Penn #13 – Four Friends (1981)

She’ll be on your mind. Nothing is on hers.

The Story

A group of friends—guess how many?—come of age in 1960s Illinois. Danilo (Craig Wasson) is the son of a Yugoslavian steel worker; Tom (Jim Metzler) is an athlete with no ambitions; David (Michael Huddleston) just wants to escape his father’s mortuary business. All three love Georgia (Jodi Thelen), a bohemian who’s eager to love them back. The friends drift apart and struggle with life, but none more than Georgia, who embraces the decade’s darkest corners. Danilo, tormented by his wife’s murder, returns to his home town where he finds Georgia waiting. They begin a relationship and the four friends reunite, vowing never to split again.

The Production

Four Friends developed from a collaboration between writer Steve Tesich and Arthur Penn, who sought to revisit the 1960s through an ensemble coming-of-age story. The story originally balanced all the friends equally, but in time came to center on Danilo (an autobiographical stand-in for Tesich) and his stormy relationship with Georgia. To play the friends, Penn (acting as producer and director) cast unknowns through a massive open audition, then used the money saved to film on location in Illinois, including the campus of Northwestern University. The film was shot by well-known cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who last worked with Penn on his experimental Mickey One. This would be Cloquet’s final film, and although it flopped in America, Four Friends was well-received in Europe, where it was sometimes retitled Georgia.

And not Danilo’s Big Town Famous Ragtime Band

The Issue

Penn has called Four Friends a film about the “continuity and discontinuity of time” and a film about the myth of class mobility. Penn had also hoped Four Friends would help him through some personal issues. The 1970s were hard for Penn—he cited the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich as a particularly unsettling moment; he had been in Munich to shoot footage for the Olympics—and he felt the need to revisit his key decade before he could move on creatively.

The Scene

Four Friends is choked with symbolism, but light on subtlety. The character of Georgia, with her ideals and spirit and self-destruction, is the 1960s, and the boys are enamored with her, even to their own detriment. They follow her around like puppies waiting for a treat. Early on, she wrestles them in a public park until her top comes loose. She smiles at them, exposed and unembarrassed, but they’re unsure how to react and look away. She buttons up and the moment passes, but the meaning is clear: she (the decade) has enough love for all three of them, but her kind of love won’t work for all. Even Danilo urges her to cover up.

Pictured: Not not awkward

Overall

I wasn’t around for the 1960s, but I hear it was a pretty weird time. With all that upheaval and turmoil and political and sexual awakening, there was plenty of revolution to go around. The decade was like a top flailing out of control, and no matter who you were, everybody got a spin.

Arthur Penn was one of the strongest voices of that decade, a crafty East Coast liberal who learned from the constraints of television how to wrap a bitter message in a narrative coating his audience would wolf down. Bonnie and Clyde were dim-witted murderers, but the peace-loving flower children saw themselves. Little Big Man was a comedy about Custer, but it scalped western imperialism with a dull knife. Alice’s Restaurant was about disillusionment. The Chase was about racism. The top spins round, round, round.

“Will someone get this damn metaphor off my windshield?”

Four Friends returned Penn’s voice to the 60s, giving him one last chance at the pulpit before he handed that time forever to history. There’s something strangely off-message about Four Friends, however.  Rather than kindle fond memories of the past, the film stinks of regret. Period pieces lean toward nostalgia, but in Four Friends, the 60s just kick everybody in the ass. The decade should wear a hockey mask.

The central problem in the film is Georgia, Penn’s personification of the decade. She could be called a free spirit politely. Nathan Rabin would call her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I call her a failure of the mental health system. She starts the film as an energetic, if exhausting, foil to the three men who orbit her. She’s loud, passionate, and full of wonder, but there’s a hint of self-destruction: she claims a spiritual connection to Isadora Duncan, the dancer whose fashion choices caused her gruesome death. As the film goes on, the Duncan analogy rises up and bites down hard. Georgia spirals into outlandish fantasies and outfits, and takes a tour through the decade’s most famous landscapes, including an LSD party that ends in a Duncan-like car accident (no small feat for a car parked inside a high-rise apartment.)

Somewhere, Forrest Gump is missing a Jenny.

The story rests on Georgia’s shoulders. When she’s not on-screen, working scenery like a ruminant, her impact is everywhere else. Danilo plays a record of “Georgia on my Mind” some number of times bordering on infinity. David raises Georgia and Tom’s love child. Even Louie, an unlockable fifth friend with a terminal disease, meets her, then sleeps with her moments later. She’s everywhere, and you need to love her for the film to work.

I didn’t love Georgia. On the contrary, her aggressive obnoxiousness made me wonder about the other three friends. Were there no other women in their small town? One with the same amount of liberation and intelligence and idealism, but without all of this?

There are more problems with Four Friends. Why doesn’t Danilo recognize the obvious signs that his fiancée’s father is molesting her? Or, if he does recognize it—as it seems he must—why does he do nothing to help her? Does the late-film murder make any sense? And why does Danilo, a promising writer and teacher, wind up working in a factory when there is still plenty of academic work he could do? (Answer to all: to squeeze in a flat message about classism).

The movie is just a little too easy and a lot too limp, and it wears its self-importance on its sleeve. These are not four friends I want to know. Penn had hoped for a fresh start, but the 60s were gone. The top had fallen over, and no amount of hoping could get it spinning again.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. ???

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  1. #1 by Brandes Stoddard on 03/22/2011 - 9:40 PM

    The odd thing about reading the earliest movies in one of your projects is that they’re often obscure (so I haven’t seen them) and not all that great (which is why they come early on), so now that I’ve read about this movie, there’s very little impetus to run out and find a copy. ;)

    Still, I always enjoy reading what you have to say about movies, film history, and moviemaking. Good stuff!

    • #2 by thehollywoodprojects on 03/23/2011 - 3:08 PM

      I totally get that, so thanks for sticking around for the early films. To be honest, it’s the obscure films that I get most excited about when starting a project. I mean, when the hell else was I going to see Four Friends? Sure, so it’s not that great a movie, but it might have been, so it was worth a watch. In fact, one of Penn’s most underseen films is going to appear way up near the top of this list.

      Oh, and you might still want to check the film out if the subject matter appeals. Four Friends is actually the movie that critics bat around the most of his later work. Some people hate it, but others think it’s the best of his post-80s work (I think it was TCM that called the film his “most promising” of his final couple of decades.) Obviously I think it’s all wet, but one man’s #13 might be another man’s #1. *shrug* At least Four Friends is _about_ something, which is more than I can say for the next couple of movies on the list.

      • #3 by Brandes Stoddard on 03/23/2011 - 7:47 PM

        A good point – though I’m still so far behind in movie-watching that I personally feel little inclination to take risks on things I don’t have a high degree of certainty that I’ll like. (This is a general guideline, not a hard rule.) Even so, I now know more about the movie than I did before, and if the opportunity to watch it presents itself, I know what I might be getting myself into (or missing). =)

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