Hard Riding in the Nursing Home

Bullitt: The iconic car chase moves from the steep, crowded streets of San Francisco to open land on the city's outskirts

Almost every night, I visit my father in the skilled nursing facility where he has been confined since last spring. And almost every night, he has a grievance to share. But I never saw this one coming: “They were showing Easy Rider today as the in-house movie. No matter how high I turned up the volume, though, I just couldn’t make it loud enough.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine him wanting to see the film under any circumstances, much less with Steppenwolf thundering from the speakers.

Let me explain. Although my father has many admirable traits, flexibility is not one of them. For twenty years, he brought a condiment-free baloney sandwich to work every single day, unless there were leftovers. Then, when his doctor told him to cut back on salt, he replaced the baloney with a slice of provolone. It took years of my caring for my mother and him before he could reconcile himself to the fact that dinner wasn’t going to be served promptly at 6 pm if I was the one cooking it. He still has shirts in his wardrobe that he was wearing before I was born.

The same applies to the culture he consumes. While he is by no means narrow-minded, he also has difficulty bending to the will of others. My mother spent decades trying to convince him that folk music was worthwhile. Even though he ended up dutifully purchasing her tickets to see Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Peter, Paul & Mary at Wolf Trap in the 1980s, though, I never had the sense that he was doing so for his own pleasure. If he had a good time, it was mostly because she was having a good time.

The French Connection: Shot in the dark.

His idea of musical fun was going to see opera or, failing that, watching it on television. Or maybe, if he was feeling nostalgic for his own youth, watching a big-band concert featuring an elderly Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman. Aside from his grudging acceptance of my mother’s undergraduate favourites, anything produced after 1950 was regarded with extreme scepticism. And rock and roll was simply beyond the pale.

Even at 50, I cringe every time the hard-driving theme song for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown comes on when I’m watching the show with him. It brings back memories of the terror I felt as a teenager when, while listening to Prince, Led Zeppelin, or Bruce Springsteen on his turntable after school, I would see his car pulling into the driveway. He had forbidden my mother from playing her old records on it, much less mine, whose driving beats were sure, in his estimation, to “ruin the needle.”

I often tell people how grateful I am to have known my father’s father, who served in the German navy during World War I, because the stories he told give me a sense of historical continuity that is otherwise hard to come by. But lately, I’ve been feeling just as grateful to have had a father who is, as I say with a smile, “pre-rock-and-roll.” It’s so easy to forget how significant a break figures like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis represented unless you are close to someone who heard their music as profoundly alienating noise.

Bullitt: The world is not transparent.

That’s why my father’s complaint about Easy Rider briefly sent me into a panic. Could this be an indication that his personality was starting to transform, in the way that so often happens with the onset of dementia? I vividly recalled the period when my maternal grandmother metamorphosed from an acerbic wit worthy of an eighteenth-century French salon into an old woman who drank too much port and rhapsodized about the muscles on the Philadelphia Eagles. That was deeply unsettling for me to witness as a teenager. I shuddered at the prospect of having to relive the experience.

It wasn’t until I watched him peruse the offerings on his Turner Classic Movies app later that night that I relaxed. Previously, he had simply treated the app as a substitute for the network’s television channel, which he used to watch all the time back in his apartment. If there was nothing else of interest on and he saw a movie he recognized, he would pass the time by seeing it again. Sometimes he would tell me about the picture later, often with comments about when he had originally watched it. But he rarely mentioned anything new.

Now, though, instead of just figuring out which familiar films he might like to see again, he was going through the entire list of offerings, watching the introductions the network is famous for providing. And he was adding films he had never seen before to his watchlist, a number of which seemed far removed from the sort of Studio Era fare that he liked growing up. His entire approach to cinema seemed to have changed. Instead of pursuing nostalgia, he was now in search of novelty.

Bullitt: A veil of glass.

