An astonishingly hopeless anti-myth odorized with the stench of failure and bloodstained with the tattered remains of hope, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? twists the idiom of dance away from its usual home in restless fantasy, treating human gyrations as the small-scale reverberations of a slowly-tilting edifice ready to crumble to the ground. For Sydney Pollock’s film, dance movements are first particles of movement that exist not to fling us into a hopeful future but to topple us from below, subsuming us to the movement of our feet that seem no longer tied to our minds or our personal agencies. Our bodies are no longer uncertain adventurers carving out a bold future but frantic chasers of a dream deferred, hoping to catch up to the scraps of nothingness thrown our way. They Shoot Horses is a parable of America as a collection of lost souls wandering into dancehall marathons – brandishing hopes and dreams of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire, or the Charleston – and succumbing to the barren, unforgiving economic destitution that undergird and consume the romantic aspirations that nominally lacquer the surface of these activities. As Pollock sees it, bone-dragging, fall-out-of-bed-and-stumble-upwards days are the only ones America had in the ‘30s, and maybe ever again.
Set in a month-long, marathon dance-competition in the ‘30s where a flotilla of loners, drifters, wanderers, and rats compete for a 1500 silver dollar prize, Pollock’s wonderfully deranged and dog-tired film – adapted form Horace McCoy’s book of the same name – is a democratic affair that Robert Altman would have been proud of. It not only preempts the existence of Nashville but it traces its imaginative birth, revealing just how little had changed over the 40-year period of ostensible growth in between the ’30s and ‘70s, nominally America’s greatest economic boon ever. With Bob Fosse’s coked-out, adrenal, emotionally-terrorizing All That Jazz released one decade after Pollock’s film and serving as its disco-fried negative mirror-image, the ‘70s emerges less as a time of change – even change for the worse such as industrial-rot diminishment – than as a new mask for old problems.
Or, put in other terms, Pollock’s film imagines America as a centrifuge, a perpetual and circular returning to a prior state rather than a progressive trajectory forward, a centrifuge visualized in a mid-film superimposition where a ghostly record spins over the dancers, overtaking their bodies, turning them into translucent people, and swirling them into a faux-collective hundred-headed hydra where each person is devoid of individuality, too eroded to even pretend to compete. The long-form dance itself is a perfect metaphor for the film: feigning motion in the slowest possible terms while ultimately standing still, moving nowhere at all as people cling to one another out of fear that letting go will collapse them immediately. For a mid-film curveball, the head honcho of the dance contest suddenly carnival-barks that the dancers rush into a throng of actual motion as they are forced to run circular laps for ten minutes, but their feet only mock them: they have nowhere to go, and their movement only returns them to where they started. So says the announcer: “Isn’t that the American way?”, rasping his way into American fraudulence as the circus march backing them prods into everyone’s backsides.
When they all come crashing down, Pollock and his editor Frederic Steinkamp throw the characters into the unforgiving throngs of an editing maelstrom, summoning a visual analog for a panic attack. But even those momentary eruptions of mania are shorn of giddiness and newly mounted with a mordant and ruminative sensibility; a sudden burst of energy for the characters does not dispel any sadness so much as impact it, turning it all into one giant satanic dance ritual in this nasty, sweaty film about clogged pores and ruined people.
Pollock’s visuals abound with decay and acrimony, but the punishingly brutal, clipped dialogue is no pushover either. One character comparing pregnancy to the deluded will to “drop another sucker into this mess” offers no reprieve for us, all the more so because the film obviously empathizes with both the hard-nosed, independent, world-weary deliverer of the dialogue and the receiving would-be-mother who obviously sees in a child her only potential out from a truly repressive society and social ostracization. She does not stop to consider that the happiness she is being hawked might merely be a social ploy by America to keep women in the homes and in the private, male-owned confines of American ideology. Her delayed, diffuse response on childhood, “I have to”, is gut-punching not because of any melodrama but because it cuts right to the heart of the unthinking fatalism of prefigured social roles – open-air prisons masquerading as opportunities – and to the broader machinations of biopolitics in the liberal era, people conscripted to being the bearers and wielders of their own oppression.
