Thanks to Publicola, I watched the 1970 movie version of Sometimes A Great Notion last night. (It was directed by Paul Newman and stars Newman alongside Henry Fonda.) It is not a perfect film—in part because it’s far less dark, complex, and violent than the Ken Kesey novel that it’s based on — but it gets some things really right. You see virgin timber fall to chainsaws and you see the rainwashed streets of a forgotten hamlet on the Oregon Coast.
Like the book, the film is rooted in a bygone Northwest, one that was vanishing even at the time when the movie was made. On the surface, it’s about guys who are tougher than you—guys who get up at 4:30 in the morning to set choker all day; who drink Olympia beer from tin cans; and who fight more or less for the fun of it. (On that score, Henry Fonda steals almost every scene he’s in.) But underneath that, it’s about a place and a way of life that was changing forever. There were elements that gave me chills.
I’m too young to have done more than glimpsed that chapter in the region’s history, yet there was something eerily familiar about the scenes and characters who could only have inhabited this corner of the world. Perhaps it’s because, before I came along, my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all worked in the logging industry of southern Oregon. But I suspect that anyone who knows and loves the Northwest would be absorbed by the movie.
Unfortunately, the hard part is actually finding the darn thing. It’s playing for two more nights at the Grand Illusion in Seattle’s University District. I can’t find it on Netflix, but I suspect some of the better independent video stores around the Northwest could track it down for you.