In the two weeks since that realization, I’ve made it a point to ask my dad which films he has watched and why. While he still favours films from the years when he was going out to the movies several times a week, including his high-school years in the New York City of the late 1940s, he has been mixing in plenty of pictures from both before he was old enough to go to the theatre by himself, during the Great Depression, and during the 1950s and early 1960s, after his professional responsibilities had made it hard for him to find the time, despite still being single. He was also seeking out the sort of Oscar bait from the 1980s and 1990s that TCM periodically runs. But what I found most surprising was his willingness to give a shot to offerings from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This was the period, following in the wake of the Studio Era’s last fitful years, during which the industry was suddenly populated by individuals who had first studied film in the classroom, instead of just learning their craft through traditional forms of apprenticeship. It was also the period in which the industry started to fight back against television, not by making films that exceeded its 4:3 aspect ratio, but by showing the sort of violent and sexually explicit content that could not be broadcast over the airwaves. Working hand in hand, these two developments led to filmmaking that broke with long-established conventions of editing, cinematography, and characterization while deliberately pushing the buttons of people who had grown up, like my father, on classic Hollywood storytelling.

Because I was born in 1968, the aesthetic radicalism of those years seemed almost normal. My pre-school mind was eager for every bit of stimulation it could find. And the cinematic techniques trickling down into my reality simply represented one more way in which the adult world fascinated me. Out-of-focus foregrounds, trippy visual effects, soundtracks that alternated between ambient noise and loud music, and discontinuous editing were all second nature to me long before I learned to read. Even now, it’s hard for me to register what made these techniques so threatening to people like my father since they were what I knew best.

Bullitt: Psychedelic office clutter.

Despite the fact that my access to culture was through forms that were supposedly child-friendly, including fashion, advertising, and public television, I somehow sensed the dark undercurrents beneath its shiny, happy surfaces. I spent a lot of time in front of our black-and-white set, watching the grim footage in news coverage from Vietnam and the Middle East and hearing about the generational conflict on everyone’s mind. And I heard my parents sometimes talk about shows and movies that I knew I was too young to see, as when they discussed what to pick on those rare occasions when they would leave me with my grandparents and go out for the evening. Even now, I remember absorbing a lot of information that did not make sense to me, no matter how hard I tried to puzzle it out, but which intrigued me all the more as a consequence.

One film from that period that I actually did get to watch bits and pieces of on television was Peter Yates’ 1968 film Bullitt. Since my first word was “car”, which I confidently uttered months before “mommy” and “daddy”, my much older cousins knew I would enjoy its famous car chase and conspired to let me stay up and see it one Saturday at my grandparents’ house. I don’t suppose I could have followed the picture’s intricate plot back then, no matter how much I wanted to. But I also didn’t want to. For me, Bullitt was distilled into that single set piece, the 1960s equivalent of the sensational content that lured visitors into nickelodeons in the earliest years of cinema.

No one tried to get me to watch The French Connection’s equally awesome chase scene. I knew the 1971 film was a big deal, because I heard it come up in conversation a lot, but also intuited that it concerned subjects that a pre-schooler should not be exposed to. Exactly what those subjects were and how French factored into them was a riddle I pondered for a long time, yet without success. Ultimately, I decided to file the film away in my mind as something to revisit when I was grown-up.

The French Connection: You can’t always see what’s coming.

I finally got to see Bullitt in its entirety on the big screen a number of years ago and subsequently watched it again on video. And then, just two years ago, I watched French Connection for the first time, an experience that brought me a great deal of satisfaction, since I was finally able to fill that mental box that I’d constructed forty-five years earlier. Seeing these titles as an adult who had watched a lot of films and also devoted considerable time to the academic study of cinema, I was taken aback by how difficult they make things for audiences.

Despite being major studio releases that did well at the box office, they pare away most of the conventions that classic Hollywood cinema had once used to make stories easier to follow and which the pictures of the subsequent Blockbuster Era returned to with a vengeance. And they amplify this refusal by frequently deploying camera angles and editing rhythms that actively frustrate audiences’ attempts to figure out what is happening in a particular sequence. In this regard, the car chases, though often recalled and presented in isolation, actually do a good job of reproducing in microcosm the way it feels to watch these films. Much of the granular detail Bullitt and The French Connection communicate passes by too quickly, or with too much visual or auditory “noise” concealing it, to permit us to get our bearings on first viewing.

That’s why, when I saw both films on my father’s TCM watchlist, I wasn’t sure whether I should tell him how much I wanted to see them again. Memories of the way he used to be clouded my judgment, making me worry that he would find them too abrupt and confusing. But then I remembered his complaint about not being able to get Easy Rider to play loud enough and figured I’d give them a shot.

The French Connection: Popeye Doyle, through a shop window, partially obscured.

