Sometimes a Great Notion (1970)
Directed by Paul Newman
Thankfully, one of the baldest ever attempts at the Great American Novel isn't the cinematic same. Not that Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion falls short, but much of the appeal of Paul Newman's film version lies in its disinterest in anatomizing the whole American soul.
It's about a family in small town Oregon who continue to lumber despite the local union's strike against the ruling conglomerate. The patriarch is Henry Fonda, and though (arguably) the greatest American actor would go on to live another decade, there's a celebratory, last-lap quality about his performance here. There was a release of Fonda's long, built-up tension in 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he got to murder children, and there's further relief here as he's allowed to rampantly curse. His blue eyes still pierce, and, interestingly, so do everyone else's—there's not a brown-eyed actor in the film.
As early-rising Henry Stamper, Fonda is permanently ornery due to a casted, broken left arm and a past he never talks about. He's a fearsome old cuss, though not half as intimidating as the genuine article sketched in Jane and Peter Fonda's family memoirs. Newman plays his favorite son, and one day they're surprised by the appearance of his mop-topped half-brother Lee (Michael Sarrazin).
The potential for zeitgeisty hippie commentary is high, with the young generation, in the form of the scruffy unionized loggers, pitted against Fonda's old-school codger. But Newman resists it—though Peter Fonda's father is in it, this is no response to Easy Rider. The Sarrazin character is cynical and difficult, but he readily adapts to the logging lifestyle. Newman allots generous screen time to the nuts and bolts of Northwest American logging. The time and effort it takes to chop down a tree are felt, and the same patience is what makes a late death scene so acutely touching when it could've been egregious. Avoiding grand lumbering statements, Newman's ode to the honest day's work has an unshowy lyricism that furnishes its own profundity.
Opens November 4 at BAM