In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), director Sydney Pollack found the perfect analogy for the 1932 Depression period of his film – a dance marathon. Situated in a dingy ballroom, several dozen out-of-work couples dance for over 1000 hours to try and win a $1500 dance prize.
The beauty of this film is that this is the story in a nutshell and Pollack wisely decided not to bring in the outside world (except for the paying public in the stands) but rather focus on the characters who set out to win this contest. We get young and old, hopeful and disgruntled, but they’re all winding up in the same place. The dancers start out gliding their way across the floor and then as fatigue sets in, their steps become less confident and we see contestants drop out one by one.
To make the contest even more difficult, at times, a walking race around the dance floor (“the derby”- a reference to the horses of the film’s title) is a mandatory exercise for the contestants. We see this event twice in the film, both times after the participants have spent hundreds of hours dancing; they now have ten minutes to race walk in a tight counterclockwise circle around the dance floor with their partner in tow. They must walk – not run – and the three couples at the back of the pack at the end of the race are eliminated from the contest. We see the strain on their faces and feel the agony in their legs and ankles as they somehow muster the strength to make one more lap around the dance floor turned walking ring. Pollack’s visuals are especially strong here, as he put on roller skates and photographed these scenes himself with a hand held camera. The dizziness of the shots help create an exhausting, chaoic, almost nightmarish quality to the sequences, as various contestants fall and desperately try to find enough physical strength to get up before they are eliminated via a ten count, as in a boxing match. The participants must surely feel they’ve gone through twelve rounds after this. (I must also mention the first-rate editing of Frederic Steinkamp throughout the film and especially in these sequences.)
At times, contestants do a little extra to earn a few extra pennies and nickels; a pregnant woman sings a song, one middle aged dancer does a buck and wing and they collect the spare change thrown on the floor by the audience. For most of them, this is the only money they will see. They know in their heart of hearts that they will not win; most will quit or be forced to retire from the contest due to physical exhaustion and one or two may even die. Yet the promise of $1500, when the reality is perhaps only a few dimes, is enough in the Depression of the early 1930s to keep these dreamers going - that and a place to sleep and get food – seven meals a day - for as long as they compete.
Along with the dancers, Rocky, the Master of Ceremonies, is a key character in this story. He runs the show and his job is not an easy one. In his white tux, he must outwardly show enthusiasm for the contestants as he announces the latest details of the contest to the assembled crowd. Yet, he is a tired man, one who has to juggle several balls, as he has to make this contest profitable, as medical staff and food costs cut into his profit. He will do whatever he can to create publicity for the marathon by pulling off stunts; at one point, he asks one of the couples who have known each other only for the length of the dance contest to get married, as the audience would have something else to cheer for. He is not above trickery either, as he steals an expensive dress from a would-be Hollywood starlet who is dancing in the hope that a movie director or producer of the day will notice her. Rocky’s reason for stealing the dress is simple; he thinks that the paying customers – few of who are very well off – would not associate with someone who looks like she is headed to a social function.
Given the analogy of the dance marathon for the struggles of everyman during the Depression – going around and around with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel – one can clearly see the character of Rocky as the government. Hey, we’re helping you out here – look at the free food we’re giving you – but in reality, this is no more than a handout. Just as Herbert Hoover would soon be voted out in 1932 for his lack of action during this crisis, so too Rocky is seen as someone who looks and sounds good, but in reality, has very little to offer the masses.
The performances as a whole are quite good – Gig Young as Rocky won the Best Supporting Oscar for this film and Jane Fonda and Susannah York were Oscar nominated for their work – and the characters are interesting in their diversity to keep us involved in their plight. The production design is first-rate as is Phil Lathrop’s earth-tone pallate of photography. But this is above all, a director’s film. Sydney Pollack would go on to direct an eclectic mix of movies, from the broad appeal of The Way We Were (1973) and Tootsie (1982) to smaller works such as Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Yakuza (1974); he would win an Oscar as Best Director for Out of Africa (1985), a beautifully crafted love story. But for me, his finest work as a director, both visually and spiritually, was with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a film that is as devastating today as when it was released.
I was born in 1955, so my formative years were spent listening to some of the greatest pop/rock music ever composed. During the period from the mid to late 1960s, I had three favorite bands: The Beatles (who didn’t love them?), The Beach Boys and their all-American sound and as a contrast to that, The Doors. So when I heard there was a new documentary in theaters about The Doors, I hurried to see it. Unfortuntely the film, entitled When You're Strange, wasn’t meant for me.
What I mean by that is that anyone who grew up with this music knows that The Doors were popular for two reasons: their music and the antics of lead singer Jim Morrison, the self-proclaimed Lizard King. Unfortunately director Tom DiCillo emphasizes Morrison’s behavior in this film at the expense of the music.
Now it’s understandable that DiCillo would do this as Morrison was a lightning rod who represented the excesses of late ‘60s rock probably as well as any one individual could. Much is made of a famous concert in Miami where Morrison supposedly exposed his genitals (he didn’t) and was arrested and dragged off the stage as a riot broke out. The vintage film clips here are stirring and are among the best parts of the film.
But no matter how crazy Morrison was, The Doors wouldn’t have achieved the success they did if it wasn’t for the quality of their music. Songs such as “Light My Fire” and “Love Her Madly” are burned into my subconscious and are among my favorite tunes from that time. But while they had pop hits, they also composed some dark, moody songs that moved me even more, tunes such as “Crystal Ship” and “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” These last two songs showed the dark side of the group’s musical identity. I’d love to know where some of the ideas for these songs came from.
DiCillo ties all this in with the protest movement of the late ‘60s and has the obligatory clips of Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. But for me he goes too far. The Doors weren’t writing anti-war songs and to suggest their music was somehow connected to this is simply wrong. Their music reflected the dark side of life, much of it influenced by drugs. Their music represented a lot more than “down with the establishment” and for DiCillo to push this message lessens the effect of their music.
I would have also liked to see more performances. Why couldn’t we get just one complete performance of a song? Just one? Not only is this music haunting, it’s also something to watch this group at work. To his credit, early in the film DiCillo does explain the unusual sound of The Doors, pointing out that drummer John Densmore had to keep the beat as there was no bass player. This is the kind of information I was looking for in this film, but sadly this lacks much detail about the band.
Ultimately, When You’re Strange becomes a greatest hits film clip presentation of Jim Morrison’s life. That’s pretty interesting on its own, so the film is certainly watchable, but unfortunately it’s a bit like Chinese food – 15 minutes after it’s finished, you want more. If you’re younger than 50 and only know The Doors from a few of their songs, you’ll probably like this film a lot more than I did. But if you’re my age and thought the band was one of the most important of its era, you’ll more than likely be disappointed.
P.S. Want to see a great musical documentary? Try Robert Weber’s 1988 film, Let’s Get Lost, about the great jazz musician Chet Baker. That film is ethereal and takes you places – it’s also got several complete performances of Baker, so we see and hear his greatness. I wish DiCillo had somehow channeled some of that same energy in his film