To be sure, there were times during both Bullitt and The French Connection when he had me press the pause button in order to ask me a question about what was going on. Those moments when information was conveyed almost off-handedly, without any cues alerting us to its importance, sometimes proved vexing, particularly in conjunction with rapid cutting between different scenes. And he was understandably baffled by the abruptness with which both individual sequences and the films as a whole ended, that sense that they were content to leave so much unresolved, at both the micro and macro level.

But my father clearly enjoyed watching both Bullitt and The French Connection a great deal. That idiom about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks does him a grave disservice. To be sure, he remains extremely set in his ways. I can always count on him to panic if I show up at his facility later than I said I would. I can sense his anxiety mounting when he presses the call button and his nurse or CNA doesn’t show up immediately. I know he won’t eat any food I bring him after 8 pm unless it qualifies as dessert, no matter how tasty. Yet I have also come to understand, in a way that I couldn’t before, that he still retains the desire to discern the new every bit as much as he did in his youth. And probably more so.

Boredom is easily the biggest problem at the type of facilities where he has spent the past year. No matter how responsive and caring individual people who work there may be, they are invariably overburdened. Unless patients have both daily visitors and some means of staying engaged when they are alone, they will eventually deteriorate into being only half-present at best. That’s why I make it a point to see my father almost every evening, no matter how busy I am. But there’s only so much I can do about the many hours when I’m not there.

Bullitt: Even the hero has an obstructed view.

That’s why I was pleased to see him using the TCM app so thoroughly. Checking out the introductions to films he doesn’t end up watching; figuring out which films to add to his watchlist; watching the introductions to films after he has seen them; clicking on the different boxes that provide more information about actors; and, most of all, doing everything on his own schedule, using the pause button as often as he wants: all these activities transform what was once a passive mode of viewing – he used to turn the network on to watch whatever was on between sporting events – into an active one.

As I reflect on all the pictures I’ve seen with him, though, it becomes apparent that some types of cinema are better suited to this approach than others. The literally and figuratively dark crime stories of the late 1940s and early 1950s – the sort that French critics would retroactively classify as film noir – work well. Many of the people who worked on these films wanted to achieve more with both content and form than their production and marketing budgets dictated. Sometimes the plot feels like a mere pretext, a way to communicate details that exceed its scope. And Eddie Mueller’s introductions for TCM’s Noir Alley program do an excellent job of helping audiences see how what may initially seem superfluous is actually essential. But because my father was a teenager during the genre’s height, going to the theatre to watch the newsreel, cartoons, A-movie, and B-movie several times each week, he often remembers seeing them the first time, which somewhat dampens his sense of discovery.

With Bullitt and The French Connection, by contrast, the darkness – both are “colour noirs” in spirit — was fresher. I remember walking into his room the night after we finished the latter, expecting to find out what was next on our schedule. Instead, he wanted to talk more about The French Connection. “I watched the whole thing again today,” he began. “And I noticed something I want to show you.” He then proceeded to start the film again and fast-forward to a scene that both of us had previously overlooked involving a car the drug runners purchased at a scrapyard auction.

Bullitt: Over and over, we perceive the limitations of the camera’s vantage point.

When people write about this period of film history – there are European and Japanese equivalents – they frequently note the willingness of even expensive productions to showcase grit and grime. New technology had made it easier to shoot on location, leading many filmmakers to avoid the soundstages of the Studio Era whenever possible. The real world is always going to be messier than a back lot, with many more variables to account for. And the lighter and brighter telephoto lenses favoured by many of the period’s cinematographers collapsed the distance between foreground and background, making it even more difficult to exclude elements not overtly connected with the narrative, thereby reinforcing the implicit parallel between the camera and human eye, which is always looking past distractions to whatever the mind wishes to focus upon.

The concept of grit can be extended usefully to account for the impact of shooting this way on location. On the one hand, we see the sort of real-world imperfections that production designers would have had to work hard to reproduce for a soundstage. On the other, however, there is also “grit” in the mechanism of seeing itself. Even though new technology has made it possible to see more of the world than ever before, with a precision that previous generations could only dream about, we are forced again and again to confront the limits of vision.

