Like a number of other film bloggers (including David Lowery, among many, many others), I was deeply saddened to learn that film director Sidney Lumet passed away yesterday. Although Lumet was often overshadowed by some of the other prominent directors from the film school generation, such as Coppola and Scorsese, Lumet’s films offered a powerful engagement with the everyday: with the ethics of law enforcement (Serpico), the implications of racial bias (Twelve Angry Men), and the politics of populist spectacle (Network), often while presenting us with deeply flawed, but fully human, characters.
Like Matt Zoller Seitz, my favorite Lumet film is Dog Day Afternoon. I saw the film while a graduate student, and it quickly became a touchstone film for me because of the way in which it seemed to mix a heightened sense of immediacy and topicality with a much deeper sense of the broader social and historical forces at play. As Matt points out, the opening credits, featuring Elton John’s “Amoreena,” help ground the film in the everyday of 1970s New York, until Sonny (Al Pacino) quite literally bursts onto the scene, stepping into the bank he plans to rob, and setting in motion the hostage crisis and media spectacle pivotal to the film. It’s difficult to account for the sense of immediacy I felt when watching the film–most of the cultural references, including the Attica prison riots–are nearly forgotten–but the film, especially the scenes in which Al Pacino rallies the crowd against the police, seemed to tap into a sense of political urgency.
Some of this sense of urgency, I think, is connected to Lumet’s ability to capture a sense of time and place. As Glenn Kenny puts it, in his blog post, “He lived, functioned, and made films in the world, the world we live in, not in the exalted far-off fantasy land that any number of puling mediocrities who make a show of turning up their noses at ‘paycheck gigs’ insist their favorite artists inhabit.” Although he is discussing Lumet’s willingness to take a “paycheck gig” (somewhat rarely), Kenny also taps into something central, for me at least, when it comes to Lumet: he and his films were engaged with the everyday, with the concrete challenges and problems we face. Like a number of film fans and scholars, I find myself wanting to revisit some of Lumet’s films.