point.

Eric/E.T.

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #4 on: August 28, 2020, 12:27:58 AM »
In terms of the timeframe, there is a (positive) reference to Hoover that implies this is sometime before November 1932. In my recent reworking of my top-100, this came in fourth, yet on this my third viewing I still had moments where I felt surprised by how well something struck me.

I was off by a year, now I remember, the old woman said she was born in '67 (the number the main couple wear), and Robert then figures her age is 65, which puts us in 1932.

One overwhelming sense I got this time was that this was a real-world hunger games. It isn't literally a fight to the death (though death is certainly a very real risk), and it isn't technically forced upon people, and the glamor of the haves isn't as overstated, but it is still an exploitative voyeurism at the expense of the desperate. And unlike The Hunger Games, this is essentially 100% real.

What are you trying to tell me about the Hunger Games...?

I think this does get at a criticism I have of the film, which is that it's a film that at times took me out of the suspension of reality with some of the acting and overall theatricality of the staging. I liked it quite a bit, but Fonda's acting seems especially forced and overly-melodramatic during the break sessions. Where the film's conceit needs her to go low, she goes high.

However, I do agree with your point that this is essentially a real-er Hunger Games, and I was far more gripped here than I was watching any of Katniss's exploits. A place where the staging really worked were in a few wider screen shots, where you see the "dancing zombies" as I was thinking of them. It is utter desolation, husks of people hardly moving to the rhythm, living but lifeless. Your economic breakdown is excellent and something I thought about a lot, especially after we hear of the winner getting docked for the costs in a move that seemed so typical and predictable yet is just a sledgehammer to your chest, but all the economic reality aside, the zombie shots and the derby scenes truly encapsulate the doomed reality of these people in a way that's affecting. Essentially, both the intellectual and emotional aspects are given their due, and that is something I think many films about poverty fail to capture. In its own way, The Florida Project does a little balancing in that direction as well. I also thought quite a bit about Modern Times when I was watching this film. Chaplin maybe gleefully cranked through the gears of that film, and he makes the point through humor, but this is the equivalent of him actually getting ground down and decimated by that same machinery.

Of course, Harvey Weinstein's shadow looms over this film now. This particular contest is in LA and so it is particularly populated with people angling at film stardom. If their general poverty didn't make them marks for sexual exploitation, their film striving does. There is one scene where Rocky, the emcee, asks Alice to come to his office to work on a scene and Gloria (Jane Fonda) lets out a short, mirthless chuckle. She knows what's up and we know what's up. Of course Gloria herself is wrapped up in that. For her it presents a bit more of her using that "power" to try to get ahead, but we know and maybe she knows that it isn't actually power she's wielding.

Weinstein is not a big part of my consciousness for whatever reason, but I do think of #metoo a lot more frequently now when I watch men abuse women in films, and I think it makes the scene where Fonda moves to sexually gratify Rocky all the more nauseating. Now, I tend to forget particulars quickly, but is that even a transactional sexual act? I don't remember her getting anything out of it, anything akin to money, power, et al. It reminds me of just an utterly defeated pack mule trying to put on a brave face as they trudge along a winless, hopeless path.

I don't want to get explicitly into the political discussion, but will note that Universal Basic Income is a Milton Friedman-supported idea that is popular among neoliberals. The devil is in the details, but I certainly think that and a fuller form of universal health care need to be the foundation of the safety net going forward. The safety of knowing nothing can leave you at complete immiseration is a source of bargaining power. One debate is whether you need a minimum wage if you have UBI. My main concern is there would inevitably be a population (non-citizen immigrants) who may be excluded from UBI who would end up even more exploited. And I guess the question is would UBI be more of a bargaining chip than food stamps, medicaid, etc that employers of low-wage workers currently count on to subsidize their wages.

Always a concern I have.

It is a sharp contrast to The Florida Project which also is full of authentic moments of poverty, but does so with a much higher level of joy. Both are true in a way. Even people in dire straits can find moments of interpersonal joy, if only as a coping mechanism, but there is also a bigger, rigged system that can make life into a death march.

So, I think there's a lot more truth in The Florida Project than They Shoot Horses, Don't They? It brings up another criticism of the film under discussion, because of the miserabilia (a term I don't necessarily use in the pejorative because it certain exists in abundance in our world, but here the level is extremely high). I try not to be like the irritating parent always talking about their kid by always referring to my job, but having worked on both the border in a more rural setting and then in the city, I have been to so many homes and family gatherings that I have seen people who are by definition living in poverty who certainly don't have that magic $400 in the bank to get them through an important bill or two, but have the family and social connections that continually pull them through. Now, I've seen the misery, too, the deportations, the family separations, the children who get sent to live with family members they barely know in parts of the country they've never been, or who are otherwise too poor to afford to give their children much in the way of clothing outside of the standard school polo and khaki pants, and even those who are here today and gone tomorrow and you don't really know why, yet even those kids make friends, get into mischief, and are often saved from having to stare mercilessly into the reality of their poverty. The parents cope to varying levels, as well. Just, the very abject gloom of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? makes for an interesting cinematic experience - I don't think much in the way of humor or escape would've made sense considering the film's concept - but as far as truth goes, it is too rigid to altogether truthfully depict the human condition. Too absolutist, maybe.

I'm with both you and 1SO on the derby scenes. Those are just intense and engrossing, definitely the scenes I got most wrapped up in. I also thought about people getting lapped, too! It reinforces the point that there are really just losers in this whole spectacle anyway.
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Bondo

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #5 on: August 28, 2020, 06:00:32 AM »
Weinstein is not a big part of my consciousness for whatever reason, but I do think of #metoo a lot more frequently now when I watch men abuse women in films, and I think it makes the scene where Fonda moves to sexually gratify Rocky all the more nauseating. Now, I tend to forget particulars quickly, but is that even a transactional sexual act? I don't remember her getting anything out of it, anything akin to money, power, et al. It reminds me of just an utterly defeated pack mule trying to put on a brave face as they trudge along a winless, hopeless path.

One of her motivations is jealousy. She sees Robert come out of the room with Alice and decides to get even. But I do think she hopes to get a favor out of the interaction...she asks for him to change the rule about only having 24 hours unpaired and he says "anything else but that." So there is at least some sense that she wants something in return...but doesn't ultimately get anything.

Eric/E.T.

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Re: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
« Reply #6 on: August 30, 2020, 10:31:17 PM »
Weinstein is not a big part of my consciousness for whatever reason, but I do think of #metoo a lot more frequently now when I watch men abuse women in films, and I think it makes the scene where Fonda moves to sexually gratify Rocky all the more nauseating. Now, I tend to forget particulars quickly, but is that even a transactional sexual act? I don't remember her getting anything out of it, anything akin to money, power, et al. It reminds me of just an utterly defeated pack mule trying to put on a brave face as they trudge along a winless, hopeless path.

One of her motivations is jealousy. She sees Robert come out of the room with Alice and decides to get even. But I do think she hopes to get a favor out of the interaction...she asks for him to change the rule about only having 24 hours unpaired and he says "anything else but that." So there is at least some sense that she wants something in return...but doesn't ultimately get anything.

Yeah, not much of a quid pro quo.

No one else has anything to say?! :) This is a film I could definitely have seen provoking conversation, especially with all those Oscar noms.
Just because a person has never walked in my shoes, that doesnít mean they canít gravitate to the art. - Mach-Hommy

A witty saying proves nothing. - Voltaire