Bullitt and The French Connection show us their protagonists watching from a distance as they follow leads. But we frequently see those protagonists from a distance as well, leading to one shot after another in which our view of them is temporarily obstructed. As they struggle to track their subjects, we struggle to track them tracking those subjects. And even though both films provide enough moments of clarity to remind us why we are watching them watching, we remain acutely aware of how difficult it is to keep anything in focus for very long.

The French Connection: We see how hard it is to see clearly.

The psychoanalytically inclined film theorists of this period developed a brilliant account of the ways in which the cinematic apparatus leads us to automatically identify with the eye of the camera. But whereas in classic Hollywood pictures of the Studio Era this primary identification tends to dissolve seamlessly into the secondary identification with characters, a without-which-not that we are largely unable to witness, in films like Bullitt and The French Connection it starts to shear away from that secondary identification.

While we may be impressed by the cool of Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt or the stubbornness of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, we are repeatedly forced to acknowledge their limits. No matter how much they are able to discern, they make serious mistakes because of what they fail to perceive. In other words, they have blind spots at both a literal and existential level. We see other characters call them out for this, as when Bullitt’s girlfriend asks him how he can be so numb to the spectacle of violence or when Doyle’s partner informs that he has accidentally shot a fellow officer. And we see the camera reinforcing this message over and over, in paradoxical fashion.

Yes, everything we see on screen has been captured by the camera, testifying to a power that transcends the perspective of any character. But what we see — quite literally, as the obstructed views in many of the screenshots I’ve included here demonstrate — is not only what we want or need to see. Rather, we keep seeing the obstacles that get in the way of that pursuit, resulting in only partial satisfaction. This is how primary identification with the camera lens becomes the means of disrupting secondary identification with characters.

The French Connection: Not all of the crashes in this chase scene were staged.

To someone invested in a black-and-white worldview, the way these films concentrate on the failures of their protagonists can be intensely frustrating. It may well be the case that the backlash against the 1960s that eventually gave us Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was made stronger because films like these refused to give frightened middle-class audiences the heroes they desired. But I find Bullitt and The French Connection’s repudiation of mastery to be a welcome rejoinder to both the Studio and Blockbuster Eras, particularly at a time when blowhard politicians and their allies in the media pretend to know far more than they do and then act on that purported knowledge.

Maybe my father feels the same way. One of his other favourite activities right now is watching political comedy on HBO like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Real Time with Bill Maher shows that expose such pretence for what it really is. I suspect, however, that the main reason he enjoyed Bullitt and The French Connection so much is that his pleasure didn’t come easy.

Even someone as disciplined as my father confronts the excess of on-demand culture with apprehension. Any time of day or night there are hundreds of choices that satisfy the basic requirement to be reasonably entertaining without asking too much of the viewer. For him, that means situation comedies he’s seen before, sports news, and Ken Burns-style historical documentaries. Watching them is easy. He doesn’t have to worry about missing anything important, because their attempts to produce laughter or insight are so obvious.

Bullitt: We feel what it’s like to be shut out of a conversation.

I will freely admit that there are times when I fall into this trap myself. Some nights I arrive at his nursing facility too mentally or physically exhausted to cope with the commitment a feature-length film demands. So I will encourage him to continue watching whatever episode of The West Wing he is seeing for the fifth time or suggest that we watch Frasier, which invariably provides enough mirth to make it worthwhile. Sometimes he relents.

Since the start of the new year, though, he is much more likely to ask that we select something from his TCM watchlist. I may be tired, but he is bored. And because he is the one who can’t return home and must endure intense discomfort on a daily basis, I’m reluctant to go against his wishes. If he wants to watch the second film he remembers seeing in a theatre, 1939’s animated Gulliver’s Travels; or one of his beloved Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “road” pictures; or something he watched with my mother after retiring in the mid-1990, he can. And if he wants to watch a film that will require me to make heavy use of the pause button and might inspire him to watch it a second time, then he can do that too.

The best part about writing this piece was recalling all the times during our viewing of Bullitt and The French Connection that we stopped to discuss a scene. I made the same points about them back then as I just made here, if less comprehensively. He responded with his recollections about what it used to be like to go see a movie in his youth or made connections to one of the TCM introductions he had recently watched. Now he’s talking about other films we might watch from the same general period. Difficult films. Ones he would once have regarded as mere cultural “noise”. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even watch Easy Rider together.

Film stills from Bullitt courtesy of Warner Brothers. Film stills from The French Connection courtesy of Twentieth-Century Fox.