The film’s wraparound tale takes place in a Kafkaesque dungeon, our grounding point as main character Robert Syverton recounts to the police a crime that apparently will occur before or after the culmination of the flashback dance orgy. But the dingy, gyrating mass of flesh and stomped-over dreams that is the canvas of the main action tempts us back into the dungeon with every minute. At least the pallid grey walls of the police questioning facility are honest about their inhumanity, while the dancehall’s kitsch tells lies. As do the lecherous, ragged “yowza, yowza, yowza” death chants from MC Rocky (Gig Young), who is as tired as anyone else but practices his own hellish optimism as he asks companies to sponsor the dancers in a grotesque mixture of sporting event and capitalism that is, as we know, all a prelude to a murder but foretells the death of hope and possibility from minute one.
And it’s a death everyone can participate in: elderly quasi-sponsors who cannot themselves dance join in by aligning their hopes with the aimless, adrift souls on the dance floor, imagining themselves – aspirationally – in place of the men and women who are in the middle of a month-long shuffle to survive, dancers who obviously hate their lives. Those who can participate want out, and those who can’t want in; can you imagine a better metaphor for American capitalism at the dawn of its twentieth-century incarnation. Motions like this are surprise twitches from a film that initially seems a corpse, but somehow keeps kicking. The old woman’s happiness crawls toward us from afar, but is only glimpsable amidst a cloud of melancholy and fragility. Rather than tempering the destitution of the actual dancers, violating their underbelly with shafts of genuine light, the glimmers of happiness only stagger us further.
A parable I’ve made the film out to be, but one of its most salient observations is how the dancers scramble not for recognition or incorporation into the American ideology or anything so abstract. They just want 1500 dollars. There is no suggestion at any point that anyone in the dance genuinely loves their partner or that they are using them for anything other than money; main couple Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) and Gloria (Jane Fonda) are the most compassionate, and they only just met. (He’s replacing her partner). Others include elderly sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons), aspiring actors Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields) (probably imagining themselves at the center of this demented rendition of a corroded Busby Berkeley number), and pregnant woman Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and her husband James (Bruce Dern). To quote the announcer, they amble down life’s highway. Round and round they go, to an uncertain end. Or, perhaps, to the only finality possibly afforded them.
Philip Lahtrop’s cinematography is dusky and disheveled, less audacious than his two most famous films, Touch of Evil and Point Blank, both more overt stylistic braggarts, but his work here is possibly more effective. For him, this is a film with twelve day stubble, and it just keeps growing, thatching, thicketing, and getting lost in itself. Rather than a blitzkrieg bop, his coarse-grained style enmeshes the dancing characters within their own sweat and emptiness, emphasizing their stress welts as he lights a slow-building fuse of a film. The most frightening thing is that we aren’t sure the seasick hues and backwards-forwards-jerks will even be able to explode at all. Nothing builds-up to a cathartic conclusion; everyone behind the screen knows they are shoving stylistic needles into already-dead cadavers. Nothing can faze them. But they can hurt us, like the extremely uncomfortable perversion of American good cheer where the announcer hawks the war-time shrapnel still embedded in one dancers body as an emblem of American willpower.
Sydney Pollock won an Oscar for his dreaded Out of Africa sixteen years later, but these two films are antithetical to one another, and America’s rewarding of the latter rover the former is all-telling. Out of Africa is stuffed, mounted, and taxidermied cinema, but They Shoot Horses is a lively, often poetically-deadened film about stuffed, mounted, taxidermied people desperately grasping at the straws of humanity falling all around them, forming comradeship only out of mutual dispossession and out of the fact that they are too beaten-down to hate one another anymore. Out of Africa is one-note and monolithic, while They Shoot Horses constantly models the democratic impulse by threading new needles and shifting the allegiances of the characters, not because they grow angry with one another – which might provide emotional catharsis or release for these people – but because they have no choice. Out of Africa is large and in-charge, elephant art in the Manny Farber sense of the term, but They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is termetic. Relentlessly sour and filled with edits that are shock charges to the soul, it gnaws right down to the bone, and America crumbles with it.